The armed forces have to get rid of their overwhelming dependence on exorbitant foreign weapon systems, and instead put their entire weight behind ensuring that ‘Make in India’ does not remain a mere slogan, chief of defence staff General Bipin Rawat told TOI in an exclusive interview on Saturday.
“We are not expeditionary forces that have to deploy around the globe. We have to guard and fight only along our borders and, of course, dominate the Indian Ocean Region. So, we should not go in for large amounts of imports by misrepresenting our operational requirements,” said Rawat.
“Covid-19 has affected everybody. We need to be realistic, start adjusting and have a major relook at our operational priorities and what we actually need. Arms imports, along with supply of spares and maintenance, have become increasingly cost prohibitive,” said the country’s first tri-service chief.
His forthright remarks mean that the over 15-lakh strong armed forces have to undergo a major reorientation to wean themselves off foreign-made arms that have been their preferred option for long. The remarks are also significant in the backdrop of the temporary freeze in new major deals for foreign weapons and the possibility of the defence budget being slashed due to the enormous impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the country’s finances.
India currently languishes in the strategically vulnerable position of being the second-largest buyer of foreign weaponry after Saudi Arabia in the world, accounting for 9.2% of the total global arms imports during 2015-2019.
India has in recent years signed several big-ticket purchases for defence equipment, like the ones for 36 French Rafale fighter jets (Rs 59,000 crore) and five Russian S-400 Triumf surface-to-air missile squadrons (Rs 40,000 crore), even as the government has sought to promote home-grown options.
Rawat said there was no other option but to build a robust domestic defence-industrial base, even if indigenous weapon systems were initially produced with “reduced technical specifications” or GSQRs (general staff qualitative requirements) than those framed by the armed forces.
“We should boost ‘Make in India’ by hand-holding our domestic industry even if they deliver weapons with only 70% of the GSQRs in the beginning…given the opportunity, they will eventually deliver cutting-edge technology,” he said.
The armed forces often push for imports because they come up with “unrealistic GSQRs” for weapon systems that DRDO, ordnance factories and the domestic industry simply cannot deliver in time. “We should define GSQRs as per our own operational requirements, and not look at what the US or other advanced countries have,” said Gen Rawat.
If the armed forces need some high-tech weapon systems that cannot be made indigenously, then the focus should be on tying up with foreign partners for ‘Make in India’ projects with concrete transfer of technology. “India started small with Maruti-800 but has now become a major automobile manufacturing hub,” he said.
The Army, for instance, is now importing a limited number of advanced assault rifles and light machine guns for frontline troops from the US and Israel, but the bulk of its requirements will be met through `Make in India’ projects.
The armed forces, while going in for genuine integration and slashing non-operational flab and manpower to reduce the ballooning revenue expenditure and pension bill, also have to better manage the financial resources available to them. “You will never have the resources you desire. Optimal utilisation of the available budget is needed,” said Rawat.
There also needs to be proper prioritisation of operational requirements. The Navy, for instance, needs to decide whether it should push for a third aircraft carrier at this stage. “Anything on the surface can be picked up by satellites and knocked off by missiles. I think the Navy needs more submarines rather than aircraft carriers, which themselves require their own individual armadas for protection,” he said.
The renewed thrust on ‘Make in India’, incidentally, comes after TOI last December reported that none of the major indigenous projects in the defence arena — new-generation stealth submarines, minesweepers, infantry combat vehicles, transport aircraft, fighter jets and two types of light utility helicopters for the armed forces – have actually taken off in the last six years. These seven long-pending projects, collectively worth over Rs 3.5 lakh crore, are either stuck or still meandering through different stages, without the final contracts to launch production being inked till now.