Is India’s ‘Techno Nationalism’ In Defense Production Relevant In Today’s World?

Is India’s ‘techno-nationalism’ that is on full display at the ongoing Aero India show in Bengaluru relevant in a world where the arm-industry is increasingly globalized?

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The Aero India 2021 that kicked off on February 3 is aimed at showcasing “India’s cutting edge technology and capabilities in the aerospace sector”, according to Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh.

He has said that under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of ‘Aatmanirbhar Bharat’ (self-sufficient India), his ministry was “relentlessly giving impetus to domestic manufacturing of defense equipment, not only to fulfill the demands of our armed forces but also to make India a net exporter of defense equipment and platforms to friendly foreign countries”.

But is this policy of techno-nationalism relevant in a world where the arm-industry is increasingly globalized? Experts on the global arms industry are not so sure.

There are two problems with India’s approach, it is argued. One is that such a goal is not desirable.

As Professor Amit Gupta, Associate Professor at the USAF Air War College, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, told this writer, gone are the days when a country could engage in techno-nationalism and build a weapons system purely at home — with the exception of a few nations like the US, China, and France. Instead, countries either collaborate to build systems or include a range of components from other nations.

Considering this phenomenon, Indian defense production has to be broken into three categories: that which cannot be imported, that which can be assembled and co-produced in India, and that which can realistically be made in India.

This is absolutely essential if the Indian defense sector, already struggling with budgetary constraints, wants to attract investments and investors, whether foreign and indigenous, argued Prof. Gupta.

The second problem with the Indian approach seems to be that it is not feasible, given India’s constraints.  After all, self-sufficiency in arms is not exactly a new goal; it has been stressed upon by every Indian government in recent years through schemes like “make-Indian” and “buy-Indian” in the defense sector. However, the goal continues to remain distant.

Experts have pointed out many reasons why there has been a gap between the goal and the reality.  First, producing high-tech weapons or platforms at home either on one’s own or in collaboration with a foreign vendor may not be cheaper than the option of purchasing the item off the shelf from an original equipment manufacturer (OEM).

For instance, the Su-30 MKI is developed by Russia’s Sukhoi and built under license by India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) for the Indian Air Force. But then many studies say that the HAL-made MKIs are much more expensive than if these would have been bought from Russia.

Similarly, there is a huge cost difference between the Hawk trainer aircraft manufactured by British Aerospace and the one made by HAL. Even, the original deal to procure Rafale fighter jets from France in 2012 did not fructify mainly due to the fact that producing them at HAL would have proved costlier and more time-consuming, something the OEM Dassault was not prepared for.

Secondly, there is the more important issue of quality of the defense products manufactured by India’s eight defense public sector undertakings, 41 Ordnance Factories, and 49 Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) establishments.

Let alone their records of not meeting the deadlines of promised deliveries, Indian defense services (the end-users) have rejected, more often than not, their products for want of quality. This is particularly true with the Indian Army and the Air Force. The point is that as things stand today, India’s indigenous base of developing quality strategic products in areas other than missiles, nuclear and space, is rather poor.

Among many reasons for the poor quality, one is said to be that India invests the least, in comparison with technologically advanced countries, in basic research (R&D) in scientific and educational establishments. As a result, it is always dependent on foreign technologies, which, in turn, do not come to us easily.

Over the last 20 years or so, India’s expenditure on R&D has been stagnant at as low as 0.6% – 0.7% of the GDP, much lower than countries such as South Korea at 4.8%, Israel at 4.95%, and Japan at 3.4%. The US invests around 2 .84 % of its GDP on R&D but then given its large GDP this amount is huge ($553 billion in 2018). Even China, with an R&D expenditure ($275 billion in 2018) spends about 2.2 percent of its GDP.

Besides, compared to other countries, the contribution of the private sector in India’s R&D sector is almost negligible. In India, the government is the primary source of R&D funding. The private sector has only concentrated so far in just three sectors – pharmaceuticals, automobiles, and software.

And the lion’s share of the meager government-funding (about three-fifths) is spread over the key government science funding agencies related to Atomic Energy, Space, Earth Sciences, Science and Technology, and Biotechnology domains.

