Challenges in India’s bid to be military power

In the revamp, over 70,000 employees of the erstwhile OFB have been transferred to the seven new DPSUs and this is being hailed as a reform that will enable India to develop a modern military industry. If the OFB was originally inefficiency-riddled, it defies logic as to how the new entities (with the same HR) in their corporate avatar will become ‘productive & profitable’.

Challenges in India’s bid to be military power

Lapses: The OFB has been unable to provide quality & cost-effective products to the Army. PTI

C Uday Bhaskar

Director, Society for policy studies

A long-delayed policy decision related to the revamping of India’s moribund defence production capability was formally unveiled by PM Narendra Modi on October 15 by way of the inauguration of seven new defence public sector units (DPSUs). They have been culled from the venerable Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) that had 41 disparate units spread across the country. They have now been corporatised as seven new entities.

The OFB, which traces its origin to 1801 and the East India Company, is now a closed chapter and a part of Indian history.

In his address, PM Modi dwelt on the Atmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India) initiative that he has championed. He declared that the abiding goal was to make India a major military power through its own efforts.

Describing this revamp of the OFB as part of the “new resolutions to build a new future” as India entered its 75th year of Independence, he added that “many major reforms have happened in the defence sector” on his watch.

This resolve by the PM to turn India into a major military power (“Bharat ko apne dum par duniya ki badi sainya taakat banana hai”) is welcome and unexceptionable.

It has a special resonance against the backdrop of October 20 and the ‘surprise’ attack by China on that day in 1962. At the time, PM Nehru and his higher defence management team were stunned and the ill-equipped Indian military was routed despite the gallantry and professionalism of the Army at the tactical level.

Almost six decades later, there is a sense of déjà vu. In the last year, the China challenge has morphed from the Galwan setback in Ladakh (June 2021) to the more recent incursions by the PLA in the central and eastern sectors of the disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC). The 13th round of Corps Commanders’ talks (on October 10) failed to resolve the impasse and it is estimated that as many as 50,000 PLA troops will be strung across the uneasy LAC for an extended period.

Hence, this winter will be challenging for the Indian military. The Army Chief, General Manoj Naravane, has cautioned that “it is a matter of concern that the large-scale build-up has occurred and continues to be in place; and to sustain that kind of a build-up, there has been an equal amount of infrastructure development on the Chinese side.” He added: “So, it means that they (China) are there to stay. We are keeping a close watch on all these developments, but if they are there to stay, we are there to stay too.”

On the politico-diplomatic front, tension increased with the Chinese Foreign Ministry issuing a terse statement protesting the visit of Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu to Arunachal Pradesh and asking India to “stop taking actions that would complicate and expand the boundary issue.”

Delhi was quick in ‘rejecting’ it with a rejoinder that “Arunachal Pradesh is an integral and inalienable part of India.”

The more grave development is the preliminary agreement arrived at between China and Bhutan (October 14) to resolve their long-pending boundary dispute and what is of considerable import is that Delhi was totally out of the loop apropos this bilateral meeting.

The enormity of this development is multi-layered for India. Not only is this a diplomatic setback for Delhi which traditionally guided Bhutan’s foreign policy but it also points to the Chinese footprint being extended in the Indian periphery with a country considered to be India’s closest and most special neighbour.

It would be premature to suggest that Bhutan will go down the Sri Lanka-Nepal path in the consolidation of the Chinese presence, but the Doklam tri-junction has a critical locus for India by way of the proximity to the slender ‘chicken’s neck’ corridor that connects the Indian heartland to the North-East.

While there is little doubt that the India of 2021 is not that of 1962 and is now a nuclear weapon power, the correspondence lies in the refusal by Delhi to objectively review its composite military index and the attendant implications in relation to managing the troubled bilateral relationship with China.

The amber lights were flickering in March 2018 when the report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence observed that the prevailing fund allocation “is not supportive to the inevitable needs of the Army” and added that there are “huge deficiencies and obsolescence of weapons, stores and ammunition existing in the Indian Army.” The report further said that almost two-third of the equipment inventory of the Army was deemed to be “vintage”.

Much the same applies to the Indian Air Force and the depletion in combat air power is stark.

While the pressure on the national exchequer due to Covid is understandable and belt-tightening in the budgetary allocation is inevitable, the reality check about the military modernisation blueprint is distressing.

The Defence Budget of 2021 saw capital allocation slashed by more than Rs 76,000 crore and the OFB revamp is illustrative about taking recourse to misleading rhetoric.

The PM’s exhortation to make India a major military power on the back of its own effort is laudable and the corporatisation of the OFB is being held up as an example of this resolve. The OFB’s track record in providing high quality products in a cost-effective and timely manner to the Army has been well below par and these lapses have been highlighted in many CAG reports.

In the so-called revamp, over 70,000 employees of the erstwhile OFB have been transferred to the seven new DPSUs, including their senior leadership, and this is being hailed as a major reform that will enable India to develop a modern military industry. If the OFB was riddled with inefficiency and corruption in its original identity, it defies logic as to how the seven new entities (with the same HR) in their corporate avatar will become “productive and profitable assets”, as envisioned by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh.

The OFB’s inability to design and produce high-quality personal weapons for the Indian soldiers is a grim reminder of the daunting R&D challenges that India faces as it strives to become a reasonably self-reliant military power. Resorting to make-believe in matters of national security can have disastrous consequences, as October 1962 demonstrated.

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