The beginning of 2021 oversaw an intense conflict of interest developing between the Indian MoD (Ministry of Defence) and the Indian Army over the procurement of 400 towed artillery guns called howitzers from Israel for ₹4,000 crores. Towed artillery has proved to be an intrinsic piece of weaponry in warfare in mountainous regions. It is effective in shredding concrete and armour and can be mounted in defensive and offensive positions. With a large number of guns desperately needed by the Indian Army in the disputed northern frontier with China, the need for towed artillery has increased. As a result, the Indian Army has pressed for upholding the current towed artillery import policy, which aims to quickly address concerns and needs raised by the military outfit.
However, the order for 400 Israeli-manufactured ATHOS (Autonomous Towed Howitzer Ordnance Systems) is in limbo, due to the MoD placing the ATHOS guns in their “negative list” released in August 2020, signalling discouragement of imported military equipment, which stems from the recent inclination towards the developing indigenous sector. For example, the ATAGS (Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System) developed by the DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation) has been preferred over imported guns since they provide indigenous manufacturers with much deserved recognition and a platform to assert themselves in this new “Aatmanirbhar” culture promoted by the Modi government. The Indian Army’s opposition to the MoD’s current Aatmanirbhar policy stems from financial and technical issues, with the ATHOS guns, which the army is very much accustomed to, costing only ₹9 crores, as opposed to the ATAGS’ price tag sitting on a hefty ₹22 crores.
However, with the deteriorating ATHOS not in service in its country of origin, questions are being raised as to whether indigenisation is an effective solution to modernise our ageing equipment or is the longstanding import policy still substantial.
Innovation vs. Importation in Modernization: The Story So Far
Since independence, India has been relying chiefly on Russia, the United States of America, Israel, France, and the United Kingdom for most of its military equipment. Vigorous economic growth in the aftermath of the economic liberalisation India underwent in the 1990s, coupled with dangerous political-military events such as the 1999 Kargil conflict and the 2001 terrorist attack on Parliament, urged the subsequent Indian governments to spend more on defence. Mass importations and military acquisitions have boosted India’s military status in the world, with the country’s military considered now to be the 4th largest in the world, amassing over 500,000 military personnel and over 15,000 military equipment, ranging from naval vessels to armoured cars.
However, contrary to multiple military powers in the world, India’s case is unique. India’s capability to manufacture equipment for its own military remains tremendously inadequate. As per the 2014-2018 figures, India is the second-largest importer of defence equipment in the world, behind only Saudi Arabia. India imports about twice as much as its primary adversary, China. It is dependent on foreign suppliers for most major weapon platforms, particularly at the higher technological levels: combat, transport, and reconnaissance aircraft; frigates and attack submarines; howitzers, as mentioned above, and anti-aircraft systems; etc. India ambitiously set a goal of 70% self-reliance in 1992, only to revel in an estimated 38.5% self-reliance in 2011.
Additionally, as an indicator of the quality of its defence production vis-à-vis competitors, Indian exports are negligible, which sits at about three percent of China’s. For a country that pledges to be the net security provider in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), the only substantial export successes in recent years have involved offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) to Mauritius, Sri Lanka, and other Indian Ocean littoral states.
Indian defence spending has also been appalling over the years, as compared to our troublesome neighbour in the east, as shown below:
India’s total defence budget is observing massive allocations to revenue expenditure and pensions, rather than capital disbursement for military equipment and indigenisation efforts. Due to an expansion in numbers of armed personnel, proposed pension reforms, and costly pay commissions, this trend has no end in sight.
Furthermore, reckless decision making, and poor planning has led to India amassing a debt of over $500bn. In addition to the crippling debt and waning military expenditure, every year, India observes a sizable percentage of the capital budget that has gone unspent, returned to the MoF (Ministry of Finance), creating further deterrents for long-term investment in indigenous innovation. Coupled with production and time delays, the situation is looking grim for the Indian Armed Forces.
With reference to the conflict of interest between the MoD and the Indian Army, the former’s stance would have been the same as the latter’s about a decade ago. However, times have changed, and MoD’s existing stance is massively beneficial for the military in the long-term.
Realizing “Aatmanirbhar Bharat”
With the rise of China and a dangerous Pakistani foreign policy, wherein the country is increasingly siding with India’s primary adversaries, the Indian Armed Forces have to remain operationally ready to respond to any danger arising on the borders or in areas of interest, such as the LoC (Line of Control) and the IOR. Subsequently, the Armed Forces' war-fighting capabilities have to be regularly augmented and fine-tuned according to the needs of the armed personnel and the circumstances they will face in and out of conflict. The technology in the weapons and equipment being delivered to the Armed Forces has to be constantly upgraded. Furthermore, a militarily self-reliant India will massively boost its political clout in the neighbourhood, which can positively alter its foreign policy in the international arena.
In order to utilise India’s budding indigenous sector, there is a dire need to strategically plan for and pragmatically invest in the long-term development of upgraded military equipment. Importations of military equipment offer temporary solutions rather than any long-term benefit. Therefore, imports need to be reduced gradually over the coming years, with extra emphasis on indigenisation.
Figure 2: From right, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh attend a joint news conference with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India, on Oct. 27.
But how can indigenisation take the centre stage in India? For starters, the government needs to create and nurture an ecosystem. It is a known fact that India possesses a massive youthful population with tremendous untapped potential. Therefore, education is one of the key contributors to indigenisation efforts. Furthermore, by forming an interdependent rapport with the private sector, industrial support, as well as research and development resources for innovative technology, could be made available.
Secondly, consistency in budget allocations and minor tweaks to the regulatory environment will create greater incentives for private sector investment in the Indian defence industry. There is a dire need for a symbiotic relationship to be formed within the Indian political leadership, with greater cooperation needed between the Ministry of Finance (MoF), the MoD, the Indian Armed Forces, the Indian government, and the private sector to guarantee an adequate defence budget, enough for technological procurement as well as for indigenous manufacturers. Allocation between revenue, capital expenditure, and pensions need to be refined. Furthermore, the practice of unspent capital expenditure being returned to the MoF needs to be done away with.
Thirdly, for indigenisation to succeed in India, cooperation with international allies can certainly help. Indigenisation is ultimately about self-reliance: the ability of a country to meet its own security needs. However, it is not synonymous with self-sufficiency, which reinforces the belief that India does not need to rely on external assistance for its military needs. Since India does not have adequate resources to embark on military self-sufficiency, cooperation is a viable solution. In early 2021, the United States and India concluded two additional so-called “foundational defense agreements.” It boosts defense and security cooperation between the two countries, and it has a deeper impact on India’s efforts at military indigenisation if utilised the correct way.
By sustaining support for high technology cooperation and co-development efforts, India can garner the required resources, in the guise of collaboration with the USA’s private military contractors, to realize the dream of “Aatmanirbhar Bharat”.
As mentioned before, indigenisation is a boon for India. Achieving self-reliance will help in achieving long-term goals and will help in cutting back the exorbitant expenditure paid for importations of military equipment. Additionally, boosted political clout as a result of indigenisation can help in India’s security and defence aspirations to be realized. For instance, India aims to be a preferred security partner in the IOR. An indigenously modernized Indian military can help in doing so.
India is lagging behind its adversaries. Not only does it need to gain distance, it needs to compete for a spot ahead and solidify pole position as soon as possible.
Currently pursuing his bachelor’s degree in International Relations at O.P Jindal Global University, Aryan Anand takes a keen interest in the field of public policy, with international history and security studies being some of his other passions. He can be contacted through his mail, firstname.lastname@example.org, or his Instagram profile, @lilpeanutbutterjelly.