Why It’s Time for a Reality Check on ‘Atmanirbharta’ in India’s Defence Manufacturing

Amid the government's lofty aims on 'Atmanirbharta' initiative, the long list of imported small arms and platforms deployed by the army along the LAC appears somewhat incongruous.

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Chandigarh: Amid the government’s ‘Atmanirbharta’ initiative to increasingly source materiel indigenously for India’s armed forces, the long list of imported small arms and platforms deployed by the Indian Army along the disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Arunachal Pradesh, appears somewhat incongruous.

Even the odd domestically obtained platform, issued alongside infantry units in the tactically located Rear of Arunachal Pradesh or RALP area adjoining the LAC, is believed to be fitted with a critical imported component, without which it would be inoperative.

According to media reports, senior Indian Army officers told a group of visiting reporters last week that infantry personnel in the RALP sector had received 716 US-origin Sig Sauer assault rifles, Israeli Negev N-7 light machine guns (LMGs) and licence-built Swedish Carl Gustaf Mk3 84mm rocket launchers. The Indian Army had bought 72,400 ‘Patrol’ 7.62x51mm Sig Sauer assault rifles for around Rs 700 crore in 2019 and 16,749 Negev NG-7 LMGs from Israel Weapon Industries a year later, for Rs 880 crore, at a time when the ‘Atmanirbharta’ scheme was well on its way.

The rifle and LMG imports, via the Ministry of Defence’s fast track procurement route, became imperative after the army had earlier rejected both weapon systems designed, over several decades, by the Defence and Research Development Organisation (DRDO) for being ‘operationally deficient’. Sweden’s Mk3 84mm Carl Gustaf rocket launcher variants, on the other hand, currently operational in the RALP region, were licence-built locally under a transfer of technology from original equipment manufacturer (OEM), Saab Bofors Dynamics.

Two other principal platforms employed in the RALP region, which the Indian Army proudly showcased, too were imported. These comprised BAE Systems M777 155mm/39 caliber lightweight howitzers, of which India acquired 145 from the US in 2016 for $737 million, and CH-47F Chinook heavy-lift helicopters from the US’s Boeing, of which 15 were procured in fly-away condition, a year earlier, for around $1.5 billion for the Indian Air Force.

The Indian Army also told reporters that it had deployed unidentified US-origin all-terrain vehicles in the RALF zone, besides Stealth Wing Flying Testbed, or SWIFT, vertical take-off and landing hybrid tactical drones, designed by a Mumbai-based private vendor, which were reportedly powered by Russian NPO Saturn’s 36 MT turbofan engines.

Also read: The Myth of Atmanirbhar Bharat in Defence Manufacturing

The above list has been enumerated to merely iterate the reality, endorsed by a cross-section of senior service officers, that the Indian military will remain steadfastly dependent on imported materiel for the medium term, over the next five to seven years, if not longer. In other instances, this reliance could extend much longer, especially with regard to larger and operationally indispensable advanced platforms and sundry sophisticated equipment, needed for deployment along the restive and disputed borders with China and Pakistan.

“Keeping this unembellished reality in mind, it remains incumbent on the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the respective services to accept the actuality that ‘Atmanirbharta’ simply cannot deliver dividends instantly,” said Brigadier Rahul Bhonsle (retired) of the Security Risk consultancy in New Delhi. There needs to be an all-round reality check that ‘Atmanirbharta’ will only make the speed [of the process] slow, as it is a costly, lengthy and painstaking exercise, he cautioned.

Other defence analysts concurred.

Representative image. Credit: PTI/Atul Yadav

Lofty aims and narrow achievements

“From being the world’s largest importer of defence equipment between 2017-21, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), it’s disingenuous for the MoD to peddle the unworkable narrative that India will miraculously become ‘Atmanirbahar’ swiftly in its materiel requirements,” said Amit Cowshish, former MoD financial advisor on acquisitions.

For ‘Atmanirbharta’ to effectively transpire, he advised, what’s needed is the formulation of realistic equipment qualitative requirements by the three services and, above all, more flexible and pragmatic MoD procurement procedures, especially those concerning technology transfers from OEMs to indigenous private and state-owned entities.

A cross-section of domestic materiel vendors, on whom devolves the responsibility to vindicate ‘Atmanirbharta’, too privately admitted that the MoD was ‘over-hyping’ its lofty aims and narrow achievements, given the ‘limited’ technological capabilities available locally. They maintained that while indigenising defence equipment was a long-deferred priority, it needed to incorporate an ‘element of practicality’ and an economy of scale bereft of ‘optics’ to be effective. It also needed less rigid and complex bureaucratic procedures, which together, were ‘hobbling’ the ‘Atmanirbharta’ endeavour, especially with regard to accessing critical foreign technologies.

Besides, to expect private domestic manufacturers, especially those from the micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME) sector to produce numerically small numbers of sundry components, sub-assemblies and related kit was, in many instances, commercially unviable.