The private domestic defense industry is at a nascent stage, partly because policies and procedures hitherto were not encouraging enough for it to participate in defense production. Though things have changed a bit in the last few years, the question that needs to be answered, however, is what should be the priority areas in defense R&D.

Every country has its own way, depending on its threat-perceptions, aspirations to be a global power, and realistic capabilities. So one cannot follow a typical American model or for that matter a Chinese model, though the latter could be instructive, given the fact that the Chinese grew from an extremely narrow base.

China has followed two types of innovation development strategies. The first is the “good enough” approach that is affordable to produce and field large quantities of arms that are the high-volume, low-cost version(s) of the foreign products. Here, the idea is that even if inferior in quality and performance to the foreign products, these low-cost-lower tech versions can be used by the Chinese forces in “high volume” to neutralize the qualitative gap.

The second is the high-end, high-cost  “gold-plated” approach to develop sophisticated weapons in select areas such as directed energy laser weapons, robotic systems, and miniature nano-based systems that match those of advanced nations.

In employing this strategy, the Chinese seek to acquire high-end technology from foreign suppliers and simultaneously evolve their knowledge base in the same domain through consistent basic and applied research in National S&T institutes and affiliated universities.

While India has much to learn from China in promoting the goal of self-reliance, it has the advantages (that the Chinese did not have) in the sense that major Western companies, particularly the Americans, are already present in the country and very keen to co-develop and co-produce defense systems not only for the Indian forces but also the global arms market as a whole. Thus, it is not a question of being self-reliant but also emerging as a major global hub of arms manufacturing.

The Indian defense industry also faces the problem of the lack of suitable or employable manpower. India does not have employable engineers with a background in mechatronics, composites, and system integration knowledge, so important in the technology-driven defense sector.

The DRDO is not getting enough engineers and young scientists despite its best attempts; the organization, rather, has seen a number of scientists resigning to avail of better opportunities elsewhere. This was admitted to this writer recently by a former DRDO head.

On the contrary, the situation in countries producing the world’s major weapon systems and platforms is impressive.  France has specialized engineering schools like Institut Supérieur de l’Aeronautique et de l’Espace (ISAE) and Ecole Nationale de l’Aviation Civile (ENAC) in Toulouse and École Nationale Supérieure de Mécanique et d’Aérotechnique (ENSMA) in Poitiers that produce engineers for its defense industry.

The base of the successful manufacturing industry in Germany is built on the fine and firm foundation of “Apprenticeship Training”. The core of the model here is “dual training’ whereby trainees split their days between classroom instruction at a vocational school and on-the-job time at a company.

The theory they learn in class is reinforced by the practice at the job. This arrangement lasts for two to four years, depending on the sector. And this arrangement suits the prospective employer and potential employees eventually in jobs that cement the relationship further.

In India, the skilled manpower base is very poor. It is said to be at 4.69% of the total workforce, compared to 24% in China, 52% in the US, 68% in the UK, 75% in Germany, 80% in Japan, and 96% in South Korea. Of course, it is to the credit of the Modi-government that it is trying to promote skills, evident from its proposed new education policy. But then, there is a long path to cover.

Viewed thus, the most challenging task in becoming self-reliant or ‘Atmanirbhar’ in defense is developing men/women who are capable to produce quality weapon systems and platforms. A focused skill development policy for this sector is the need of the hour.

India needs as many talented engineering graduates to enter the core manufacturing sector (of which military-industrial establishment is a part) as in the glamorous IT sector, and, what is equally important, to retain them once they enter.

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Prakash Nanda
Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on Indian politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He has been a Visiting Professor at Yonsei University (Seoul) and FMSH (Paris). He has also been the Chairman of the Governing Body of leading colleges of the Delhi University. Educated at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, he has undergone professional courses at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Boston) and Seoul National University (Seoul). Apart from writing many monographs and chapters for various books, he has authored books: Prime Minister Modi: Challenges Ahead; Rediscovering Asia: Evolution of India’s Look-East Policy; Rising India: Friends and Foes; Nuclearization of Divided Nations: Pakistan, Koreas and India; Vajpayee’s Foreign Policy: Daring the Irreversible. He has written over 3000 articles and columns in India’s national media and several international dailies and magazines. CONTACT: