[Bharat Forge’s 155mm 52 calibre artillery displayed at Defexpo 2020]
Defexpo 2020 ended its run at the swanky new exhibition ground, created especially for the purpose by the UP government in Lucknow, drew praise. A UP minister declared it a great success on the basis that some 200 MOUs were signed compared to just 40 during the previous version of the Expo held in Chennai in 2018. The minister needs to dunk his head in a bucket of iced water to wake him up to reality. MOUs mean next to nothing. Literally thousands of MOUs have been signed in the last decade, but the foreign direct investment in defence ventures is still almost zero.
But those who participated — and there were more than 200 of the most important Indian and international companies that displayed their wares or tried to cut deals for them, complained that having built the tremendous fair ground infrastructure, the Adityanath regime fouled up in a crucial area — in providing powerful telecommunications coverage to facilitate bulk data transmission for instantaneous displays on screens, laptops and especially smart phones which defence industry representatives these days use to conduct business. With no smart phones working — the telecom service coverage being nonexistent around the trade fairground or so spotty as to be useless any way, the Defexpo was a disaster. As a throwback to paper usage, interested customers demanded brochures, physical documents, and the like that have long since become passe’ and which no self-respecting company rep lugs around anymore! In short, Defexpo 2020 was a communications fiasco. It could have been averted by the UP government installing a bunch of microwave comms towers all round the defexpo grounds.
Strange that no media outlet reported on this astonishing snafu! This even though print and electronic media were present in strength what with prime minister Narendra Modi, defence minister Rajnath Singh and UP chief minister Adityanath attending along with their retinues of PMO, Defence Ministry and Department of Defence Production babus and other hangers-on.
What was, however, a success was the confidence in evidence of Indian private sector military hardware producers who exhibited extraordinarily advanced, streamlined and sophisticated products. Foreign experts and company reps were impressed particularly with the sleek gun systems — Bharat Forge’s 155 mm 52 calibre long range gun, and this company’s ultra-light weight howitzer weighing a ton compared to the next lightest, which is a 3-4 tonner! The price too is something no foreign gun supplier can match — Rs 15-20 crore per piece for the 155 mm gun versus Rs 50-55 crores for an imported gun. A former Israeli general called it the “best gun of its kind in the world!” The Bharat Forge ultra-light weight howitzer with soft recoil technology, ideal for mountain ops, was likewise available to the army when the Modi government opted several years back for the American M-777 howitzer instead in a “government-to-government” deal. In other words, Modi chose to please Washington than put teeth in his own “Make in India” programme upped by Bharat Forge to the much higher value “Made in India” — design to delivery. It cost the country multiples for an old gun system when the locally designed, developed, tested and proven new generation piece was available for the taking.
The other product line that drew oohs and aahs from foreign visitors was, surprisingly, the stall of Adani Defence & Aerospace featuring a range of 7.62 mm assault rifles, machine guns and light machine guns manufactured in a unit in Gwalior set up with 49% equity partner — the Israeli company IWI. This unit has been established to meet current and future Indian demands, and for export. This was such strikingly modern stuff it left many an expert observer goggle-eyed. Obviously, the Adani majority partnership helped the defence ministry plonk for an initial order of 41,000 Adani assault rifles, an item the public sector Ishapore ordnance factory has struggled mightily for years to design and develop.
So the army’s need for two of the biggest and most basic goods — artillery of all kinds in mobile and towed mode can be locally met with the Bharat Forge guns that together with L&T’s K-109 Vajra form a formidable battery, and the military’s requirements of basic infantry weapons by the Adani assault rifles, etc.
If the army means what it says about going increasingly indigenous, a third item — the tank too can be fully home supplied. The Avadi DPSU produces the Arjuna main battle tank which the Indian government, if it was serious about its professions about advancing the Indian defence industry factory, should designate as the only equipment to outfit the country’s armoured formations (with the Russian T-72s/90s under phase out) and restrict the purchase of tanks to the Arjun MBT.
That will leave the field clear for an Indian light tank developed by mounting the Bharat Forge 105mm gun on a light tank chassis that Mahindra, with its expertise in armoured combat vehicles that also impressed at the Lucknow Defexpo, can easily design and produce. What will thus obtain is a 45 ton light tank to equip the first two Divisions of the mountain offensive corps under raising, with two more mountain corps hopefully in the offing, to adequately meet the contingent Chinese threat ex-PLA-occupied Tibet. Kirloskar can perhaps be roped in to design and develop a high torque engine for this light tank to operate optimally in the thin air at Himalayan heights. It is the sort of consortium approach, coupling the different competences of Indian firms that Bharat Forge, Mahindra, and Kirloskar can pioneer in the private sector.
Such consortia can, moreover, offer capital weapons platforms outputted within contracted time frames and cost parameters in deals that the imports-besotted defence ministry simply cannot refuse, and the defence public sector units are inherently incapable of matching.