The recent Galwan valley faceoff in Ladakh brought to the fore the momentous shift in policy, posturing and power of India when it comes to China, relative to the situation in 1962 in Nehru’s India. A strong and yet measured military response by the Fire and Fury Corps of the Indian Army to the misadventures of Chinese troops in Galwan Valley, assertiveness by Indian defence forces, diplomats and politicians, cancellation of tenders and deals with Chinese entities in railways and communications, and the banning of well-known Chinese apps such as TikTok.
This may have been India on a measured offensive, but the brazen attempts at intrusion by the Chinese in Ladakh brought two worrying issues to light: the major power gradient in Asia between India and China, and the willingness of China to use its clout, on the ground and off it, to make its points and assertions heard. This clout stems from myriad sources: from its preeminent position in world geopolitics to its investments across the globe (and the economic clout thereof) to its troops on the ground. While India has been fast catching up in the first two, the last avenue of power-dynamics needs a little more work, as I see it.
The challenge India faces from its neighbourhood on the ground is significant, with China, Nepal and Pakistan recently posturing aggressively against India. China has been misusing the ambiguity of the border between India and China with around 23 disputed regions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) to its advantage for decades, with them going so far as to claim even the undisputed and very-much-Indian Galwan Valley as their own this time!
Next only to the United States and Russia, the Chinese military today continues to grow alongside a local expanding Military-Industrial Complex. For 2020, China received a Global Firepower (GFP) PwrIndx of 0.0691 (with 0 being considered perfect) and is ranked 3rd in the world. They have 26,93,000 total military personnel, 1,232 fighter jets, 281 attack helicopters, 3,500 tanks, 33,000 armoured vehicles, 3,800 self-propelled artillery, 3,600 towed artillery, 2,650 rocket projectors, 2 aircraft carriers, 36 destroyers, 52 frigates, 50 corvettes, 74 submarines and defence budget of $237 billion.
On the other hand, we have a GFP PwrIndx of 0.0953, with 35,44,000 total military personnel, 538 fighter jets, 23 attack helicopters, 4292 tanks, 8686 armoured vehicles, 235 self-propelled artillery, 4060 towed artillery, 266 rocket projectors, 1 aircraft carrier, 10 destroyers, 13 frigates, 19 corvettes, 16 submarines and a defence budget of $61 billion. The United States and Russia still sit on the top of the ladder with GFP PwrIndx of 0.0606 and 0.0681 respectively. Pakistan has a GFP PwrIndx of 0.2364 and is 15th in the world, Bangladesh has a GFP PwrIndx of 0.7066 and is 46th in the world, and Nepal has a GFP PwrIndx of 2.9891 and is ranked 122nd in the world.
While the military strength of India gives us the capability to handle the threats from any hostile neighbours ourselves, especially with the cold-start doctrine and the aversion to ‘hot war’ due to nuclear deterrents in the hands of India, China and Pakistan, there is one glaring issue that needs to be addressed to help bridge any military power gradients, especially between India and China – the indigenization of military equipment and defence infrastructure. This is the key to self-sufficiency and building strategic capability. In light of the Galwan Valley and Pangong Tso lake faceoff in Ladakh, India sought its defence purchases to be supplied by their allies such as France with a sense of urgency. However, the time between when that actually happens to a possible later escalation or a second standoff with China over Pangong Tso or Galwan valley leaves us in a precarious situation.
While war must be averted at all costs, one must be ready and equipped with the necessary equipment, weaponry and infrastructure to stand up against any level of escalation by an increasingly brutish People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China). The Indian defence-industry complex has developed significantly over the past few decades. As per the Defence Production Policy of 2018 (DPrP-2018), the Indian defence industry has a goal of becoming among the top 5 global producers of the aerospace and defence manufacturing with an export target of $5 billion per annum by 2025.
As per Colonel Bikramdeep Singh (Senior Fellow, Centre for Land Warfare Studies), in his work published in the CLAWs journal in 2013, the Self-Reliance Index (SRI), defined as the ratio of indigenous defence procurements to the total expenditure on defence procurements in one financial year is only 0.3. India was also the largest importer of arms, by value, having imported 12% of the total global arms imports, for the period between 2013 and 2017. It’s quite an irony that even though India is among the top 15 producers of defence hardware internationally, the existing defence industrial base is still unable to meet the requirements of equipment, ammunition and infrastructure of our armed forces.
