Do not label foreign-made military hardware as ‘indigenous’

The country is coming to terms with the gradualist Prime Minister Narendra ‘Change does not happen all of a sudden’ Modi, who is relying on the existing decrepit apparatus of State, unimaginative policy establishment, and the government’s usual lackadaisical way of doing business to deliver results.
Even Modi’s flagship ‘Make in India’ programme is being driven into the ground by the old approach in the defence sphere of licence-manufacture now garbed in different rhetoric. Thus, in a ‘Navy Day’ newspaper supplement featuring a piece titled ‘Indigenisation of P75 is a good example of ‘Make in India’’, Bernard Buisson, managing director of the French government-backed private sector naval defence major DCNS (Direction des Constructions Navales), clarifies that by “indigenous” he means that local companies will do what defence public sector units (DPSUs) have been doing for the last 60 years — importing various components and ‘screwdrivering’ them together as per supplied blueprints.

If the French or any other foreign firm wins the contract, the resulting P-75i submarine will be about as ‘indigenous’ as the DCNS Scorpene boat currently produced by the Mazagon Dockyard, the slew of combat aircraft (British Jaguar and Hawk, Russian MiG-21, MiG-27, and Su-30MKI) assembled by Hindustan Aerospace Ltd, the Swedish Bofors gun outputted by the ordnance factories or the Russian T-72 tank by the Avadi Heavy Vehicle factory. Without the home-based design engineering element, foreign developed military hardware mislabelled ‘indigenous’ will continue to keep India a captive of foreign vendors, and the Indian government will be played for a fool it unfortunately has shown itself to be in these matters, even as the prospect of a truly indigenous, comprehensively capable, Indian defence industry keeps receding.

These conclusions are reached on the basis of recent developments. There is the Dhirendra Singh Committee report on reforming the defence procurement procedure. It has brazenly recommended cutting the political executive out of all procurement decisions and making the armed services solely responsible for them. This will ensure the Indian military remains industrial age, sub-strategic, cued to the wrong threat (Pakistan), and incapable of transforming itself in line with new technologies. Next, the defence ministry taskforce chaired by former DRDO chief VK Atre, asked to come up with an alternative to the disastrous ‘lowest tender’ system, has managed to at once subvert the government’s intention and retain for the DRDO-DPSU combine its primacy by keeping many private sector companies from competing for armament-development contracts with onerous entry-level financial conditions. And belatedly, the government has discovered ‘military diplomacy’. It has formed a committee led by deputy national security adviser Arvind Gupta to suggest ways to extract advanced technology from reluctant vendor states by using, as I have long advocated, our expensive armament buys as leverage, and mobilising Indian embassies to push exports of Indian-made arms to developing countries.

\The nested problems, however, are many. Gupta, a diplomat, will be hampered by the foreign service’s traditional antipathy to the military intruding into its turf. Also, it doesn’t seem that all departments of government making capital purchases abroad are being brought into the leveraging ambit as they should be. Hence, the civil aviation ministry, for example, is apparently free to permit — as it has just announced — private airlines to buy hundreds of passenger aircraft directly from Boeing or Airbus, costing hundreds of billions of dollars, without binding either of these companies to the offsets rule applying to military procurement (mandating 30-50% of the contract value to be ploughed back into India by way of designated technology transfers and co-production deals). And finally, how are developing states to be induced into buying India-made weapons systems when the Indian armed services don’t?
By way of a template for technology transactions, the Gupta Committee needs to study how China built its aerospace industry by buying McConnell-Douglas MD-80/90 aircraft in the 1980s in return for the American firm transferring its design and production technologies in toto, including the then cutting-edge design/computer-assisted manufacture technologies. That deal ended McConnell-Douglas’ run as an aircraft producer (it merged with Boeing) while germinating in China a major transport aircraft design, development, and manufacture hub.

