This interview is part of a compendium titled “Atmanirbhar Bharat: Marching to a $5 Trillion Economy”. It is a comprehensive study on the various aspects of the Atmanirbhar Bharat initiative. It is commissioned by Amway India and is edited by Rajesh Mehta, International Consultant and Columnist, and Anand Mishra, a Washington DC-based research scholar.
As a defense analyst, what is your expectation from the Atmanirbhar Bharat initiative of the GOI?
I expect the ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ initiative to primarily address three things: a. encouraging domestic projects with a greater involvement of the private sector; b. opening greater opportunities for the Indian companies in the global supply chain; and c. strengthening India’s defense R&D base. The GOI has already begun working on these issues.
Which five reasons you would cite for low indigenization of weapon platforms that India has? To what extent government policies have been responsible for the same?
My five reasons, not necessarily in that order, are: a. the unwillingness of Soviet defense companies (which became India’s main defense supplier after the India-Pakistan War of 1971) to transfer design and technology; b. lack of long-term focus on defense R&D oriented planning; c. the ‘import lobby’ in the form of “middlemen”, who coveted the kickbacks from foreign contracts; d. inadequate involvement of the private sector in defense manufacturing from early-on; and e. less than optimal utilization of the defense offsets policy. Restrictive regulatory frameworks indeed played a role in inhibiting the indigenization, but in the last few years, the government has attempted to correct these. It is a long way to go, though.
What is your assessment of the research environment in general and DRDO in particular? How do you thing needs to be done to improve the domestic research in defense arena?
A strong R&D base is key to achieving self-reliance in defense manufacturing. But this has remained a critical weakness for India as the DRDO’s lack of long-term focus on R&D-oriented planning resulted in a failure to develop the technology, relevant for the defense forces. As expected, the defense forces have been deeply frustrated and have repeatedly accused the DRDO of following a ‘foot in the door’ policy, where the organization over-commits beyond its existing capabilities, binds the defense forces to sub-standard and under-powered equipment, and more importantly misses deadlines.
To drastically improve the situation, the government has already begun encouraging the private sector to focus on R&D. India needs to initiate domestic flagship defense technology development programs catering to future acquisitions. Ideally, these flagship programs should be based on existing competencies, such as information and digital technologies, which will help in integrating commercial and manufacturing dimensions with R&D efforts and expedite the commercialization of these technologies.
There is a widely held belief that unlike Chinese PLA, Indian armed forces are not sufficiently involved in weapon development program and that defense R&D and military rarely talk to each other, resulting in poor weapons specification and design. What is your take on this?
I believe the comparison with China is unfair not just because of different political systems and civil-military relations, but also due to a different approach to achieve self-reliance in defense. It is widely known that the Chinese path to self-reliance has heavily relied on “reverse engineering” of the Western and Russian equipment.
Yes, there is insufficient dialogue between the defense R&D and military. Moreover, as mentioned previously there is also deep frustration with the DRDO’s performance. But these problems are not insurmountable. With enough push from the political executive, I am certain the military as the final customer of the product, can work in a harmonious manner with the DRDO and other elements of the defense R&D ecosystem. The opening of this ecosystem to the private sector has also helped to address this issue.
OFBs are known more for their unionism and poor product quality rather than their efficiency. What can be done so that they are relied upon by military for high quality product on schedule?
You have rightly identified the deficiencies of the OFBs, but we have to remember that they have the experience and the infrastructure – which is an asset we need to utilize going forward. To make them a valuable partner in the quest for ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’, we should encourage the OFBs to initiate collaborative industry research to identify global trends in emerging technologies and their implications for the Indian defense industry. This can be the first step towards building those capabilities for India. This R&D needs to be done independent of the DRDO.
How satisfied are you with the private sector participation in defense manufacturing? How can they be made more useful partner in overall defense planning?
The two government initiatives – ‘Strategic Partnership model’ and the ‘Innovations in Defense Excellence’ – seek to augment private sector including the start-ups’ participation in domestic defense manufacturing. These are in their initial stages, but if executed right will give the private sector an equal opportunity. Since there is a political will to reduce India’s dependence on arms imports, it is certain that domestic defense-industrial capacity will only expand henceforth. Realizing the vast opportunity offered by the Indian defense market, foreign OEMs too appreciate this quest for self-reliance.
Separately, in the aerospace sector, Indian companies have formed partnerships with the American, European and Israeli aerospace companies, which have made them part of the global supply chains. To ensure that the private sector’s role expands in defense manufacturing, the government will need to address the lengthy defense acquisition process.
Looking at the state of technological capability that India has what platforms you would suggest India to fast-track for building self-dependency?
When we speak of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’, we have to remember that we cannot achieve self-reliance overnight. It requires years of planning and execution as well as building on the existing capabilities and expertise. If one looks at our defense forces, we can see that the Indian Navy is the most indigenized. We are executing a fairly large degree of ship-building projects domestically. Therefore, ship-building and naval systems is something we should fast-track. This will add to India’s power projection capabilities, particularly as the Indo-Pacific becomes a strategic reality.
This interview was originally published in the ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat: Marching to a $5 Trillion Economy‘ Compendium, July 2021. It has been republished with permission.
Sameer Patil is Fellow, International Security Studies Programme, Gateway House.