Home / Opinion / Columns /  Opinion | Self-reliance in defence is a national imperative

A sense of déjà vu attends every declaration of our intent to develop arms for the country’s defence, but this time may be different. China has adopted a stance of open belligerence towards India, making war preparedness a top priority, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has outlined a national vision of self-reliance, making observers who thought of it only as rhetoric think again. It is thus no surprise that the draft Defence Production and Export Promotion Policy 2020 unveiled on Monday is perhaps India’s most ambitious ever. It aims for domestic output worth 1.75 trillion of aerospace and defence goods and services by 2025, with exports raking in 35,000 crore. The document itself expects to guide us to that goal, with various strategic initiatives that would aid the indigenous development of modern weaponry, from hypersonic missiles and ace sensors to stealth submarines and fly-by-wire fighter jets. In this, it adheres to the maxim that the only muscle that can reliably be flexed is one’s own. Indeed, any nation that expects a say in global affairs must have such capabilities. While nuclear weapons have got India into the big power league, the rest of the country’s armoury does little justice to that stature. We need rapid upgradation, and for that, our revised policy must come good.

As of now, self-reliance is a distant goal. Just over a month ago, after hostilities with China broke out in Ladakh, defence minister Rajnath Singh had to place an emergency order for 21 MiG-29 jets with Russia. This was done it seems to meet an Air Force shortfall that the local production of Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd’s Tejas has failed to address. If India’s dependence on foreign suppliers of armaments has proven so hard to shake off all these decades, it was not for lack of trying. Our Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) exists for this very purpose, and its scientists claim success in several projects, including the Tejas design. But decisions on procurements for our armed forces are made through a complex process—involving service chiefs, technocrats and politicians—that ends up favouring foreign purchases. Not only is this convenient, as off-the-shelf wares are readily available abroad, it seems hard for any big-budget order to escape an intricate web of hidden incentives that push the money overseas, often for some of it to sneak back in. The finer details of defence deals are usually confidential, after all, and the payments huge. By one estimate, India was the world’s third largest military spender in 2019, with a bill of over $71 billion, after the US and China.

Domestic production can save a fortune. So far, efforts to get our private sector into the act have not fared too well, despite all our schemes to attract them. Long drawn out acquisition processes may partly be to blame for this. Companies are unlikely to invest in product development and production without an assurance of a ready market, and by the time their prototypes are tested and approved for induction by our forces, they risk being outmoded by advances made abroad. Yet, a new start needs to be made. In the US, spin-offs from defence research have been behind many technological innovations of everyday utility. If a big push for “made in India" defence systems calls an entire ecosystem of experiments, ideas and technical wizardry into being, it could help our economy leap ahead too.

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