C Uday Bhaskar
Visiting Fellow, National Maritime Foundation
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, while addressing Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) scientists in Delhi on July 31, drew timely attention to a perennial shortcoming of the Indian defence R&D and production sector: the low level of truly indigenous content in major platforms and the huge time and cost overruns.
While commending the DRDO for its contribution and the success achieved in high-visibility items such as the Agni V missile, Singh, in his characteristically low-key manner, noted with commendable candour, “The reality is that the share of indigenous content in defence procurement continues to be low. We need to take a hard look at the pipeline of our projects and focus our time and material resources on selected areas where we have demonstrated capacity to deliver projects within reasonable time and cost.”
Established in 1958, the DRDO is over 50 years old and acquired its institutional credibility and relevance under the stewardship of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi when India was placed under a severe US-led technology denial regime after the peaceful nuclear test of May 1974.
Predictably, the national strategic military capability received the highest priority and the country’s current missile and nuclear weapon profile was enabled due to the perseverance shown by the techno-scientific leadership of those decades that included Raja Ramanna, V S Arunachalam and Abdul Kalam who headedthe DRDO during a challenging period.
However, there are many areas where the DRDO has not been able to deliver as envisaged and the big-ticket items that are still stuck as it were include the main battle tank for the army and the light combat aircraft for the air force. Despite its progress in other sectors, India’s truly indigenous defence production is woefully inadequate and the country has the dubious distinction of having a one-million-plus army but is unable to produce its own artillery gun – and the Bofors syndrome has afflicted the entire defence procurement and production edifice.
There is a perception, albeit misplaced, that it is only in the case of naval ship design and production that India has been able to make commendable strides, and that the Indian Navy is ahead of its larger peers – the army and the air force – as far as indigenisation is concerned. The commissioning of the stealth frigate, the INS Sahayadri, on July 21 in Mumbai is illustrative of this dominant perception.
The 6,300-tonne Sahayadri is the second in a series of three guided-missile frigates with stealth characteristics built at Mumbai’s defence public sector Mazagon Docks and epitomises the observation made by the Prime Minister. Estimated to cost Rs 10,000 crore, the three frigates will undoubtedly add muscle to the Indian Navy, and defence minster A K Antony exhorted the shipbuilding fraternity to rise to the challenge and asserted, “The country’s warship-building programme must meet the Navy’s force-level requirements. Over the years, there has been a gradual shift from being a buyer’s navy to a builder’s navy.”
Antony added that Indian shipbuilding must benchmark itself against the best international practices and urged the private sector to join in this endeavour. This, alas, is where the plot thickens, in a not-so-flattering manner.
The PM, while addressing DRDO scientists on July 31, drew timely attention to a perennial shortcoming of the Indian defence R&D and production sector.