Price and Perils of Atmanirbharta Defence Capability

Sub Title : There is a need to pause and review some of the policy decisions

Issues Details : Vol 17 Issue 1 Mar – Apr 2023

Author : Lt Gen Sanjay Verma, PVSM, AVSM, VSM and Bar (Retd)

Page No. : 50

Category : Military Technology

: March 25, 2023

AatmaNirbhar Bharat is a laudable initiative as it meets the aspirations of the fast developing nation; self-reliance in defence being a major part of the overall ambition. This has led to a flurry of actions and reforms in the military acquisition process during the past few years. Lt Gen Verma examines the reforms in detail and suggests that there is a need to pause and review some of the policy decisions as a hasty implementation may result in creating capability voids within the military.

The distinct impetus towards Atmanirbharta and Make in India drive steered so emphatically by none other than the Hon’ble Prime Minister is something which is not debateable nor requires an endorsement from any quarter. There may be issues with respect to different perspectives towards attaining self-sufficiency, self-reliance and still remaining relevant in the global trade nor risk getting isolated in the global supply chain linkages but the core essence of looking up at a home-grown solution with pride is undisputable. This has great significance and bearing in the crucial defence sector which carries the tag of being one of the largest importers of defence systems for years. Thus, this sector has to be the flag bearer of removing dependence from abroad and demonstrate ability to build up credible capability from within.

Over past few years there has been a slow and steady but visible drive towards ushering in a new dawn in the landscape of the Indian defence industrial base. The calibrated and incremental reforms are reflective of being part of a well-coordinated plan and have encompassed all relevant aspects, be it reforms in organisational structures, government investments, emphasis on indigenisation, export promotion or enhanced private industry participation. The visible steps include corporatisation of the Ordnance Factory Board, setting up of dedicated defence industrial corridors in UP and TN, notification of four positive lists of indigenisation of weapons & platforms, enhancement of FDI limit from 49 to 74% under automatic route and 100% under government route.  A new DAP 2020 was also unveiled based on the tenets of Atmanirbhar Bharat. As a logical continuum some more bold announcements as part of the defence budget 2022-23 were to reassure the resolve and intent of the government in achieving the stated goal.

While this is praiseworthy, the related price and perils the defence services will have to bear due to the haste of reforms may cause an imbalance and needs to be reined in. The recent unfortunate loss of two pilots in a Cheetah crash near Bomdila on 16 Mar 23 is yet another reminder of the declining state of weapons and platforms well over their service life and being pulled beyond their capacity.

Defence capability building for any nation is a complex process. This is relevant in our case too and the planning process is under a transformation which is overlooking migration from a traditional 15-year Long Term Integrated Perspective Plan towards a capability-based planning process of 10 years in the form of an Integrated Capability Development plan. The track record of implementation of the five-year plans over the past years including the current thirteenth plan 2017-22 is not something to be flaunted. In the backdrop of this the formulation and roll out of the schemes for acquisition under the capital route is a laborious process from planning to ‘Acceptance of Necessity’ and through the maze of essential processes to its culmination. Any derailment in this process is fraught with delays. Therefore, if a robust indigenous capability has to be developed with enabling policies, procedures, environment and intent, the manifestation of the same will be in the next seven to ten years timeframe if not more.

The biggest challenge the defence services face is to find means and solutions to mitigate the existing capability voids for which replacements plans were initiated years back and which are in advanced stages of the acquisition cycle have had to face the new rules of business. How do the services, in particular the Indian Army,  gear up to face this transition phase in the wake of a total ban on imports including ongoing cases and cope with the impact which goes beyond combating challenges of the impending threats to sustenance, training and budget utilisation?  This does need elaboration. The genesis perhaps was encapsulated in the India Today article “A call to Indigenous Arms” of 7 Feb 22 with clear intent for ‘no more imports of defence equipment’. The article referred to the initiatives of ‘Make in India’ in the past few years to be a non -starter and an attempt to reboot the same by the government, setting the roadmap for defence acquisitions over the next few years. All in right spirit and intent but a look at the the ‘Hit List’ from the same article wherein off the shelf purchases with zero Make in India component or transfer of technology came up for review or have been axed have had immense repercussions. An army centric list, it included the Ka-226T Helicopters, Very Short-Range Air Defence Systems, Quick Reaction Surface to Air Missiles from Russia, Air Defence Gun Missiles Systems from Korea and 155mm Towed Gun System from Israel. A formidable array as far as capability potential is concerned and more so if one looks at the overall budgetary envelope these schemes carried – a whopping Rs 50,000 Cr or more in total.