However, things have changed in recent times, for the better, with the Make in India initiative by the Narendra Modi government. Under the aegis of this flagship programme, the development of a roadmap for promoting indigenisation and self-reliance in defence, efforts to reduce red-tapism and bureaucratic delays to increase ease of doing business in the defence sector, the establishment of Defence Corridors (in Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu) for the creation the of a Defence Industrial Complex and replacement of the Wassenaar Arrangement List of Munitions with a Defence Products List that helped private-sector entities to help produce defence equipment were some of the measures taken.
Research and Development in the defence sector in India has grown significantly over the decades, with DRDO developing indigenous products like the BRAHMOS (a universal long-range supersonic cruise missile system that can be launched from land, sea and air), AKASH Weapon System, Varunastra (electrically-propelled anti-submarine torpedo), 125mm FSAPDS Mk-II ammunition for T-72/T-90 tanks, Main Battle Tank Arjun, Indian Small Arms System (INSAS) family, Under Barrel Grenade Launcher (UBGL), Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS), 75/24 Pack Howitzers (first artillery gun system developed indigenously), Ishapore Self-Loading Rifle (SLR), Multiple Launcher System (MLS) with three 84 mm Light Weight Launchers (LWLs) on an automated platform, Extended Range Anti-Submarine Rocket (ER-ASR) and the guided Pinaka rocket system . As a country, we also recently developed our own light combat aircraft – Tejas.
Even with all these achievements, there is still a long way to go. One of the major flaws in our drive to indigenization has been overdependence on the public sector, for both – research and development as well as for manufacturing. The Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) 2020 goes some way in laying the groundwork from procurement from private sector entities as well as looking toward Private-Public Partnerships. I feel the armed services must be given the initiative, albeit with high standards of accountability, in procurement and improvement of products acquired preferably from indigenous market players.
As a nation, we could look towards making defence PSUs more competitive, corporatizing ordnance factories and using the PPP model in various avenues of defence production and procurement. Private sector entities must be encouraged to acquire (or ideally, develop) better technology through collaborations with international defence behemoths – the original equipment manufacturers, and actively look at generational improvements in technology through dedicated pursuit of cutting-edge research and development (R&D) in defence. In low-technology manufacturing segments, a Joint Venture (JV) approach with international manufacturers can be adopted. This was done recently in the case of Kalashnikov rifles with the launch of the Indo-Russian Rifles Private Limited rifle-manufacturing facility in Korwa (Amethi, Uttar Pradesh).
Recently, the government of India imposed a ban on import of certain weapons used by Indian armed forces and increased limits on Foreign Direct Investment in defence manufacturing hiked to 49% to 74% in a bid to boost Make in India Defence production. However, while eight selected types of ammunition are cleared for production under the flagship programme since 2017, there are various other such as ammunition for anti-material rifles that are still being imported. This needs to change. MSMEs and startups must come up with sophisticated technological solutions to the military challenge, with such technological developments potentially being used concurrently in civilian application to offset financial burdens that may be accrued.
The iDEX Defence India Startup challenge initiative may help encourage this. Larger enterprises and major private players must act as hubs of research and development (R&D), with an emphasis on the three areas highlighted by the Ministry of Defence – electronic chips technology, materials technology and engine technology – and manufacturing, while the smaller enterprises can provide ancillary support and spur competition to create a healthy, efficient and optimum self-sustaining defence production and procurement ecosystem in the country.
As we move into a new age of strength, sustainable development goals and self-reliance of, and in, India, the highly relevant Sainyavyapadeśa (सैन्यव्यपदेश) – summons of the army is not just to our countrymen to join the ground forces but also to our scientists, engineers, innovators, entrepreneurs and youth to take up the challenge of indigenising defence production and procurement in India. The neocolonialism effectuated by, and the monopoly of certain countries in, defence transactions and trade can only be broken if we supplement our existing capacity to produce defence infrastructure, equipment and ammunitions within our country. Let us concentrate our resources, minds and ingrown technological interventions to safeguard the interests, security and sovereignty of our motherland.