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Chennai DefExpo: Can it be the catalyst for India's goal of strategic autonomy?

The Chennai event is the 10th in the DefExpo series and hopes to position India as a credible manufacturer and exporter of certain military inventory items and this focus on export as opposed to importing military hardware marks a conceptual shift in Indian defence policy, writes C Uday Bhaskar for South Asia Monitor

Apr 7, 2018
By C Uday Bhaskar
 
The four-day long DefExpo  2018 that opens outside of  Chennai on April 11  has been innovatively and generously showcased as  ‘India: The Emerging Defence Manufacturing Hub’ and a large number of platforms and military inventory items manufactured in India will be on display.
 
The Chennai event is the 10th in the DefExpo series and hopes to position India as a credible manufacturer and exporter of certain military inventory items and this focus on export as opposed to importing military hardware marks a conceptual shift in Indian defence policy.
 
Military  aircraft and naval  ships will be part of the Indian hardware  that will be showcased along with artillery guns and the Ministry of Defence expects  that this forum will be able to attract foreign buyers who may find the Indian option more affordable.
 
Concurrently all the major arms exporters of the world will be at Chennai , barring China and more than 40  countries are expected to participate  in DefExpo 2018. This has been the pattern for the last two decades  since  DefExpo was first launched in New Delhi and the event attracts a high level of attention, for India is seen as a major  market for the global arms manufacturers.
 
It is perhaps more coincidence than design, that when Delhi is seeking to project itself as a credible manufacturer of major platforms and a potential exporter of such inventory, the Indian Air Force has announced (April 6 )  that it is re-opening the procurement process for 110 fighter aircraft.  This is an order that is potentially worth US $ 12 billion and will attract the attention of the global aviation industry.
 
But there is also a sense of déjà vu, for India had  embarked upon a long drawn out process to procure 126 fighter  aircraft during the UPA regime. This process began in 2007 and was abandoned in 2015 – a year after the NDA came to power – for the Indian  higher defence eco-system was not enabling as it ought to have been.  The principal players are the Prime Minister's Office, the ministries  of defence and finance and the three service  headquarters and for the last two decades a sense of stasis has engulfed  Raisina Hill apropos defence procurement and manufacture..
 
 Has this complex eco-system with its labyrinth of regulations and compliance seeking strictures  become more enabling under the current Defence Minister  Nirmala Sitharaman? An objective answer to this will determine the long-term outcome of  the Defexpo.
 
 In keeping with the tagline of the expo,  the Defence Ministry announced a very ambitious  draft Defence Procurement Policy  (DProP) 2018  in March with the objective of placing India among the top five defence producing nations of the world. This is a highly desirable objective and can be the catalyst and opportunity for realizing the Modi vision of ‘make in India’ in the defence sector in a substantive manner. 
 
India is likely to allocate  US $150 billion over the next decade for procurement and modernization of military hardware and this can provide the stimulus to nurture meaningful domestic manufacture in some niches areas.  However the feasibility of realizing this goal by 2025 can be an exceedingly daunting  challenge,  given the very modest  national manufacturing cum R&D  base and  related eco-system that India currently has in place. 
 
Defence manufacture in India has largely been within the purview of the public sector units (PSU), who do not  not function  as per free-market compulsions. However the track record of the last quarter century (1991 – 2016)  has revealed that these defence PSU-s  are unable to produce what the Indian military needs in a cost and time effective manner  – and hence the reality,  that India is among the world’s largest importer of arms.
 
Manufacturing in the defence cannot be seen in isolation and has to be part of a larger national eco-system that is enriched by the private sector, academia and investment from financial institutions in a sustained manner. However the reality is that for decades, the contribution of the manufacturing sector in India’s overall GDP has hovered in the 15 to 18 percent range, notwithstanding exhortations that this figure touch  25 percent.  Indian R&D investment is slender and patents of international rigor are very few. 
 
Thus the target set by the Defence Ministry as part of DProP 2018,  to lift defence production from the current level of Rs. 559  billion ( US $ 8.6 billion)  to Rs. 1, 700 bn  ($ 26.2 bn) in defence inventory and services  by 2025 – seven years from now – is VERY ambitious.
 
As part of this initiative, it is expected that India would be able to invest Rs. 700 bn ( $ 10.85) in the defence manufacturing sector and thereby create upto 3 million jobs.  Sitharaman has announced the setting up of two dedicated defence corridors – one in Uttar Pradesh and the other in Tamil Nadu and it will be instructive to note how  swiftly the state governments will be able to create the necessary conditions (land acquisition, provision of water/electricity et al ) for the action to begin in earnest.
 
This vision of DProP  being realized in its entirety by 2025 will call for intense inter-ministerial coordination and an all of government approach that India has not seen to date.  Hence this initiative represents a major opportunity to enhance the indigenous component in India’s military inventory and also raise the national manufacturing base, even while providing employment opportunities to at least two million people.
 
This is as win-win an outcome as can be envisaged but the fact is that this has remained elusive for years. The Congress-led UPA government had also unveiled a Defence Production Policy document in 2011 but it remained dormant and did not yield the expected results. One hopes that the Chennai DefExpo will be the catalyst to make that critical difference – thereby  imparting some credibility to India’s  desire for ‘strategic autonomy’ in the global arena. Otherwise the make-believe will continue, as it has alas, for decades.
 
(The author is Director, Society for Policy Studies. He can be contacted at cudaybhaskar@spsindia.in)

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