Opinion: Aatmanirbharta Is The Focus In Centre's Rs 84,000 Crore Defence Package

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Last week, India's Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) , chaired by Defence Minister Mantri Rajnath Singh, accorded its approval for Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) for capital acquisition of defence equipment worth Rs 84,560 crore. The approvals are aligned with the Indian government's vision of supporting indigenous design, development and manufacturing (IDDM). Import of equipment has been limited to bare essentials to meet critical requirements of the forces. The proposal, according to reports, includes the following:

(a) 45,000 Prachand new-generation anti-tank mines to be procured under the Indian-Indigenously Designed Developed and Manufactured (Indian-IDDM) category, for Rs 650 crore. These mines have seismic sensors and remote deactivation, new technological solutions to locate landmines and reduce unwanted injuries and loss of life of soldiers.

(b) Conventional subsonic long-range land attack cruise missiles (LR-LACM), having a range of 1,000 km, to be procured for the Army. This missile is a derivative of the indigenously developed Nirbhay missile and would be procured for Rs 4,000 crore under the IDDM category.

(c) 900 canister launched anti-armour loiter munition systems under the Buy (Indian-IDDM) category, at a cost of Rs 600 crore. These can strike targets at Beyond Visual Line Sight (BVLOS) ranges.

(d) 25 air defence tactical control radars for detecting slow, small and low-flying targets, which has been among the main concerns for battlefield commanders.

(e) Six Netra Mk-1A for Rs 9,000 crore. The Netra-1 A is developed by the Centre for Air Borne Systems (CABS), a DRDO laboratory, using Embraer-145 platform for the Airborne Early Warning (AEW) role. The joint IAF-DRDO effort and experience gained in the development and operation of Netra AEW aircraft has contributed significantly to the development of the more capable Netra Mk-1A.

(f) Three signal intelligence and communication jamming aircraft, amounting to Rs 6,300 crore. The pre-owned A-319 aircraft would be modified and equipped with suitable equipment for these roles.

(g) Development of six flight refuelling aircraft from pre-owned aircraft, to be done at a cost of Rs 9,000 crore. These six aircraft would add to the existing fleet of six IL-78 aircraft refuellers.

(h) Software Defined Radios (SDR) for the Indian Coast Guard (ICG), to be procured under the Buy Indian-IDDM category. These would provide high-speed secure communication for seamless data exchange between the ICG and the Navy. The indigenous SDR would provide a secure communication solution without the fear of compromising critical data or having undue dependence on foreign manufacturers.

(i) Fifteen C-295 Medium Range aircraft with twin turboprop engine will be bought under the Buy and Make category. The approval includes nine C-295 modified for maritime surveillance for the Navy and six C-295 multi-mission marine aircraft for maritime patrol roles for the Indian Coast Guard. The total cost would be Rs 29,900 crore. The order for the fifteen C-295 aircraft would be in addition to the previous order in 2021 for fifty-six C-295 aircraft.

(j) Active towed array sonar, which can operate at low frequencies and various depths for long-range detection of submarines. This would be procured under the Buy (Indian) category.

(k) Import of 48 heavyweight torpedoes for the Kalvari-class submarine. These acquisitions are meant to meet the interim requirements of the Navy till indigenous torpedoes are developed.

(l) Maintenance Repair and overhaul, as well as other technical support for 24 MH 60 helicopters from the US, through the Foreign Military Sales Route. These naval helicopters would also be armed with Hellfire missiles, MK-54 torpedoes and precision rockets. The contract costs Rs 15,157 crore.

Fillip For Private Sector 

The number of approvals and the size of allocations indicate a special focus on the acquisition of defence equipment from the Indian industry. These would lead to continuation of IDDM projects and development of more potent force multiplier systems such as Airborne Early Warning (AEW) and Air to Air Refuelling (AAR) and jamming aircraft, among others.

The DAC approval has also had a positive impact on the market, with the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), Bharat Electrical Limited (BEL), Bharat Dynamics Limited (BDL), Bharat Forge, MTAR Technologies, Paras Defence and Space and others seeing a rise in demand for their stocks. It's thus clear that the approvals will benefit not only Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs) but also the private sector.

A Mechanism To Monitor Transfer of Technology

India's DPSUs in the past have been criticised for passing on assembled products as 'Made in India' items. The entry of the private sector in defence manufacturing and their reluctance to invest money in design, development and upgradation of core and critical systems, unless it is very essential and financially viable, creates challenges for India's atmanirbharta mission.

Also, there is no independent entity or a transparent mechanism that examines, quantifies and keeps track of the extent of Transfer of Technology (ToT) for critical systems and subsystems by foreign Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) to Indian public and private sector entities. There is a need to create a suitable body, formulate a transparent mechanism to audit ToTs and Make in India, and empower it with policy and legal provisions to penalise defaulters. The ToT roadmap should have well-defined milestones and timelines, as well as penalties if they fail to deliver on their promise.

MSMEs, Startups Get A Push 

The proposed amendments in the Defence Acquisition Procedure-2020 (DAP), which facilitate the procurement of technologies and systems developed under the Innovation for Defence Excellence (iDEX) and aim to support start-ups and MSMEs, are a step in the right direction. Startups and MSMEs play a significant role in developing niche technologies within India, and Indian companies have already demonstrated their abilities in that role.

The proposed policy reforms would help in addressing the concerns of these innovators as well as contribute to the ease of doing business in India. Such policy and procurement measures would go a long way in reducing brain drain and developing niche technologies within India. The DAC approval is therefore a major step, and these initiatives and decisions, which support indigenous development and innovation, need to be carried forward with commitment, irrespective of which government comes to power next.

(Group Captain (Dr.) R.K. Narang, Vayu Sena Medal (Retd.) is Senior Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis and a former IAF helicopter pilot. He associated with the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), was Director, Strategic Initiatives at Drone Federation of India, member of Drone Working Sub Group, Department of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT), Ministry of Commerce and Industry and of High Power Steering Committee (HPSC) of Innovation for Defence Excellence (iDEX).)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.