“No more imports of defence equipment”—these six stinging words from a defence ministry directive to top defence officials in January underlined the Narendra Modi government’s growing impatience with its struggling initiative to indigenise defence hardware production. The directives from defence secretary Ajay Kumar outlined a jumpstart of its defence industrial base and a clampdown on imports.
It isn’t the first such attempt, though. Make in India, announced in 2015, was a non-starter. Its reboot, Aatmanirbhar (self-reliant) Bharat, announced by PM Modi on May 12, 2020, hopes to chip away at India’s dubious distinction of being the world’s second-largest importer of military hardware. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute says India was the world’s second largest buyer of warships, fighter aircraft and missiles between 2016 and 2020 (roughly 60 per cent of its defence hardware is imported). Unfortunately, Make in India’s new avatar, too, has been a slow starter. Though imports fell by 33 per cent between 2011-2015 and 2016-2020, a long import pipeline worth billions of dollars points to a cloudy future.
The government’s mid-course impetus to Aatmanirbhar Bharat thus sets the roadmap for defence acquisitions over the next few years. “The PM is ramming indigenous programmes down the throats of users and the bureaucracy,” a private sector CEO says. The ministry of defence (MoD) directives strike at the basics—to ensure specifications drafted by services or Service Qualitative Requirements (SQRs) are concretised at the start of a project to avoid mid-course design changes. It aims to create a level playing field for private industry and the government-owned defence industry. It calls for substantial reforms in the government’s defence R&D wing—Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO)—and a thorough examination of foreign components in DRDO equipment. All off-the-shelf defence purchases, except government-to-government deals, are being reviewed. Defence deals where vendors don’t assemble or produce components locally will be scrapped.
Defence imports are to be reviewed from the lens of whether or not they result in transfer of technology. Those that don’t make the cut will face the axe. The MoD wants the armed forces to make emergency procurement of military hardware only from indigenous sources. Exceptions can only be signed off on by the Union defence minister Rajnath Singh.
However, there is only so much policy diktats can do. Globally, robust defence industrial bases are created over decades of focused nurturing of indigenous industry and massive investments in re search and development and exports to fund more R&D. The most recent such success story has been that of New Del hi’s current bête noire—Beijing. From being the world’s largest importer of military equipment in the early 2000s, China became the third-largest arms exporter by 2015. Chinese arms are qualitatively inferior to the US and Russian systems, but offer cheap military hardware solutions for poorer nations in Asia and Africa.
JUMPSTARTING AATMANIRBHAR BHARAT
The defence ministry is reviewing defence procurements to rejuvenate indigenous defence manufacturing. Some outlines of this new policy are...
A ban on import of defence equipment
Review of all existing defence imports
Thrust on Indigenously Designed, Developed and Manufactured (IDDM) hardware
Review of emergency procurements
Level playing field for private sector
Orders for items on positive indigenisation list
Priority for DRDO reforms
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