Sunday, March 26th, 2023 05:07:50

Beyond Defexpo

Updated: February 10, 2020 12:00 pm

This issue of the magazine is mainly devoted to the theme of Defexpo 2020, the eleventh edition of one of the world’s largest defence trade shows that is being  held from 5th to 8th of February, 2020 in Lucknow, the home constituency of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh. Though some observers do not like the idea of the editions of the Defexpo being staged in the home- states of the Defence Ministers of India, a trend that started in Goa with late Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar in 2016, one can appreciate the fact that the show is being held in Uttar Pradesh, one of the two states chosen to be become the defence corridors of India, the other being Tamil Nadu.

A Defexpo is supposed to be an event rife with opportunities for national and international defence organisations seeking to improve their business prospects and technological capabilities pertaining to air, land, naval and internal homeland security systems. Though India is no longer the largest importer of arms – that status has gone to Saudi Arabia now– the fact remains that its sheer size, geopolitical standing and growing military modernisation have increased the need for aerospace, defence and security products. Those producing and exporting these products cannot overlook India’s defence market.

Of course, there have been questions by many observers as to what exactly have been the achievements or outcomes of the defexpos that have been organised by the government so far. We have mixed answers to these questions. It is true that potentials of these defexpos have not been exactly realised. Our policy of “Make in India” has not been effective in the defence sector. There are many reasons for it. One, we are not fully clear about the goal and ways of achieving it, thanks to our still quite opaque and slow decision-making systems. As my friend Prof  Amit Gupta had argued once, the international arms industry is now globalised.  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 defence 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 clarity is absolutely essential if the Indian defence sector, already struggling with budgetary constraints, wants to attract investments and investors, whether foreign and indigenous.

However, the most serious handicap on Make in India scheme’s path is the paucity of the quality scientific and technological manpower in the country.  After all, you need quality people to do quality research to produce quality technology to make quality products. India does not have enough quality scientific/technological manpower to develop its industrial base, particularly when its very best prefers to migrate abroad year after year. And that is because for the best to remain in the country, there are neither funds nor facilities. We do not spend enough on R&D to retain or attract the best talents enough. India’s investment in R&D is woefully short when compared to other nations. It is not even 0.5 % of the India’s GDP (gross domestic product) and the country has only 156 researchers per million of the population (as against China’s 1,113 researchers per million of the population). What is significant to note here is that India’s spending on research and development as a percentage of the GDP has in fact come down a bit against a rising per capita income in recent years.

In comparison, the United States spends 2.8 percent of its GDP on R&D. The corresponding figures for other leading countries are like this: China – 2.1 %, Japan – 3.4 %, Germany 2.9 %, South Korea – 4.2%, and France – 2.3%.  Israel outspends all at 4.8% of its GDP on R&D; it has also 4,231 researchers per million of the population.

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 like Atomic Energy, Space, Earth Sciences, Science and Technology and Biotechnology.

One understands why private investment in defence R&D is very low. All told, the private domestic defence industry is at a nascent stage, partly because policies and procedures hitherto were not encouraging enough for it to participate in defence 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 defence R&D.  Every country has its own way, depending on its threat-perceptions, aspirations to be a global power and the realistic capabilities. So we cannot follow a typical American model or for that matter a Chinese model, though the latter could be instructive, given the fact that 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 neutarlise 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 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   defence systems not only for the Indian forces but also the global arms market as a whole. Thus, it is not a question being self reliant but also emerging as a major global hub of arms manufacturing.


By Prakash Nanda


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