SOURCE: The Tribune

India imports 70 per cent of its defence weapons and equipment. An import lobby has existed, which on the one hand has controlled the development of weapons and equipment within the country and on the other, gained from imports. Earlier, most weapons and equipment came from the USSR, where no information about any wrongdoing by the buyer ever leaked. Internally in India, no misdeed was ever brought to light.

In two cases where malpractices had occurred to strike deals for the import of equipment, information linked to bribery was leaked from only the two countries that provided the equipment, one being the Bofors gun and the other Agusta Westland helicopters.

In both, the names of the defence secretaries surfaced. In the case of Bofors, the defence secretary could not be charge-sheeted as he had been moved to a Governor’s post, placing him beyond the reach of law and in the case of Agusta Westland helicopters, the defence secretary was re-employed as CAG and his arrest now awaits clearance from the Defence Ministry, even while he is a retired person, though in this case, the Air Chief was also charge-sheeted.

Development of weapons and equipment is at the core of Atmanirbhar Bharat and ‘Made by India’ forms its essence. It is possible to create capabilities within to meet the military’s requirement, provided we bring about changes to the existing set-up. Here, the thrust should be initially towards ‘Make in India’, followed by ‘Made by India’, rather than merely ‘Make in India’ by foreign companies.

India has enough entrepreneurial potential and technical skills and if given the required incentives, it can measure up. The setting up of production facilities by foreign companies should, as far as possible, be joint ventures with Indian entities.

Fifty-seven DRDO establishments, 11 defence public sector undertakings (PSUs) and 41 ordnance factories have been in existence for over six decades and yet the Indian military continues to depend on imports. Before any attempt to promote indigenous production is made, we need to examine as to why own efforts made by the DRDO, defence PSUs and the Ordnance Factory Board have fallen short of meeting the military’s requirement.

In the import of defence equipment, we have been paying additional money for the transfer of technology clause and yet have never been able to fully absorb it and consequently could never take it forward. We even failed in the field of reverse engineering. The recent DRDO move to raise the limits of advance payment and award contracts to the second lowest bidder (if the lowest bidder backs out) through the procurement manual is hardly a push for self-reliance.

For long, there has been a demand for an independent science audit of the DRDO and other defence establishments. Internal ‘expert panels’ can hardly be expected to come up with radical changes, which run counter to the interests of MoD, whose turf these are. Even the Director General Qualitative Assurance (DGQA) forms part of the same set-up. Consequently, the quality of products from these establishments has remained indifferent.

While a few of these DRDO and other establishments have done reasonably well, such as those dealing with missile technology, most others have little to their credit. A science audit should be over within three months and those who have failed to accomplish anything worthwhile should be sold out to the private sector. Given top-of-the line equipment with these establishments, private entities will make a good start. When the USSR broke up, China took 2,000 scientists from there. This did contribute to China getting to its present state in high-end technologies.

What is not fully realised in India is that in this equation between the ‘gun’ and the ‘man behind the gun’, the balance is fast tilting in favour of the gun. Already, artificial intelligence, robotics, drone technology and cybertech have brought about a sea change in warfare.

While we did away with the ‘licence & permit raj’, what was left out was the issue of ‘clearances’ and curtailing the predatory functioning of the ‘inspector’. Clearances involve traversing through the bureaucratic jungle. So, in place of ‘ease of doing business’, one needs ‘grease for doing business’ in India. A single window leads to many more windows. These hassles made many industries shift from India to China.

One foreign company did find a solution by appointing a bureaucrat as company chairman, who could not only cut red tape but also corner all future tax benefits by getting to know of such plans years before the official announcements.

Most equipment being produced in India still has imported content. Therefore, effort is needed to move into high-tech zone. Given the current geostrategic environment and developments in the Indo-Pacific and Himalayas, Quad countries and others are willing to give India access to high-end technologies, and it must make the most of such possibilities.

The Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, is well off the mark when he advocates the lowering of General Staff Qualitative Requirement (GSQR ) to 70 per cent. Perhaps he is not aware that technology has come to play a dominant role in warfare and as it is, 68 per cent of the military’s equipment is of the vintage category. In framing the GSQR, what could be considered is that the DRDO be involved to an extent, so that it could initially produce Mark-1 of the weapon/equipment to be followed by Mark-2 which must fully measure up to the required performance parameters.

For Atmanirbharta in defence, resetting of the existing set-up on the following lines is called for: a) Complete science audit and based on it, 50 per cent of DRDO, defence PSUs and ordnance factories should be sold out to the private sector. The next review of the balance of these establishments be carried out after five years; b) Secretary, Defence Production, should be a defence services officer; c) DGQA should come under the CDS;

d) A few selected DRDO establishments, defence PSUs and ordnance factories should be headed by defence services officers. The Navy has done better by adopting this system; e) Factories should be relocated closer to where weapons and equipment are required to be deployed to reduce transportation expenses; f) Do away with the single vendor system, including for ordnance factory products.

The proposal to convert the Ordnance Factory Board into Ordnance Factory Corporation Limited as being suggested will be a half-way house, leaving the military still dependent on a single vendor and products of indifferent quality.