The need for a make in India footprint or transfer of technology in such big-ticket acquisitions is imperative and hence if this is the sole reason for a reconsideration in national interest, so be it. The cases were part of a well deliberated planning process and painfully put through the acquisition cycle over past few years including trials and evaluation. None of these cases had been adversely commented upon in open domain for procedural or any other infirmity. How come such big procurement proposals were initiated without guarding interests of the domestic defence industry eco system or technology sharing? How come they were inordinately delayed despite being at the brink of fructification?  Dispelling the myth that the services have a penchant for foreign platforms, some of these cases had concurrent approvals for bulk domestic procurement and only few critical quantities were being sought through global route.

So, while these need to be introspected it is important to analyse as to what are the fallouts? Elementary and simply stated the following stand out: –

  • Impact on Capability or Operational Readiness. Out of the Hit List, be it Aviation assets, Air Defence Systems or Artillery Guns there has not been any potent accretion in capabilities over past few decades and therefore it will be with lot of operational stress and ingenuity in equipment sustenance that the desired ends will be met. Aviation for replacement of conventional light helicopters have had no induction and so is the case in Air Defence profile where sustenance issues and challenges will be formidable. Further, be it Aviation or Air Defence there are no immediate cases which may fill the gap other than some DRDO projects. The Artillery has been long awaiting the induction of Dhanush Guns which despite carrying a Make in India label are not in the delivery promise and the project needs a serious appraisal if the Make in India has to succeed. The M 777 Howitzer and K 9 Vajra in different genre have been inducted and the DRDO led Industry case of Advanced Towed Artillery Gun Systems (ATAGS) also holds promise. Enhanced quantities for ATAGS and K9 Vajra accepted for acquisitions sound good. But the time frame for deliveries to start and tactical deployment of the same is clearly a long way ahead.

Unfortunately, the overall perspective of the Indian Army capability enhancement is marred by a skewed equipment holding towards vintage rather than a contemporary or state of the art profile, barring a few acqisitions to modernise the inventory.

The recurring recourse to Emergency Procurements in the past few years does not augur well but will consolidate the concern. Euphoric exhortations of procurements through this route do not mitigate the voids and at best plug limited vulnerabilities and enable a short-term localised edge. These accretions in limited quantities will have sustenance issues besides technology obsolescence in an earlier timeframe resulting in voids once over again. Is there an operational philosophy enunciated for deployment and exploitation of such off the shelf procurements?

  • Diminished Capacity to Utilise Capital Budget. It may seem innocuous, but the allocation and utilisation of Defence Capital Budget has different dynamics. For the records, a major chunk of the Capital budget constitutes of Committed Liabilities of contracts concluded over previous years as against the actual acquisitions done in the current Financial Year which will absorb at the maximum of 10-15% or so as advances against contracts concluded. However, as no major big-ticket import or domestic contracts have fructified in recent years it will clearly impact the utilisation of Capital Budget allocated. The modernisation budget share if seen in terms of percentage of Capital Outlay Budget Capital for Army has always been the least in almost all years in preceding decade and stands at 18.48% in budget allocation of 2023-24 as against 30.35% and 32.52%  for the Navy and Air Force. Closure of the cases in progress worth Rs 50,000 Cr and upwards  not only limit but diminish the capacity to absorb allocations over next many years because of reduced Committed Liabilities. After all there is a limit on capacity of fresh contracts executed and expenditure thereupon due to the dynamics of cases in pipeline and outgo linked with a fresh case. Clearly the Navy and Air Force committed liabilities are more than the Army! So evidently the dynamics of Capital allocation and utilisation need a long-term vision and balancing cases in each Financial Year. Some have advocated the concept of non-lapsable for defence and while it may be an option but it gets defeated when case being processed for years is closed.
  • Risk Mitigation Strategy – Options and Avenues. Decisions taken in national interest are not to be questioned and if what is in open domain with respect to the existing capability of various weapons and fighting platforms is correct, the need for risk mitigation and options and avenues for way ahead becomes a purpose for all stakeholders involved in national security. A look at the ‘Hit List’ and other cases indicate that the capability building was on track albeit marred by delays and procedural inertia. There was however a thrust in the right direction more so when as mentioned earlier domestic avenue was concurrently on track be it Artillery Guns, QRSAM, Light Utility Helicopters, ATGMs and so on. Rightly so some of the cases intended to partially make up the voids-initiated years ago had reached a fructification stage and could have been signed but now a review changes the landscape. So, neither the imports nor any immediate domestic solution in sight for induction in next five years horizon puts up a grim scenario and throws up challenges. The enhanced share of domestic allocation of the defence budget and for R&D are steps in the right direction, but to begin with there have to be cases with the Indian private industry to utilise the enhanced allocation. Unfortunately that is not the case.

