Changing rules of engagement
Revamping India’s flagging defence sector has always been one of the top pre-poll priorities of the NDA government and now with Narendra Modi at its helm, it has got the right impetus to undergo quick and game-changing reforms. With a slew of high-level meetings with foreign delegates lined up, the new prime minister has upped the expectations of both defence analysts and industry experts, who are looking forward to a stronger and more indigenised arms manufacturing sector. Emissaries from France, US and UK are slated to engage Modi in diplomatic dialogue aimed to pitch their defence projects as per the latest hikes in FDI cap allowing private funding of crucial plans. As the USD 15-billion Rafale jet deal with France enters final phase of negotiation today during consultations with the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, ripples of defence rejuvenation will be sent through global arms market, which has a formidable buyer in India, now the world’s biggest arms importer. With US and UK also in line to bolster economic and military ties with New Delhi, the thrust of the flurry of meetings should be not about wholesale import of entire equipment, such as firearms, vehicles, aircraft carriers, tanks and missiles, but buying defence parts in bulk and shifting the manufacturing hub to Indian soil directly. The Modi government must take a long and hard look at how to step up the gas and work towards indigenisation of the defence sector as well as how to keep up rapport with the highly-enthused global arms industry, which has pinned its hopes on the hungry Indian market.
Evidently, there would be a definitive shift away from Moscow in who will become the new biggest defence supplier, particularly in wake of Russia’s recent offer to sell mi-35 attack helicopters to Pakistan. Since billions of dollars are spent on weapons import, while not building defence infrastructure within our own territory, there remains a massive know-how and technology divide between India and the primary manufacturers of arms and ammunitions such as US, Israel, UK and even Russia. With government’s delicencing of private products and declarations of intention to reduce import dependence, a coherent defence policy to streamline the budget and save thousands of crores in defence acquisition must become a priority. However, upping FDI in private defence production from current 26 per cent to 100 per cent could boomerang and turn India into just an offshore manufacturing hub, without real say in latest technologies. In addition, complete privatisation of defence sector might seriously impair the national security apparatus on one hand and on the other, jeopardise sensitive and confidential state secrets. We need a coherent approach to not only spruce up the domestic manufacturing and innovation, but also eliminate the culture of crony capitalism that has hitherto dug holes into Indian security edifice.