For India to emerge as a major international power, or acquire a regional military edge, it must reduce its dependence on imports. Besides sophisticated systems, India is today importing even basic defence items such as assault rifles and carbines. As of now, India’s high technology industry and Research and Development (R & D) base has not developed adequately. Our capacity to spend on long gestation R & D projects too is limited. In addition to finances, the expertise to integrate systems and the availability of qualified and trained manpower falls short of the requirement to develop or indigenously manufacture complex weapon systems in the country. We therefore need a dual approach encompassing a time bound indigenisation programme with a roadmap for developing necessary R & D and manufacturing set ups for the long term and a simplified and an efficient defence purchase procedures to tide over the present equipment requirements for maintaining operational readiness of the services.
Defence Industrial Base
India today has a fairly large Defence Industrial Base which has not been effectively directed or monitored to deliver the country’s defence needs. It has 41 Ordnance Factories (OFs), 9 Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs) and a network of over 50 Defence R & D Laboratories under the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) employing 1,80,044 employees (81,130 in DPSUs and 98,914 in OFs). These OFs produce relatively low technical level items such as ammunition, explosives, weapons, equipment, materials and components, armoured vehicles, ordnance equipment and the like. DRDOs budget in 2013–14 was Rs 10,610.17 crore, amounting to 5.21 percent of the total defence budget[i]. The budget allocation is huge compared to Indian benchmarks, yet too little for the type and quality of work and output these organisations are expected to deliver.
Despite the existence of a large defence base in the government sector, India’s arms imports have been growing consistently over the years, giving the country the dubious distinction of being the largest arms importer in the world. The public sector performance has not enthused the Armed Forces, who happen to be the buyers of the end product. Most projects are characterised by time delays, cost escalations and poor quality control. Even the 5.56 INSAS rifle developed by DRDO after 15 painfully long years is nowhere comparable to the modern assault rifles, leading to the government to approve the import of some 66,000 assault rifles and 44,000 carbines amongst other items. The night vision devices produced by the DRDO, though with 100 per cent imported Infra-Red (IR) tubes are far bulkier and heavier than the imported ones. Even in items like clothing and bullet proof jackets, the quality of the products leave much to be desired. As for equipment like the TATRA trucks, even when the Indian private sector is quite capable of manufacturing a similar vehicle both technologically and industrially, we chose a DPSU for procurement which acted as a mere middleman in importing them at huge costs to the exchequer.
The functioning of the DPSUs, OFs and DRDO hence need a review. Considering the high quality which the Indian private sector is now capable of producing, manufacture of stores and equipment like clothing, ordnance equipment, vehicles, ammunition, explosives and communication equipment can well be left to the private sector with an eye on breeding an export market for the future. We need to dispassionately review the cost benefit ratios of continuing with some of the government establishments and close down or relocate those that can be dispensed with. Organisations which can be retained must have adequately trained manpower with the desired technological expertise. These must be headed by professionals from amongst the best available in the country rather than being handled by bureaucrats. To enhance capability, performance audit could encompass quality and efficiency of products, quality of after sales service, economic prudence and the ability to build technological capabilities and skills. Public sector units should also compete with the private sector on a level playing field and not be given any preferential treatment including in the offer of contract and other terms and conditions.