Thus, there is a need to focus on options available and prioritisation of avenues. Broadly a holistic strategy with a ‘Whole of Nation’ approach will need to be adopted. Salient aspects which stand out are: –

  • Robust Sustenance Framework of in-service Equipment. There is no alternative to enhance the lifespan of existing assets and ensure high availability state. The vulnerability and uncertainty in supply chain stands amplified due to ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict. The Integrated Sustenance Infrastructure needs to be preserved and the precarious path of Government Owned Company Operated (GOCO) concept for Army Base Workshops should be reviewed and tread with utmost diligence and care.
  • Capability and Capacity. The technological capability and the production capacity within the country has to gear up for meeting the requirements in coming decade. This will help in drawing out a pragmatic prioritisation plan for acquisition and allocation of resources.
  • Overcome Procedural Inertia.

– The procedural inertia is extremely hard to overcome despite the reforms or procedural overhauls. Make I from an initial ‘Approval in Principle’ to a ‘Project Sanction Order’ stage has a stipulated timeline of almost two years followed with development of prototype, trials and evaluation, placement of orders and then the deliveries- a clear minimum of five year plus span. The Make II cases already in pipeline will be a ready reference to evaluate the type of timelines envisaged and fulfilled.

– The government has initiated bold steps for policy and procedural reforms. This is time to take a pause and implement the same in right spirit. There is a need of an Organisational Structure Reform for acquisitions. The fragmented structure existing across various stakeholders is the proverbial Achilees’ heel. This contributes to a lack of coherence where in-spite of incremental policy and procedural reforms the results on ground are far from satisfactory.

  • Technology Update and Operational Voids. There is a need to review all the procurement cases in view of the current technology readiness levels, operational voids, threat perspective and the acquisition categorisation routes. Based on this the way ahead for Make I, Make II or Design & Development will emerge. Here the enabling budgetary provisions for R&D allocation to private industry and establishment of Special Purpose Vehicles will play a crucial role. Some cases like QRSAM, MPATGM, Artillery Guns, Radars, LRSAM, AMCA, Conventional Submarines amongst others are in an advanced stage with DRDO. The industry would do well to partner with DRDO and get into bulk production mode from the prototype.
  • Family of Platforms. The thought process for capability building will also have to graduate from an individual platform concept to a family of platforms and to theatre specific parameters. Take the case of a Light Tank recently accorded Approval in Principle for Make I. Now there is also a need for an Infantry Combat Vehicle, Future Main Battle Tank, Recce & Support Vehicles etc. Isn’t there an interplay of operational capabilities, technology enablers, common development drivers and life cycle sustenance mechanisms? Therefore, a family of platforms concept has to be evolved and unveiled as an “Integrated Mechanised and Armour Platform Development Programme” very much on the lines of Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme which has done the country proud. A task force constitution for such projects would be in order comprising of operational/domain experts, technology leaders and programme development and production managers otherwise a cohesive approach will be lacking.

In summation

There is not much by way of options be it short term or long term given the propensity and dynamics of defence acquisition cycle and more so when we are not talking about readymade solutions but tailor-made solutions to suit our geographical conditions, technical requirements against the operational spectrum. To summarize these: –

Short Term

  • Preserve capabilities with a robust sustenance framework of in-service equipment,
  • Pragmatic review of voids along with technology enablers in terms of force multipliers and synergy of capabilities,
  • Suo Moto proposals from the industry which show promise should be promoted,
  • DRDO cases in advanced stages should be taken up with spiral development,
  • Procedural inertia should be an anathema. Organisational structure reform is a dire need of the hour,
  • Clear delineation of projects earmarked for private or public industry and Design & Development through DRDO to avoid duplicity driven by a tendency to encourage competition and better product.

Long Term

  • Investment in R&D by private industry,
  • Long term vision of equipment profile with foreseeable upgrades to the industry instead of getting stuck in an RFIRFP cycle,
  • Formation of SPVs in collaboration to drive projects harnessing strengths of stakeholders,
  • Expanding the capacity constraints by promoting Defence Corridors,
  • Build up a family of platforms concept for reducing supply chains and inventories,
  • Integration of industry in life cycle sustenance and performance based logistics thereby reducing footprints of extended support echelons.

This is a new era for the defence industry landscape of the country wherein some harsh measures coupled with a slew of industry friendly initiatives assiduously driven along with policy and procedural reforms can lead towards a self-reliant India and with formidable home-grown defence capability. Allocating responsibilities and accountability aspects need no emphasis and some bold decision making can make the price and perils of Atmanirbharta journey seem relatively insignificant.