Atma Nirbharta In Defence Manufacturing: The Fault Lines

By Prof Satya Narayan Misra*

Economic liberalization came to defence manufacturing in 2001, a decade after liberalization in other sectors, which permitted full partnership of private sector and equity inflow of 26% from foreign manufacturers. The Kelkar Committee (2005) provided the ballast for level playing field for the private manufacturing defence industry which was hitherto being treated as pariahs by the defense PSUs and Ordnance factories. Prof Kelkar also mooted the concept of Public Private Partnership (PPP) and suggested to have a defence offset policy through which India can leverage its big ticket acquisitions to receive FDI, key technology and outsourcing orders. These suggestions were duly incorporated in the Defence Procurement Policy 2006. Despite such frenetic efforts to rope in private players, military industry complex remains firmly anchored with Department of Defence Production, with private sector still being perceived as suppliers and not partners. The Dhirendra Singh Committee in 2015 mooted the concept of Strategic Partnership between public and private defence industries. All these recommendations have remained as pious promises in the cupboards of South Block. The DRDO, with the sole monopoly of design and development, has rarely allowed private sector players to play the role of partners in their activities. Given their unedifying record design capability of critical defence subsystems like engines, weapons and sensors, the Self Reliance Index has remained fixated at 30% of India’s total imports, despite recommendations and road map to improve it to 70% by 2005 by the KalamCommitttee in 1993.

Major Policy Changes in Defence Manufacturing

In this backdrop, the Atma Nirbhar initiative of the Prime Minister has infused a new ray hope in the hearts of indigenous defence players in the country. In the last budget, the Finance Minister changed the rules of importation in GFR by reserving all items upto Rs 200 crores to be produced by indigenous manufacturers. As a continuation of that policy, the Budget today has indicated that 68% of total capital procurement by the services will be earmarked for domestic players. The other big announcement has been that defence R&D will be opened for industry, start up and academia with 25% of the defence R&D budget earmarked for them . The private industry will be associated in design and development of military platforms and equipments through a special purpose vehicle model. An independent nodal umbrella body for certification requirement will also be set up.

Budget Allocation Trend in Defence

Before analyzing the implication and viability of these far reaching changes, it would be useful to look at the budget outlay trends of three services in the past and for the upcoming year in terms of capital and revenue allocation.

Budget Outlay Of Defense Services ( Rs Crores)

Type 2020 -2021(Actual) 2021-2022 (RE) 2022-2023 (BE) Increase over Previous Year
Revenue 224290 238605 239645 0.4%
Capital 134304 138850 152369 10.1%
Total 358594 377455 392014 4%


It would be seen from the above the overall increase in the defence outlay in real terms would be negative, given the fact that inflation is around 6%. Further, capital allocation would witness a measly increase of 4%. In terms of share of GDP, it would be around 1.9% which is way below the demand of the services which is around 3%. Incidentally, as per the SIPRI report, most countries spend close 2.5% of their GDP on defense and India is the second largest importer of conventional arms, next to Saudi Arabia.

Viability of the Two New Policies

The capital expenditure of the three defence services has been largely met out of Buy (Import) option, followed by Buy &Make , where the PSUs & OFs receive technology. The product is an offshoot of Know How rather than Know Why , which comes out of indigenous design capability. The PSUs have a dubious record being integrators, with much low value addition than was envisaged at the time of license agreement. The Make option with indigenous technology is now being accorded highest priority in terms of capital acquisition.

The reality, however, has been that poor design capability in weapons , sensors and propulsion systems have stymied India’s new policy thrust to Make in India and improve the design & development capability. Be it passive seekers, or carbon fibers, Active Electronically Scanned radars or Stealth capability, DRRO has not been able to deliver credible indigenous alternatives to importation. The engine that propels LCA is supplied by GE. So is the situation with engine for MBT tank. Noting these concerns, it was decided to have design collaboration with reputed global design houses. One such successful engagement has been MR SAM which is a culmination of collaboration with Israel. We also went in for JV with a Russian Company for producing cruise missiles, christened BrahMos. We had also inked an excellent D& D contract with Russia for producing a fifth generation Stealth Aircraft.

Concluding Thoughts

Atmanibharata in defence manufacturing is a policy in the right direction. But unless we create enabling conditions, it will remain a pipedream. What we do not need is reinventing the wheel , but embark on collaborative efforts with best design houses and production houses. In this exercise, the Government must give option to OEM & Design Houses to choose their partner , and not be hamstrung for choosing a PSU or an OF. This has been the policy in Offsets. Joint Ventures should be encouraged. Though the FDI limit has been increased to 76% in March 2020, it had very little impact on FDI inflow in to defence manufacturing sector ($9.5 m) only. Its largely due to the perception that the defence manufacturing is captive to its own Defence PSUs (including OFs now). The work culture and accountability, adherence to time &cost implication is poor. There is a strong case for privatizing most of the production items being undertaken by defence PSUs. A case in point is ALHS which can easily be outsourced to private sector players like Tatas , with significant economy , and timely delivery. MoD had a wonderful experience of outsourcing OPVs & IPVS to L&T , with substantial cost reduction compared to GSL and better delivery compliance.

Allowing private players and academia to collaborate with DRDO is a good idea. The R& D budget of India is a measly .7% of GDP as against most DCs who spend around 3%. The DRDO’s budget is pegged at 6% of total defence outlay (Rs 9674 Cr). This is much lower than 10% , which was recommended by a Parliamentary Standing Committee. To be fair, DRDO may not be able to absorb hefty allocation in the absence of well-designed D& D collaboration with global design houses. What the FM does not realize is that the private sector & academia, without global collaboration would not be able to come out with design of major platforms & weapon systems. The example of JVs like BrahMos and D& D like MR SAM should be templates for defence manufacturing, rather than rhetoric of self-reliance by tweaking procurement policy or providing budget for industry and academia in DRDO’s budget. The time for privatization of defence manufacturing, except strategic systems and JV& D& D with global players has come.



*The author is a retired joint secretary in the Ministry of Defence. He can be reached through e-mail at [email protected]


DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of Sambad English.

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