Defence Industry

Defence Research : India's Achilles Heel
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Issue Vol 25.3 Jul-Sep2010 | Date : 06 Oct , 2010

The typical decision making loop went about something like this,

  • The armed forces made threat assessments based on inputs from external affairs ministry, intelligence agencies and its own assessments.
  • Based on the threat assessments it worked out the kind of force levels and equipment that is needed to counter these threats.
  • These demands were then placed to the political head for considerations.

The DRDO came into picture at this stage and would be charged with fulfilling the needs. To justify its existence and get budgetary support, the DRDO often made tall promises and accepted impossible qualitative requirements and deadlines. In reality the process works in even more bizarre fashion. The technologically innocent staffs at the service headquarters consult glossy foreign magazines, look at the adversary nation’s armaments and formulate requirements that would give us a superior system. Thus the so called qualitative requirements often ended up with marrying the Russian ruggedness with Western sophistication and would demand a system that defies laws of science.

The inability of the DRDO to deliver is virtually preordained and leads to the demand by the forces for imports. It is easy to criticise the forces for their inability to promote and encourage indigenous research and development and opt for imported systems. But it must be remembered that the job of the armed forces is to defend the country and not promote indigenous research. Generally a compromise is worked out that sanctions limited imports to meet minimum needs and simultaneously continue with the DRDO effort. This has had one terrible consequence, forever concerned with shortage of equipment; the armed forces have been sacrificing lives to conserve equipment. Lives are cheap, equipment costly and unavailable.

A slight variation of the above scenario is agreement for licence production or the latest buzz word-offset… ie making some parts of the equipment in India. In all these permutation and combinations, where is research or development?

Vested Interest and Corruption

Some time in early 1970s, as the Indian policies lurched to left, open donation to political parties were banned. But political parties need funds to fight elections and there is no public funding of candidates in India. It is a well observed fact that huge amounts are spent in each elections ye the source of these funds remain a mystery. The defence deals are ideal for kickbacks and fundraising since the amount involved are huge, in billions of dollars and the transaction can be kept hidden from public on grounds of security. It is reported that Indians hold the largest deposits in Swiss banks estimated to be in excess of $ 800 billion or more. It may well turn out that the largest chunk of these funds are defence kickbacks and are possibly held by political operators. The reluctance of the govt of India to make any serious efforts to either track down these funds or get them repatriated, tells its own story.

The vested interest in import of defence equipment makes sure that there is little incentive to reform the system of defence research and development since that would undercut a major source of political finance. Thus the vicious cycle of dependency continues. In this game there appears to be a consensus amongst the political parties across the divide for no serious effort was made to reform the system even when the current opposition party was in power.

The politician can get away with this crime since as mentioned earlier that the common man is least interested in matters of defence except in times of war. The politicians also believe that it is a risk free approach since many of them are pacifists who abhor war and conflict. In fact the general atmosphere in the country is such that it is easy to hoodwink people and pass of inefficiency in defence as desire for peace. George Washington’s famous saying that if you want peace be prepared for war, has not many takers in Gandhi’s India.

The research component of the DRDO should be separated and attached to various and IITs and its newer avatars. This will help to fulfill the original conception of the IITs as MIT (of the USA) like powerhouse of generating technology and not graduate producing factories “¦

In 1991, India abandoned the earlier ‘licence permit raj’ and embraced major economic reforms that brought in private sector in to main-stream and encouraged competition. India reaped the fruits of this development and its economy has been consistently growing at 6 to 7 percent per annum, nearly double of the earlier much derided ‘Hindu Rate of Growth of 3.5 percent’. Yet it would be fair to say that these winds of change have hardly been felt in the defence sector. If one is to be reminded that close to 40 percent of national budget is devoted to defence, this inaction is strange to say the least. This again reinforces the point that vested political, bureaucratic and corrupt interests have kept the defence sector from much needed reforms. Given the perilous security situation that India finds itself in today, surrounded by failed states and object of machinations by a rising super power, this inaction could well cause us to lose our freedom, again.

An Action Plan

The picture painted in this article may well appear to be excessively gloomy, but the situation is indeed ripe for major change and leap to revolutionise our age old weakness. We are fortunate to have a squeaky clean Defence Minister, our private sector has come of age, we have a world class IT industry and a skilled manpower that has shown our prowess in making world class products at the lowest cost.

But to reap the benefits of our assets there has to be clear understanding of role of innovation, research and development. The three are distinctly different functions and one of the major drawbacks of our system has been to centralise them under the DRDO.

Let us take the issue of innovation and incremental improvements in existing products, be they small arms or aircraft or any other platforms. The need is to breakup the DRDO monolith and attach the personnel dealing with say small arms to the production factories. Here they must work in close co-ordination with the shop floor workers and engineers. A direct link must also be established between the manufacturers and users. For instance we introduced (finally) the INSAS (Infantry Small Arms System) that has been under trial since the late 1980s. One is yet to see an improved version of the same even after a decade. This will considerably shorten the time of productionising the newer versions.

The issue of research is more difficult to resolve. Thomas S Kuhn, 4the American philosopher of science in his work on scientific revolution, emphasizes decentralized structures. In India we copied the Soviet model and created vast scientific bureaucracies with hierarchical institutions. It is time research activity is diffused and decentralized to universities and other learning institutes. Only at the level of production process is centralization needed. The research component of the DRDO should be separated and attached to various and IITs and its newer avatars. This will help to fulfill the original conception of the IITs as MIT (of the USA) like powerhouse of generating technology and not graduate producing factories as they have become today.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Col Anil Athale

former Joint Director War History Division, Min of Defence. Currently co-ordinator of Pune based think tank 'Inpad' that is affiliated with Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.  Also military historian and Kashmir watcher for last 28 years. He has authored book ‘Let the Jhelum Smile Again’ and ‘Nuclear Menace the Satyagraha Approach’ published in 1996, and ‘Quest for Peace: Studies in Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies' as a Chatrapati Shivaji fellow of the USI.

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