A former national security advisor explains how India can modernise its military tech

Bigger and better.
Bigger and better.
Image: Reuters/Rupak de Chowdhuri
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The context of war is changing for India too.

On its western border, Pakistan, though numerically inferior to India, is trying its best to modernize its armed forces. It has been generously helped by China in the development of missiles and nuclear arsenal. The gap between the Indian and Pakistani militaries, though significant, is narrowing in some areas. Pakistan has also sought to cultivate Russia, Ukraine, and the Czech Republic for sourcing high-tech equipment. Over the years, it has tried to establish an indigenous military technical complex with Chinese technical assistance.

However, it is China that has made big strides in manufacturing a wide variety of weapons platforms ranging from ships to aircraft and anti-ship missiles, anti-satellite weapons, and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). It has set up extensive defence R&D and defence production systems. China’s defence expenditure in absolute terms is now second only to that of the US. It is also emerging as a leading exporter of arms. China-Pakistan collaboration in the defence sphere is a major challenge to Indian security.

To meet these challenges, the Indian military forces are being modernised. They have over the years acquired state-of-the-art platforms and other equipment and gradually prepared themselves for network-centric warfare. However, it must be mentioned that India continues to import advanced defence technologies from other countries. The acquisitions in recent years of aircraft carrier Vikramaditya and S-400 missile defence systems from Russia, C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft and C-130 medium lift transport aircraft from the US are some examples.

The armed forces have a long list of items which they intend to import in the medium to long term. The acquisition of high-tech platforms, equipment, and even ammunition illustrates the point that India has still a long way to go before it becomes self-reliant in some critical defence technologies.

India’s indigenisation effort is based largely on the DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation) and the DPSUs (Defence Public Sector Undertakings). The DRDO develops prototypes and the DPSUs manufacture them. For strategic missiles, the DRDO does all the work from development to productionisation. Over the years, the DPSUs and the DRDO have sought to fulfill the demands of the armed forces to some extent and their achievements are creditable. But overall, the indigenisation effort is yet to take off.

The private sector is still not in a position to meet the needs of the armed forces largely because it has been deliberately kept out of defence production. The micro small and medium enterprises (MSME) sector is yet to grow. It is dependent on the growth of larger players. The procedures are cumbersome and stacked against the private sector. This is now changing, but there is a lot of catching up to do. The Make in India programme is taking off but “Made in India” is still some way off.

The problem, however, is that many of the DRDO’s projects have been delayed. The armed forces have also raised the issue of quality. Their needs are urgent, hence they often take recourse to imports rather than wait for DRDO projects to fructify. Yet, it must be said that the DRDO over the years has done a commendable job and as an R&D organisation contributed to the development of indigenous capacities in critical technologies.

The DRDO’s problems are wide-ranging, from inadequate manpower in critical areas to the lack of proper synergy with the armed forces. The armed forces are unable or unwilling to wait for DRDO products and systems to mature; this is the nature of innovation. For it to compete with global defence R&D organisations, the DRDO has to have much larger, better-trained and highly motivated manpower, larger budgets, and more freedom in its operations. It has to be allowed to bear the risks inherent in innovation. In the risk-averse atmosphere prevailing in the country, the DRDO cannot be an exception. However, not all the blame can be put on the DRDO for delays as the above prerequisites are not available to it. At the same time, it cannot be fully absolved from responsibility.

The problem of delays should also be looked at from the DRDO’s perspective. It is a part of the innovation ecosystem that is not geared to deliver products on time. The armed forces are its only customers. They project their plans of acquisitions and technology through a document known as the LTIPP which lays down the needs of the armed forces for a fifteen-year period.

For instance, the current LTIPP of the MoD is from 2012 to 2027. From the LTIPP is derived a document known as the Technology Perspective and Capability Roadmap. Ideally, this document should give the DRDO and the industry a lead time of fifteen years to plan for innovation and production.

But in practice it is too generic in nature and does not give any practical information on the basis of which the DRDO can plan. For instance, the document says that the armed forces will require space-based sensors but does not provide either the numbers that would be needed or their parameters. In the absence of such details the DRDO is unable to start its work.

The actual details are usually made available only when the armed forces begin to acquire a product. By that time it is too late to design it indigenously.

Excerpted with the permission of Penguin Random House India from How India Manages its National Security by Arvind Gupta. We welcome your comments at