Chandigarh: The hugely expensive and frenzied import of munitions, missiles, assorted ordnance and high altitude gear, amongst myriad other equipment for the Indian military, to counter the threat posed by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Ladakh, is hard to reconcile with the image of a world power that India likes to project for itself.
Aware of this reality, defence minister Rajnath Singh announced a new defence imports policy on Sunday in which the purchase of 101 weapons and military platforms from abroad would be phased by 2024. Just how successful this will be remains to be seen. But the self-reliance mantra has been chanted several times before, including by this government, with little to show by way of results.
Over decades, India has joined or associated itself with several esoteric ‘clubs’, mostly in the military, strategic and space arena, as part of its event management DNA in an endeavour to be acknowledged as a quantifiable power. But its handful of achievements, many of them impressive without doubt, have been disjointed, executed mostly in silos, with the consequent payback in domestic technological capability being in inverse proportion to all these vaunted accomplishments.
In 1974, for instance, India emerged as the world’s sixth atomic weapon state with its ludicrously-termed Peaceful Nuclear Explosion (PNE), and thereafter has secured analogous global ranking in designing, building and operating nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines or SSBNs. INS Arihant, the Indian Navy’s (IN’s) first locally developed SSBN – albeit with Russian assistance – was quietly commissioned exactly four years ago, and completed its first deterrence patrol around end-2018, thereby confirming India’s strategic triad.
Successfully test firing the indigenously developed Agni V intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) in 2012 to a distance of 5,000km, also propelled India into the exclusive long range missile club, comprising the five UN Security Council members – Britain, China, France, Russia and the US.
India was also the fourth country in the world, in March 2019, to successfully test-fire an indigenously developed anti-satellite (ASAT) missile, while its first unmanned moon mission 11 years earlier in 2008 made it the fifth nation – and ISRO the sixth space agency – to have attained this feat. And with Mangalyaan in late 2013, India was the sixth state globally to launch an exploratory mission to Mars.
“All these variegated achievements are spread thinly across the technological spectrum without any coordination to secure success in key thrust areas, especially with regard to enhancing the country’s overall military capability” said Amit Cowshish, former Ministry of Defence (MoD) financial advisor on acquisitions.
Unfortunately, these successes are isolated, he lamented, pertinently adding that India also qualifies for another major global distinction: as the world’s second largest arms importer for five years between 2014-19.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), India accounted for 9.2% of the total global arms imports during this period, despite its vast defence industrial base, again ranked amongst the world’s biggest.
This includes the government-run Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), with its network of 52 advanced and technologically accoutred laboratories, manned by some 5,000 military scientists and engineers, and a support staff of around 25,000 personnel. However, despite efforts in 2007-8 to restructure this mammoth and inefficiently run organisation to enhance accountability, augment private sector participation and overseas collaborations in developing weapon systems, little had changed and it continues to prove little of worth for the military.
The state-run Ordnance Factory Board, with 41 units that is Asia’s second largest after China, is another gargantuan entity with a workforce of over 100,000. Tasked with manufacturing military platforms, mostly for the army, like tanks, howitzers, transport and carrier vehicles, ammunition, missiles, small arms, explosives, rockets and other equipment and ordnance, the OFB is currently awaiting corporatisation. Many MoD and industry officials believe this amendment, announced recently by the Centre will not only take time, but do little to augment the OFBs questionable efficiency.
Alongside are the nine defence public sector units – including Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) that is ranked 45th amongst the world’s top 100 defence companies – all of which are tasked with developing and series-producing a range of weaponry and platforms for all three services. Other than licence-producing combat aircraft and helicopters and constructing warships for the Indian Navy, the DPSU’s are also involved in making diverse materiel, components, sub-assembles and sundry service kit.
At a cursory glance, this curriculum vitiate of India’s defence industrial base (DIB) is formidable.
But in essence, senior military officials said, they had collectively failed in satisfactorily fulfilling the Indian military’s operational requirements, on and off the battlefield, necessitating import dependency. The involvement of the private sector to dilute the monopolistic state-run DIB enterprises, which began hesitatingly after 2001, has only made incremental progress, too wrapped up by the hidebound MoD in bureaucratic procedures and waffling.
This applies particularly to basic and straightforward items like high altitude winter clothing, small arms like assault rifles, carbines, sniper rifles and sub-machine guns, all of which need, for now, to be imported.
Almost four decades after the Indian Army took control of the Siachen Glacier in 1984, for instance, it continues to import the bulk of warm clothing for its personnel deployed between 12,000 and 18,000 feet in the Himalayan wasteland. Nightly temperatures here average around minus 20 degrees Celsius, dropping to minus 35 and 40 degrees Celsius in winter. The wind chill factor in the gale-like winds that nightly lash Siachen’s glacial heights, plummets to a daunting minus 50 degrees Celsius, say officers who have served in the area.
Deposing before the parliamentary standing committee on defence, that tabled its report in parliament last December, an army representative informed the MPs panel that some 80% of the three-layered special clothing, with thermal insulation, used by soldiers at these climatically murderous heights, continues to be imported.
Astonishingly, for a country up there, with its technological achievements comparable with the world’s greatest as enumerated earlier, the officer goes on to state, as noted by the standing committee, that “there is no indigenous capability existing in India to make it (high altitude clothing).” Attempts to locally source such kit, known as Special Clothing and Mountaineering Equipment (SCME), he regretted, had not met with the army’s ‘acceptable standards’.
In its report, the committee, as always, routinely called upon the MoD to explore the possibility of locally developing capability to manufacture this clothing, in order to obviate imports and to customise the product to Indian Army needs. Perhaps, the MoD’s newly enunciated atamnirbhar initiative will spur the production of home-grown SCME that many clothing manufacturers claim is not at all a difficult task.
The experiences of an MoD official who travelled to several European countries some years ago to inspect the manufacturing and testing facilities for SCME, ahead of finalising winter clothing contracts for the army, are apposite in this instance as an explanation of why these imports endure.
A Swiss vendor, who was a regular SCME supplier to the army, told the MoD officer that he had advised the ministry in New Delhi that most of this high altitude gear could easily be made indigenously. He indicated his willingness to the MoD to collaborate in the proposed effort and to domestically kickstart winter clothing units.
Thereafter, he said that the MoD continually prevaricated, before eventually letting the proposal lapse. But in a telling, and somewhat embarrassing comment, the Swiss dealer candidly told the visiting official that had the project materialised, Indian MoD and army officials would have no need to visit European countries to procure the SCME.
The Swiss dealer was spot-on, as high altitude clothing procurement missions continued uninterruptedly. Till the early 2000’s, official sources said the MoD had a policy of stockpiling SCME as buffer stock, but this practice was discontinued some years ago, due to a financial resource crunch. It, however, multiplied visits by Indian officials to Europe to make ‘urgent” SCME purchases.
Presently, the MoD is seeking to procure huge amounts of SCME, including Arctic tents, snow goggles, layered gloves, thermal socks, snow boots, carabiners or shackles, crampons and ice picks, amongst other gear for over 20,000 additional army troops, likely to be deployed along disputed the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh, October onwards till next summer.
Industry sources said all this costly apparatus is likely to be acquired off the shelf from European suppliers to outfit Indian soldiers ranged against the far better equipped and infrastructured PLA, during those six bleak winter months at heights of averaging 14,000 feet.
India’s world standing in multifarious fields, however, will provide these beleaguered troops little solace.