India’s is reliving the 1990’s moment. Break up of the Soviet Union in 1991 had led to collapse of a reliable chain of weapons and equipment to India which had lasted about two decades.
This led to widening of sourcing of defence equipment to include other principal providers including the UK, France, Germany and so on.
As India and U.S. relations attained a new trajectory in early 2000 and flowered on to what today is seen as an important strategic partnership, the United States has been added to the suppliers list.
India thus adopted the model of spreading risks which was evidently suited for that era when industrialization of the country remained low and defence production was a controlled sector.
There were some efforts to create indigenization but these did not achieve the desired results.
Meanwhile revival of the Russian defence industry saw imports increasing exponentially once again from Moscow.
The Ukraine War and related sanctions by the United States and allies on the Russian defence industry as well as transfer of high technology products by India have cast another shadow on reliability and timeliness of defence supplies.
This challenge comes at a critical time with China emerging as a principal adversary and rapid modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) with clearly stated objectives of gaining capability for regional influence by 2035 and global by 2050.
The, “Two Front dimension,” of threat from Pakistan continues, despite the chimera of a Shahbaz Sharif outreach.
Present State of Force Levels and Modernisation
As highlighted by the Ministry of Defence to the Seventeenth Parliamentary Committee on Defence in reports on Demands for Grants for the Year 2021-22 and 2022-23 which are available on the Lok Sabha Website, there is a deficit of up to 30 percent or more in operational force composition of the Indian Armed Forces in some areas.
Some of the deficits include in platforms such as aircraft carrier, combat fighters, submarines, multi role helicopters, mine clearance vessels, artillery guns and so on.
The vintage of current holdings is at best what can be called as 3.5 generation, whereas the requirement is for fielding a state-of-the-art force - 4.5 generation. For example, of the Indian Air Force combat fighters only Rafale will make the grade.
Thus, force accretion and modernization will go hand in hand. The available window for India is a decade and a half or so.
Don’t Spread the Risk, Indigenise
With the Russian option defacto foreclosed for further procurements, there is the attraction once again as in 1991 for spreading the risk so to say – going in for diversification of supplies from multiple strategic partners.
Today India is in a global sweet spot so to say being the geographic and military centre of gravity of the Indo Pacific toward which multiple partners are gravitating, the most recent related event being visit of the Prime Minister of UK Mr. Boris Johnson.
On the face of it, Mr. Johnson did not raise India’s disinclination to name Russia on the Ukraine crisis and in fact was sympathetic.
Today India is a Major Defence Partner of the United States – the World’s largest hub of defence industry and technology. India and the United States have a significant technology and trade partnership in the field of defence – the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) though programmes remain stillborn for now.
While DefExpo 2022 could not be held due to the timing coming in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, there is evidence that many global defence majors were to participate in the seminal event.
Thus, there will be a perception of an easy option, though given India’s Ministry of Defence complex defence acquisition process delays in procurement involving global industry are likely to continue.
Instead of spreading the risk as in 1991, today another opportunity beckons – of indigenization.
Atma Nirbhar Bharat in Defence
In the last two years or so, Ministry of Defence, pressed on by the Prime Minister Mr Narendra Modi personally, has launched programme for self-reliance in defence known as Atma Nirbhar Bharat in Defence.
This has given a new vision to the Indian defence industry, though the road map remains constrained by legacy defence acquisition procedure and organisations.
Measures such as corporatisation of Ordnance Factories, signaling armed forces and industry of procurement of platforms and systems indigenously through, “positive lists”, encouraging start ups and so on are indicators that there is a degree of seriousness in pursuit of the self-reliance programme.
Some of the Defence PSUs and private defence industry stakeholders are demonstrating admirable commitment which needs to be fostered.
These per se will not be enough unless creative decisions are taken to acquire technologies, establishing manufacturing lines of principal platforms rather than pursuing projects – but more about that later.