FOR A COUNTRY that is located in a geopolitical hotspot, India has an admirable coolness about procuring essential weapon systems. When the Prime Minister launched the French-designed Scorpene submarine, INS Kalvari, on December 14th, there was all round jubilation. Yet, India’s defence planners need to celebrate less and worry more.
Take INS Kalvari as an example. It is India’s first submarine in 17 years. It is first of the six ‘Project 75’ subs of the Indian Navy. The remaining five will be delivered over the next four years. In contrast, China already has a formidable array of submarines, many with stealth features and far- superior capabilities. At the moment, India has a fleet of 13 ageing submarines that have long outlived their utility.
If a 17-year wait sounds awful, consider the time the Indian Army had to wait for a new howitzer: 30 years. After the Bofors scandal in the 1990s, Indian politicians ran away from purchasing any major defence items that were not iron-walled against charges of corruption. If that were not enough, India’s antiquated defence purchases system ensures that decades pass between initiating a proposal and the final signing of a contract with a supplier. Few, if any, foreign suppliers want to deal with such a system. The story of the Rafale aircraft purchase, until the Modi Government went in for a truncated contract, on a government- to-government basis, followed a similar pattern.
A further complication is India’s own domestic defence ‘industry’ which rarely delivers equipment on time and according to the specifications of the armed forces. Largely state-owned today, this vital sector needs a robust set of private manufacturers that would respond better to incentives. Future ‘big ticket’ purchases—especially of fighter aircraft, ships and submarines—ought to involve the country’s private sector.
In some cases, where it is not feasible to manufacture advanced equipment such as aircraft at the leading edge of technology, it is better to relax the requirement of domestic inputs. Indian enterprise could focus on weapon systems that would be required, say, two decades ahead. That is usually the time needed to conceptualise and make weapons that other countries are unwilling to sell to India. Space-based weapons, advanced ballistic missile submarines and stealth aircraft are all in this category. Work should begin on these rightaway.