The central theme of the ongoing Aero India 2023 air show in Bengaluru is “Atma Nirbharta” or self-reliance in building India’s requirement of military equipment. Symbolising India’s atmanirbharta in the defence sector is the Tejas Mark 1 fighter, which has placed India on the map of countries that can design, develop and manufacture advanced fighter aircraft. India’s state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is in talks with at least four countries to sell its light-combat aircraft, though it faces an uphill battle to win the contract in Malaysia.
Malaysia has shortlisted the Tejas light fighter jet for an order of around 16 planes, and Argentina, Egypt and Botswana have also expressed interest, HAL Chairman and Managing Director C B Ananthakrishnan told reporters at a conference during Aero India, 2023. HAL is also in talks with the Philippines to sell its light-combat helicopters, he added.
India has been one of the world’s biggest importers of defence equipment for decades, but it has punched below its weight in the global arms export market. Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday set out ambitions to more than triple the value of annual defence exports to $5 billion over the next two years and his government has been making diplomatic efforts to export the Tejas.
The Indian government in 2021 gave a $6 billion contract to HAL for 83 of the locally produced Tejas jets for delivery starting around 2023 – four decades after the design began in 1983
The Tejas has been beset by design and other challenges and was once rejected by the Indian Navy as too heavy. In the India Pavilion, dedicated to success stories in indigenisation, the Tejas Mark 1 fighter is lionised as the key stepping stone to the development of a range of fighters: Tejas Mark 2, the fifth-generation fighter eponymously called the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) and the Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF) that is intended to fly missions from Indian Navy aircraft carriers.
In addition, the LCA (Navy) is extolled as an important platform for technology development
that will power naval aircraft such as the TEDBF.
India’s efforts towards indigenisation got a major boost with the Government of India’s Atma
Bharat Mission has a separate component of Defence Indigenisation.
According to a study released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), India ranks 4th among 12 Indo-Pacific nations in self-reliant arms production capabilities. But the concern is, India is also ranked as the 2nd largest importer of arms for its armed forces in 2016-20.
It is the process of developing and manufacturing defence equipment within a country as a way to reduce import dependency as well as achieve self-reliance. Defence Research Development Organisations (DRDO), and Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs) are the major front runners in the Atma Nirbhar Bharat vision.1983 marked a significant milestone in defence indigenization as the government
approved the Integrated Guided Missile Development Program (IGMDP) to develop 5 missile systems:
o Prithvi (surface-to-surface)
o Akash (surface-to-air)
o Trishul (the naval version of Prithvi)
o Nag (anti-tank)
o Agni (Ballistic Missiles)
India’s recent moves on defence indigenisation are- Defence India Startup Challenge, INS Vikrant: Aircraft Carrier, Dhanush: Long-range artillery gun, Arihant: Nuclear Submarine, Prachand: Light Combat Helicopter. The announcement of two Defence Industrial Corridors in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu to harness the potential of MSMEs and Defence PSUs is a welcome step.
Challenges to the Defence Indigenisation
India has great manufacturing potential and a ready export market, but it has its own limitations that are holding it back from realising its true potential. These can be classified as:
High Dependence on Imports: The defence sector in India relies heavily on imports, and changing geopolitical circumstances cause it to be delayed. For instance, amid the Russia-Ukraine war, India is awaiting the delivery of the S-400 Air Defence Systems under a deal signed in 2018. In addition, several new deals are in line including 12 Sukhoi-30MKI aircraft and 21 MiG-29 fighter jets for the Indian Air Force.
Narrow Private Participation: Private sector participation in the defence sector is constrained by the lack of a conducive financial framework means our defence production is unable to benefit from modern design, innovation, and product development.
Lack of Critical Technology: Lack of design capability, inadequate R&D investment, and inability to manufacture major subsystems and components hamper indigenous manufacturing. Also, the relationship between R&D institutions, production agencies (public or private) and end-users is extremely fragile.
Lack of Nexus between Stakeholders: India’s defence manufacturing capability is hindered by overlapping jurisdictions between the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Industrial Promotion.
There is a need to revitalise and regulate entry points for the Private sector to enter defence production embracing sustainable design and development to meet the needs of the Indian Armed Forces in coming years. It is necessary to extend dedicated defence industrial corridors across the length and breadth of the country in order to harness and channel the potential of Indian MSMEs and DPSUs in the defence manufacturing sector, as well as to facilitate the smooth transit of raw materials.
It is necessary to strengthen investment in defence by providing entrepreneurs/industry with a single point of contact to deal with all defence production-related queries, procedures and regulatory requirements for investment in the sector.
Through streamlining procurement and shaking hands with newer defence entrepreneurs for better policy-making and implementation, can reduce the qualitative and quantitative gaps in its defence sector.
There is also a need to give adequate attention to the promotion of exports of Indian Defence products. It is important to simplify and streamline export authorisation procedures through an online mechanism and targeted outreach efforts.