India the biggest arms purchaser

Lalit Shastri

LCA_TejasThe projection two-years ago by a Swedish Research Group that India had replaced China as the biggest arms purchaser in the World had not come as any surprise as the Ministry of Defence was continuously going around scouting for arms all over the world to fill the huge gap in defence preparedness.

It was after the 1962 Chinese aggression that the Department of Defence production was set up “to create an indigenous self-reliant and self-sufficient defence production base”. In 1965 the Department of Defence Supplies was also created to build linkages between the civil industries and defence production units. Twenty-years later, in 1984, both these departments were merged.

In last 50 years, 16 new ordnance factories have been set up and some of these have been ‘selectively’ modernised. At present there are 40 Ordnance Factories (1 in the project stage) and 8 Defence Public Sector Undertakings.

The ordnance factories equip the armed forces and the para-military forces with weapons, ammunition, tanks, infantry, combat vehicles. Clothing, general stores and other equipment. Government of India has also set up DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation) to work in association with the ordnance factories.

It was at the Kanpur Ordnance Factory that the upgunning process for 130/155 mm involving design of 155 mm caliber ordinance and assembly of existing field gun was taken up to make it capable of firing the entire range of 155 mm caliber Bofors ammunition. Similarly, the ammunition factory at Kirkee has developed a new version of short range and long range anti-missile counter measures for the Navy.

Since the shelf life of shells used in tanks is limited to two years, the Army goes in for the regular range firing exercises to expend the ammunition. Hence the role of ordnance factories becomes crucial when it comes to renewing the stocks of shells and ensuring that the shells at the disposal of the army do not cross their expiry date.

This is an area where major chinks have been showing.

Taking the plea of national security, DRDO even does not follow the tendering process. Regarding DRDO’s achievements on the R&D and indigenisation front, the Kaveri engine project is a case in point. DRDO has been working on it for almost 25 years with a sanctioned cost of over Rs. 3000 crore but the prototype lacks the thrust needed for the indigenously developed Tejas light combat aircraft. In June this year, DRDO claimed that it will soon be in a position to export Light Combat Aircraft Tejas but this was dismissed as “premature and unrealistic” by former top IAF officers who said lets see how soon the indigenous fighter plane gets inducted into the Indian Air Force first. On October 1 this year, the first of the Tejas, built  by the state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), was test flown. The final operational clearance (FOC) to induct the LCA into the IAF, originally scheduled sometime in December, is likely to be delayed as DRDO is still to acquire crucial testing equipment from a foreign vendor.

Despite all talk of indigenous defence production capability, Indian Navy has been flaunting the Barak missile acquired from Israel but despite billions of rupees spent by DRDO, an equivalent missile has not been developed indigenously in ten years.

Last week, India successfully test fired the indigenously developed nuclear-capable sub-sonic cruise missile called the “Nirbhay.” The missile has a range of 700-1,000 kilometers and is expected to take up the role of a nuclear delivery device. Just before the test fire, DRDO told the Prime Minister’s Office that the organisation is working towards making the country “missile import free” by 2022.

These projections notwithstanding, Prime Minister Narendra Modi chaired the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) in the last week of September. At this meeting clearance was given to the Rs 880 crore acquisition of Barak-I missiles. The decision was hanging fire under the Congress-led UPA regime. This in spite of long-standing strategic deficincy and alarm bells raised by the Indian Navy for several years.

In the meanwhile, when it comes to eyeing the global market to fill gaps in defence preparedness, even the terms of trade (ToT) agreements encompassing the indigenous production clause are craftily worded and a line is inserted to exclude forgings and castings to oblige the foreign suppliers in mega deals. For example the TOT might exclude the engine blade, which is very critical in a jet aircraft. In the process, the engine never gets indigenized and the supplier even stands to gain as the cost of the blade is hiked every year.