But the Indian government seems institutionally incapable of assessing technological trends and prioritising technologies for absorption, mustering the fixity of purpose, or configuring a clear-eyed, cold-blooded, strategy and ruthlessly wielding the country’s political and economic clout in a buyer’s market. Instead, it is sending out confused signals. How were the representatives of Indian companies accompanying defence minister Manohar Parrikar to Washington, for instance, supposed to fish for possible US partners without any certainty of project contracts in light of the Atre Committee tilt? Worse, New Delhi is paying more attention than is prudent to Washington’s argument that signing the ‘foundational agreements’ — Logistics Support Agreement, Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for sharing geospatial data, and Communications Interoperability Security Memorandum of Agreement — will spur the ‘Make in India’ programme when, actually, they will insert the US into the Indian military’s operational loop and violate sovereignty. And, it is being swayed by the American pitch for things like the electromagnetic aircraft launch system on gigantic carriers that are extraneous to India’s security needs and interests.

Keeping in mind the imperative to strengthen the design engineering capability, it makes more sense to seek substantive US inputs into commercialising Indian-designed systems, such as the Tejas Mk-II fighter, (the abandoned) Kaveri jet engine, and in developing the navy warship directorate’s own 75i submarine design.

Published in the Hindustan Times, December 24, 2015 in the print edition with the title “Economic clout as the currency” at

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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9 Responses to Do not label foreign-made military hardware as ‘indigenous’

  1. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    PM or Party in power, needs the system to work towards the strategic goals as they see fit – for them imports or indigenous are fungible ideas. Since we have to work from a lower knowledge-base our R&D bosses have to overpromise and underbudget to make their projects look attractive to the Neta-gan and pre-empt the import-parast parasites. When the time comes to re-assess the budgets, these parasites seek to inject their own interests into the whole mix and suddenly we have a surfeit of reports telling us what is strategic and what is not and how we should be making something else instead. Now if the neta-gan are weak then these parasites will get the upper hand. But even if the neta-gan are strong there is no guarantee that they will begin to think/act more like a concerned king and less like an acquisitive merchant.

    Last time it was howitzers we did not need. This time its going to be SAMs we don’t really need. And tomorrow its going to be subs we could have done without.

    The system is so loaded against anything that is truly Indian that only a Putin can save India…ok just kidding. But not exactly. What we truly need is an Indian Deep State that worries about the future of India not about the Highest Common Factor that denominates the Neta-gan-Parasite cabal. Currently we have Ex-NSAs working with foreigners. Armed forces that learn their Costing and Analysis from their Vendors. And Neta-gan that can protect indigenous efforts only by underfunding them and keeping them alive on IVF styled funding. The most idiotic comment came in from Shree Arun Jaitley – that Indian R&D is not underfunded. WTH. A man who cannot even save himself (even when he is right LOL) is assuring us that things are ok in areas he has never even thought about.

  2. Siddappa says:

    I feel the pinch expressed by the author.
    .. forces that learn their Costing and Analysis from ..
    if most of defence budget is used up for pensions, arcane weapons, Ads & seminars, much less would remain for capacity building.

    With new president awaited in US, more jingoism is only to be expected.
    It remains to be seen, how much of “calling US Prez on first name basis as Barack” would help India.
    It seemed like a deja vu, when MMS informed Bush, he’s is very popular in India.

    Like Mobile Phones, Router Switches, Plastic buckets being imported into country, heavy arms too will keep a toll on foriegn exchange.
    DefMin is busy shifting AeroIndia’s venue & Mahadayi waters to his state. Alas,

  3. Shail says:

    While, the broad backdrop of what you say and profess is fairly and squarely correct, however, the pitfalls are not only in the Neta-Gan and the ilk of mil-bureaucracy-vendors. Look at any industry, tech vertical, R&D in any sphere. Indians in India are not making competitive products, whether medicines, mobiles, cars or defence eqpt. Copy and Paste is a national disease. R&D in a very few niche sectors notwithstanding, most DPSUs, DRDO etc have second-rate people. The good ones have been sucked into the US and EU. The real long term solution is to overhaul the whole R&D and education system to provide the base we need and prevent brain drain by incentivizing, promoting R&D related infrastructure and the required worldview. Even Maruti is screwdriver tech, so are Micromax et al. There are no simple solutions here. and for the record, even if one does re-organise and north orient the army, there is absolutely no assurance that the one to the west will not exploit this. They have fought four wars and the proxy war has not stopped, has it?

