Thursday, June 13, 2024

Make In India Needs To Be Fast-Tracked

By Bikram Vohra

The defence budget for 2022-23 got itself a hike of 13 per cent, which is reasonable for an annual increase. However, with almost three decades of slack and the three forces depleted in weaponry, it may not be adequate for the military establishment’s needs.

New Delhi is keenly aware that even if it is a failed state, largely Pakistan is inimical as a neighbour and has a standing force that still smarts after the beating it got in 1971. Fifty years have not wiped out the rancour. With no indication of any thaw in the frost, India has no option but to maintain military and terror-related vigilance. While this nuclear-capable neighbour is marked by the Global Firepower Index as the seventh most powerful-armed force in the world, India comes in fourth position, but these seedings mean very little. For India, handling Pakistan would not have been such a problem if it were not in cahoots with another hostile neighbour. While Pakistan has an annual military budget hovering at about $10 billion and India is at $72 billion, China’s outlay is at $230 billion.

We are also looking at a China that has made inroads into Nepal and the east and made its presence felt in expansionist terms across the oceans into Africa. Its contentious stand on the Spratly islands and direct confrontation with Japan, Taiwan, the Koreas and the South China sea nations, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.

This giant also has a big lead in domestic manufacture across the board. Because of a very shortsighted military manufacturing policy and dependence on imports and spare part blackmail, we are far behind. For example, China built a fourth-generation aircraft carrier in four years, and India made a third-gen carrier in thirteen years.

The new fervour reflected in Make in India is a welcome initiative, but it cannot produce magic. We will need at least ten years to come up to par because modern weaponry is technically sophisticated and needs a complex infrastructure. You must do more than just tool up willy-nilly and produce combat-worthy weaponry. By that token, we also must invest in a workforce and skilled talent, so until it reaches that point, India does remain the biggest shopper in the global hardware arcade.

In addition, the shopping list must be made pragmatically because we are facing two fractious borders. The current weaknesses in armament are further exacerbated by the risk of mistaking the sizzle for the steak. The block on certain vital components, ostensibly to encourage homemade armament, could further compromise the force’s ability in combat.

This risk of falling for the patriotic excitement of the Make in India slogan is real. A 13 percent hike does not cut it. We need billions to give credence to the intent of reaching self-sufficiency. Old habits die hard, and why go for it when you can buy cheaper abroad than setting up shop. That has been the mindset for too long.

We have an obsolete chopper fleet with 17 accidents since 2016, including the loss of the chief of defence staff. Our submarines depend on the firepower offered by old heavy torpedoes bought four decades ago. While the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) plans to make these at home, there is no deadline.

The other element must be addressed: our tanks, artillery, and even frontline aircraft have a high percentage of imported parts. Even if we start making at home, the reliance on buying from outside will remain viable for some time.

One positive development, though, is the introduction of the private sector into military manufacturing and agreements between major organisations like Tatas and Larsen and Toubro engaging in partnerships with foreign entities. This nexus could hasten a change in the dynamics.

The air force is currently well below its prescribed combat strength of 42 squadrons. With the MiG2s finally being mothballed and the Mirage 2000 and Harriers reaching the end of service, another six squadrons’ strength could be reduced, leaving the air force at 60 percent of its required strength to patrol two borders.

It might sound nice and nationalistic to fall back on the Tejas, but even if HAL ratchets up its annual manufacture to 16 units a year from the current eight, we are still highly vulnerable in the air. While we struggle to gain air superiority, China powers itself with a fleet of Chengdu J10 and J20 stealth fourth-generation fighters with a Mach 2 top speed.

India also has a mix of tanks, with the main battle tank, the indigenous Arjun mk2 being suitable for desert action but, at 67 tonnes, far too heavy for greenfield deployment. The Russian-made T72s and T90s are now a bit old in the tooth. Again, against China, we do not have the agility of the light ZTQ 15s that scoot through hilly terrain while our heavyweights are static. India is looking at 350 light tanks in the 25-tonne category. This is a major priority, and under the Zorawar scheme, we are building a prototype at home. 

The Zorawar is packaged as a cross between an armoured fighting vehicle and an Indian light tank, with a high power-to-weight ratio and substantial firepower, protection, surveillance and communication capabilities. Designed by Larsen and Toubro, the first of its kind should roll out in April this year. The Kalyani Group’s interest in manufacturing this tank was shown earlier this month, and they could well go into manufacture because our armour on the northern borders needs this support.

In fairness, the disruption of supply chains courtesy of the Russia-Ukraine war has affected the world, and India is no exception. There has been a slowing down though it is hoped that things will improve now as alternative arrangements are made.

With so many avenues to explore, there is no gainsaying that events like Aero India are of the essence. Such coming together can only fast-track the manufacturing sector and spark new and mutually beneficial agreements.

At the same time, the government should also explore and identify bottlenecks and impediments to both purchase and manufacturing and remove them.

One of the problems with military manufacture is that, in terms of profit, it is not very exciting. Just the investment in going on stream means flying out of the red could take years. What the government needs to do is offer incentives to the private sector in civil-military bundles, so it makes it worth their while.

Bikram Vohra is the Consulting Editor of Indian Aerospace & Defence


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