The Ministry of Defence’s (MoD’s) draft Defence Production Policy (DProP) spells out the goal of making India self sufficient in 13 key weapons – including fighters, warships, submarines, and tanks – by 2022 and, eventually, one of the world’s top five defence manufacturing countries.
Yet, at Defexpo 2018, which opened in Chennai on Wednesday, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman stated she had only a limited ability to induce the military to use indigenously designed and manufactured weaponry.
Responding to a question at a packed press conference, Sitharaman said she could only tell the Indian armed forces to procure from indigenous companies “as much as possible”, but could not cross a “thin line” in preventing the military from “making their decisions on what they want”, guided by operational needs.
“When I am promoting Indian exports (and) Indian manufacturing, I am also telling the forces to procure from them. They do too. But I would want to draw a thin line, and I am conscious that it is a thin line, between the government’s enthusiasm to make sure the production capabilities are such that they can meet with international standards and be export-worthy; and the other side of the line where Army or Navy or Air Force make their decision on what they want, what combination of equipment they want, and in that combination if an Indian produced item fits in.”
“I can only go that far and not further, just as they can go that far and not any further without compromising each others’ interest and my interest is not different from theirs, because after all MoD has to take care of the forces as much as the defence production”, she said.
The four-day Defexpo 2018, a biennial event that is being held in Chennai for the first time in its 19-year history, features a live demonstration of weapons systems made in India. Yet, with the Indian military historically resistant to accepting substantial numbers of Arjun tanks, Tejas fighters, Akash air defence batteries and other indigenous systems, production has been limited to small numbers for the military and nothing for the export markets.
Answering questions about the shift of Defexpo to Chennai, Sitharaman pointed to the designation of the Chennai-Bengaluru corridor as a “defence production corridor”.
“I am grateful that my predecessor Manohar Parrikar in this ministry took it over to Goa. Now because the Prime Minister has been saying repeatedly to go out of Delhi, to all parts of the country, we have chosen to come here. Therefore, this is a best opportunity for Tamil Nadu to be able to cash on it and many of the industries, which can come and benefit from here,” she said.
Asked whether future Defexpos would also be held in Chennai, Sitharaman said a permanent location had not been decided.
Sitharaman also talked up the current location as a tourist centre and as the historical epicentre of Chola power, where the ancient South Indian dynasty ruled for a 1,000 years.
“You are sitting in a historically important place, from where huge ships of the Chola kingdom had gone to the entire South East Asia… So if today we are talking of Indian Ocean region, if we are talking about the region becoming Indo-Pacific, this was all achieved by the Cholas here, already,” she said.
Addressing the question of when the draft DProP would be finalised, Secretary for Defence Production Ajay Kumar declined to set a deadline. “The draft (DProP) has been released for public consultations. We have received over 100 comments from various stakeholders… We are in the process of examining those comments. We hope to see the final policy very soon,” he said.
Neither Sitharaman nor Defence Secretary Sanjay Mitra would commit to the early finalisation of the procurement of 110 fighter aircraft that the Indian Air Force initiated last month. Suggesting that the procurement process remained as slow as ever, Mitra stated: “These are still early days. We have taken only the first step (by issuing a request for information). This is a long process.”
Sitharaman praised the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO), which she stated had developed as many as 50 technologies that could be translated by the private sector into “commercially usable technologies”. At a subsequent function, the DRDO handed over the intellectual property rights to several of its technologies to private companies to translate into commercial production.