    • Shail@ — All that you say is true. But the difference between, say, the auto sector where the country began with screwdrivering to now emerge as design centres for several global automobile majors, and the the defence sphere where DPSUs haven’t progressed beyond the “meccano” model of production is precisely that the former is in the private sector with the govt having no presence in it at all! And that’s the trick I have been saying for years GOI should help the indigenous def industry turn — by fully and completely commercializing it, along the lines I have explicated in my writings and, in considerable detail, in my latest book. In sketch form — this paradigm involves all DPSUs, Ordnance factories, and DRDO labs to be divided about equally in R&D and production capabilities-wise into two giant def-industrial complexes, and installing the two most versatile and ethical industrial houses –Tata and L&T to run them, with a rent on the facilities and royalty paid on each time/tech produced; GOI financing to the prototype stage, and a runoff to declare a winner on all armament projects — in the context of the military having necessarily to source all their requirements w/o exception indigenously from these two combines. This is a drastic measure but there’s no other way if India’s to be self-sufficient in arms fast.

  4. Shail says:

    And what happens if there is a war in the meantime? Needs to be a judicious mix of the acquire and make approached, till we can make. Cant leave the cupboard bare can we? A duopoly can be as bad ..cartelisation is the inherent danger with pvt sector, every military system is a composite of many small components which can drastically change with tech. Electronics are changing and metamorphosing at a frightening speed, affecting Radars, NCW, TacCOM, D&A electronic attack and warfare systems and whatnot. If these are synthesised, these mean that these are giant steps of capability enhancement between newer versions of the same eqpt. Time is the enemy here. Indigenisation must be based on skill and intellectual power and the bright lot must be persuaded not to drain away but work here.
    The auto industry has profits, and huge apirational demand as powerful drivers. No such factors in def mfg. Low quantitites, many restrictions, no surety for contracts, no intellectual resources to draw upon indigenously, poor performance and product support by DPSUs have vitiated the worldview about indigenous products etc etc. Its going to be an uphill task.
    and someone forgot to tell the finmin, they have taxed the pvt guys out of the game.

    • Alas, immediate contingency is exactly the argument the armed services have used and continue to, to delay induction of entirely indigenized fighting wherewithal. So, there’s an element of risk but it can be minimized by taking a formation for re-equipping with locally-designed and made products at a time. Thus, the Arjun MBT should lead unit a time replace all Russian T-72s/T-90s, and so on with the Bharat Forge light howitzer locally designed and produced, Tejas Mk-1 for MiG-21 sqdns, Mk- II for MiG-27s, HAL utility and combat helos, etc., as has been the case with the Indian Navy warship directorate–designed warships. Indian-made fighting eqpt will have a huge inherent cost edge over everything else, and private companies fully into defence industrial business can compensate for limited offtake by the Indian military with ramped up exports and GOI-promoted and subsidized sales to growing number of states in the neighbourhood and farther afield — something implicit in the Arvind Gupta Committee’s brief in exploring “military diplomacy”. That’s the way to do it.

  5. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    This blogpost by Col. Ajai Shukla has some relevance here:
    Tuesday, 29 December 2015
    International figures say India no longer biggest arms importer; India’s own figures say still Number One

  6. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    Col. Ajai Shukla reports the follows and this shows how anti-Indian, parts of the core strategy group has become. This shows how the DRDO et al are forced to over promise and under budget only because the Vested Interests will not allow any Indian with an indigenous mind, to work at all:


    “Saturday, 2 January 2016
    Tejas fighter to make international debut at Bahrain

    This is a bold marketing move, given that the Tejas’ final operational certification is expected only by mid-2016, and just a single fighter has been delivered to the Indian Air Force (IAF). In contrast, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) made an international splash with its F-17 Thunder fighter only after inducting the fighter into squadron service.

    Top officials in the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) say this is a measure of their confidence in the Tejas, which has flown in several Aero India Shows in Bengaluru.

    However, the Tejas is at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the JF-17, which the PAF has aggressively supported and marketed to bring down costs by building more aircraft. The PAF aims at inducting some 250 JF-17s, with exports orders adding to that number.

    In a telling contrast, the IAF has supported the Tejas reluctantly, agreeing to accept 100 improved Tejas only after the defence minister put the squeeze last year on import-happy air marshals.”

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