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View: India Inc’s full involvement is necessary for an extensive defence manufacturing ecosystem

By G Mohan KumarThe recent confrontation with China in eastern Ladakh has brought into sharp focus India’s prospect of a two-front war, along with this country’s readiness for such an eventuality.The possibility of such a conflict had always been factored into our military planning, more specifically to highlight the urgent need to bridge strategic gaps. The Indian Air Force’s (IAF) clamour for 42 fighter squadrons, the decision to raise the mountain strike corps, building of advanced landing grounds, acquisition of light howitzers and heavy lift helicopters, and the plan to expedite critical border roads were part of this thinking.But given the interminable processes involved in procuring or manufacturing fighter aircraft, and the paucity of funds for the mountain corps infrastructure and roads, reckoning the China factor was, at best, a half-hearted exercise.The last 45 years of ‘peace and tranquillity’ on India’s eastern borders, coupled with the vibrant economic relations with China, lulled many in this country into the belief that a confrontation with China was unlikely. The recent belligerence of Beijing seems to convince everyone that the Chinese threat is more real than ever.From now on, India’s defence capabilities have to be fully benchmarked above those of China, not those of Pakistan. Matching Chinese capabilities will call for rapid modernisation and acquisition of technology, including nextgeneration capabilities on a mission mode. For starters, the formation of the theatre commands has to be expedited, and intelligence and surveillance capabilities on the eastern side made state-of-the-art. The Indian Navy’s submarine fleet has to be expanded substantially, and the Andaman and Nicobar Command strengthened adequately.The proposed space and cyber commands also need to be put in place. Border infrastructure development has to move at a furious pace. Major factors that impede swift capability-building are the aforementioned slow-moving defence acquisitions, uninspiring research and development (R&D), paucity of funds and the absence of a mission-mode approach. To be truly self-reliant, India needs a quantum jump in defence technology development, which includes development of hi-tech materials such as highperformance alloys and aero-engines.Building Up Defence The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) should be downsized and made to focus only on areas of high strategic importance. There is a dire need to induct the private sector and premier research institutions as partners in defence research, based on the US’ Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) model, limiting the role of DRDO to funding and facilitation of downstream production of developed products. An explosion of innovation is vitally necessary for revving up the defence industry ecosystem in the country.The lag in preparedness and the stunted growth of the domestic defence industry can easily be attributed to the procurement system of defence ministry. Rewriting the defence procurement procedure will be of little avail if the same bureaucratic system is in control. Procurement has to be taken out of the ministry’s domain and assigned to a professionally managed and autonomous special purpose vehicle (SPV), which will report to the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC).Promotion of domestic manufacturing and product development should be among the key mandates of DAC. The lowest hanging fruit of defence reforms is the implementation of the recommendations of the 2016 expert committee on restructuring the procurement system. Unless the private sector is fully involved, an extensive defence manufacturing ecosystem will remain a dream.The proposal to manufacture ammunition in the private sector, approved in 2016, has not yet been implemented. Plans to manufacture fighter aircraft, submarines and helicopters through strategic partnership (SP) are sputtering with the defence public sector undertakings (DPSUs) trying to turf in though the back door. Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd’s (HAL) joint venture with Russian Helicopters to build the Kamov Ka-226T helicopters is yet to take off. HAL’s hands are full with the new order for 123 Tejas fighters. Its promise to deliver a combat helicopter is yet to materialise.HAL, which should be concentrating on these projects, is now casting its eyes on the 117 naval utility helicopters for which four private companies have been shortlisted under the SP policy. The DPSUs need to be sternly told to focus on the delivery of prevailing orders rather than play spoilsport by attempting to encroach on the areas where the private sector is expected to play its legitimate role as per policy. The government, on its part, needs to set a deadline for finalising the SP-based projects.Project 2030 In view of the new challenges before India, it is now imperative that GoI launch a ‘Defence Mission’ with a 10-year timeframe to achieve full capability development. A set of weapons and equipment, the imports of which should be banned beyond a cut-off date, may be identified.Flow of funds to defence capabilitybuilding needs to have a 15-year perspective, and the defence capital budget should be made non-lapsable to ensure continuity. The government also needs to think of floating special ‘Defence of India’ bonds to find additional resources for the mission.(The writer is former defence secretary, GoI)