Cowshish agreed with this observation, arguing that there was no available evidence that indigenisation was cheaper, especially of items that were either required infrequently, or in small numbers and that in many instances importing them, like previously, would be considerably cheaper. Besides, the lack of guarantees by the MoD or the respective services for recurring orders for these items was another commercial hazard adversely impacting ‘Atmanirbharta’, the former MoD acquisitions adviser added.

“The MoD expects us to produce many items in limited, or at times, even in minute numbers cheaply, which makes little business logic, given the considerable investments needed to execute these orders,” said an executive from a private sector armament company in western India. But to amortise our costs, we either need larger orders, or alternately we should be allowed to compromise on quality, like the former Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat had suggested to make it financially viable, he said, declining to be named for fear of inviting MoD censure.

He was referring to the late CDS who had said in May 2020 that the armed forces needed to ‘handhold’ domestic industry, even if they delivered weapon systems with only 70% of the qualitative requirements framed by them. Thereafter, local manufacturers would eventually deliver cutting edge technology, General Rawat had told the Times of India, adding that the armed forces often framed ‘unrealistic qualitative requirements’ for weapon systems that precluded their timely delivery by domestic vendors.

Also read: Positive Indigenisation Lists and the Truth About India’s Self-Reliance in Defence Equipment

Since August 2020, the MoD has, at regular intervals, announced six ‘positive indigenisation lists’, or public interest litigations banning the import of 1,548 items, including 310 major platforms and other assorted gear. The latter catalogue included several helicopter types, lightweight tanks, field artillery, assorted small arms including assault rifles and sniper rifles, missiles, varied ammunition, among others, all of which are to be progressively developed and manufactured domestically over the next two to six years. Domestic vendors were permitted to forge joint ventures and collaborative arrangements with OEMs for this purpose.

However, of the remaining 1,238 miscellaneous items, many were low-technology line replacement units (LRUs), sub-systems and components, like eight different pipe-bleed air systems, five types of flexible shafts and backlit panels, and 11 categories of slide and swivel joints. Other run-of-the-mill items encompassed speed indicators, compressors, cooling and lubrication systems, wiper blades and safety valves and digital intercom handsets.

Incredulously, the list even comprised a clock for the Dornier Do-228 twin-turboprop short-take-off-and-landing aircraft, which has been licence-produced by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) in Bengaluru since 1983. Equally unbelievably, variants of the same item were categorised separately, presumably in a bid by the MoD to inflate its vaunted PIL to signify enhanced indigenisation, in a move that hoodwinks no domestic manufacturer.

But that is not all, as in a blaze of glowing media publicity, the MoD flaunted an even more embarrassing sub-list, specifying 2,500 items which had been successfully indigenised. This incorporated diverse nuts, bolts, screws, washers, hoses, sealing rings, valves, nozzles and pipes, among other miscellaneous dry sealing rings, rivets and clamps. “Obviously, the MoD has set its sights somewhat lower in an effort at displaying diligence in achieving ‘Atmanirbharta’,” said a retired two-star Indian Army officer. Its inventory of achievements is downright embarrassing, he added, declining to be named.

Meanwhile, on the wider aspect of indigenously manufacturing larger platforms in conjunction with overseas OEMs, the MoD continued to persist with restrictive and hidebound processes with regard to technology transfers in critical areas. Space restrictions prohibit the computation of all such snafus, but the most recent one regarding the long-delayed Project 75-India (P-75I) programme to indigenously build six ‘hunter-killer’ diesel-electric conventional submarines (SSKs), remains typical and instructive.

Impediments continue to plague this vital submarine programme, which first received MoD approval in 2007 and several times thereafter, when its validity expired due to inexplicable deferrals by both the Indian Navy and the MoD. The P-75I programme involves one of two indigenous shipbuilders – Mazagaon Dockyard Limited (MDL) and Larsen & Toubro – tying up with an overseas SSK OEM to build the six boats, desperately needed by the Indian Navy that faces a worrying shortfall in its underwater assets.

However, even the two, of some seven foreign SSK makers, presently in the reckoning for the P-75I programme, were in talks with the Indian Navy to ‘moderate’ its qualitative requirements for the proposed six boats with air independent propulsion and land-attack capability. Recent media reports have revealed that Germany’s ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems and South Korea’s Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering had also petitioned the MoD to reconsider the draft contract which stipulated that the shortlisted OEM would be responsible for the finished boats, without providing any executive control to the shipyard that would eventually build the SSK’s.

Senior military officials said that such an ‘impracticable’ stipulation by the MoD was previously responsible for scrapping the contract for 126 French Rafale medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) in 2015, of which 108 fighters were expected to be made by HAL in a transfer of technology from France’s Dassault.

Russia recently became the fifth country to opt out of the P-75I tender due to what one of its senior defence officials said was its ‘unworkable’ design and operational parameters, specific timeline restrictions, and eventually, platform quality control and delivery liabilities. Earlier, after the Indian Navy’s request for information and subsequent expression of interest for the programme were dispatched, Japan, Spain and Sweden, too, had declined to participate for broadly similar reasons.

Perhaps, it’s time for the MoD and the services to infuse an overarching reality check to fast-track ‘Atmanirbharta’, as importing materiel to manage enduring security threats is no longer an option.