Defexpos and Modernisation

The 11th biennial edition of defexpo, duly christened DefExpo 2020, is being held from 5 to 8 February. While most defexpos have been hosted at Delhi in the past, the present government’s efforts to decentralise a number of events away from the national capital is reflected in selecting Lucknow as the venue for the first time for this event. The selected theme for DefExpo 2020 is “India: The emerging Defence Manufacturing Hub”. It would specially focus on digital transformation of defence.

Organised under the aegis of Ministry of Defence, Government of India, it would attempt to showcase new and future defence technologies and provide a global platform for a large congregation of Indian and foreign vendors dealing with defence equipment manufacturing. With over 900 exhibitors participating, it is the largest exhibition of the world’s companies displaying their land, sea and air capabilities in India. In view of the likely expenditure of $130 billion by India in the next 5-7 years for modernisation of its defence forces, there is tremendous competition to grab a share of this lucrative pie.

Conceptually, the defexpos definitely have a positive role to play in assisting modernisation of the defence forces. They provide a platform for competing vendors to display their wares. Likewise, the buyers too are provided with a series of options in selecting what is best suited for their forces keeping their financial affordability in mind. Advances in various weapon systems in fields of mobility, acquisition of targets and their engagement by precision targeting are also on display. Such defexpos additionally facilitate interaction and face-to-face meetings between different parties to arrive at acceptable solutions. Of late, in a significant change from the past, there is a concerted effort by the Indian defence manufacturers to promote their equipment for sale to neighbouring and other developing countries around the globe. DefExpo 2020 would act as a vehicle for this attempt. Finally and most importantly, since the Government of India is specifically keen on encouraging ‘Make in India’ projects in the defence sector, the defexpos act as catalysts in furthering this policy.

The biggest challenge for the defence forces of a nation is to remain relevant for carrying out roles assigned to them. The advances in science, technology, concepts, tactics and methodology of war fighting are continuous and perpetually evolving. For example, extensive use of drones combined with space-based satellites and precision targeting enabled Americans to successfully eliminate Gen Suleimani, the Iranian Quds Force Commander, in Iraq. Likewise, the incorporation of artificial intelligence in the battlefield of the future is certain to bring in an unprecedented revolution in military affairs with emphasis on optimising results and speedy victories at the cost of least casualties.

This underlines the necessity for the Indian defence forces to modernise for ensuring national security of the union. Unresolved boundary issues with both our neighbours to the west and north who invariably adopt a coordinated stance while dealing with us, raises the possibility of a two-front threat. Internal security duties for assisting police forces in fighting insurgencies in different parts of the nation add another dimension to the need for modernisation.

It would be an understatement to say that our defence forces are lagging behind in modernisation. All three services have to do a lot of catching up. The Indian Army is way behind in completing its F-INSAS (Future Infantry Soldier As a System) programme. The indigenous capability to manufacture state-of-the-art rifles and carbines has still not been developed forcing the army to procure them through costly imports. The army also has shortages of artillery guns, air defence weapon systems and night fighting capability. A number of tanks in the tank fleet are reaching obsolescence levels. The mechanised infantry lacks matching mobility and night fighting capability to function side by side with the tanks.

Indian Navy has had major accidents on board submarines INS Sindhurakshak and INS Sindhuratna. Its project involving indigenous production of 6 Scorpene submarines has been delayed by about five years. INS Arihant, the indigenously manufactured nuclear submarine has just been operationalised. The navy is also looking at suitable twin- engine jet fighters for its aircraft carriers. In essence, its efforts at acquiring a blue water capability stand considerably delayed. This is worrisome in view of the ‘string of pearls’ policy and increasing footprint of the PLA Navy in the Indian Ocean.

Against an operational requirement of 42 fighter squadrons, the IAF is currently down to around 30. The present rate of retirement of fighter aircraft like MiG-21 and MiG-27 (last MiG-27 squadron number-plated in December 2019) is greater than the rate of induction of new aircraft. The worry is that the IAF may be down to 25-27 squadrons in the next four years before new accretions could catchup and start building the numbers again. The indigenous Tejas has not been able to fully meet the aspirations of the IAF. The IAF is also looking out for AWACS, transport aircraft and medium lift helicopters. Additionally, it needs to urgently acquire more Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) systems for defence of vital installations.

We have been among the biggest importers of defence equipment globally during the last two decades. The problem with defence imports is that besides being prohibitively costly, they make us dependent on other nations for our national security. The possibility that these imports may stop at crucial times depending on the policies of exporting nations adds an element of vulnerability to our national defence.

Unfortunately, despite having created a huge industrial base in the last 73 years since independence, we have not developed a matching defence equipment manufacturing capability. Private Sector, which works on the principle of profitability, has not felt encouraged to venture in to this field due to shifting policies and lack of a level playing field vis-à-vis public sector. The Defence Procurement Policy (DPP) of the government has been undergoing changes and refinement continuously for the last 15 years on almost annual basis. Entrenched public sector undertakings have also strongly resisted the entry of the private sector. The requirement of heavy investment in the defence sector coupled with uncertainty of reasonable returns, has forced the private sector to shy away.

‘Make in India’ is indeed a laudable initiative and extremely beneficial for the nation in the long run. However, 10-15 years is the minimum period required for setting up joint ventures, obtaining technological knowhow, trial production of equipment and finally mass production and absorption in the services. Understandably, there has been limited progress on this initiative during the last six years since its introduction. However, now that a beginning has been made, hopefully we can move faster towards indigenisation.

The Defence Research and Development (DRDO) would also be showcasing its achievements during the DefExpo 2020. Unfortunately, the DRDO has not delivered on its promises. Its resources have been frittered away in non core areas like producing organic vegetables and undertaking construction projects rather than concentrating on modernising weaponry. Resultantly, even for basic items like rifles and carbines, we have to look outside the country for expensive imports. It needs to give impetus to Prime Minister’s ‘Make in India’ initiative by developing competencies in core areas of concern to the services and passing on the knowhow to indigenous private sector for mass production. Rather than ‘reinventing the wheel’, it could build on the transfer of technology route to produce state-of-the- art equipment for use by the services as well as for export.

Finally, it needs to be appreciated that defexpos would achieve their prime aim of modernisation of the nation’s defence services provided matching financial resources are available in the defence budget. For over a decade now, as percentage of the GDP, we have witnessed a continuous decline in defence budgets. From about 2 per cent of the GDP in 2008, the defence budget has come down to a paltry 1.48 per cent in the current financial year. The Chinese annual defence budget has been about four times more than ours during the last two decades. Pakistan has been spending approximately 3.5 per cent of its GDP on defence. While there are competing demands for the national resources, we need to give national security its due importance. Prolonged shortage of funds is likely to increase hollowness in the defence services which can have serious consequences.

The need of the hour is to allocate at least 2.5 per cent of the GDP for defence. Combined with enhanced emphasis on ‘Make in India’ and lesser dependence on costly imports, on one hand we need to cut down our import bill and on the other, to ramp up production of indigenous defence equipment which would be used not only to meet own defence requirements but also to export to other nations. The role being played by defexpos in such a scenario will become all the more meaningful.

Source: India Strategic
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