With the Indian government last week announcing an import embargo on 101 defense items as part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of self-reliance, analysts’ opinions are mixed on how much self-reliance India can achieve.
Last week, the country’s Defense Ministry made a big announcement saying they are introducing an import embargo on 101 items beyond the mentioned dates for each item to boost indigenization of defense production.
“This decision will offer a great opportunity to the Indian defense industry to manufacture the items in the negative list by using their own design and development capabilities or adopting the technologies designed and developed by DRDO to meet the requirements of the Armed Forces,” the ministry said in a statement, referring to the Defense Research and Development Organization.
Security experts in India, however, seem to be less impressed by the government’s decision.
“It is more of an aspirational expression clouded by optics. Firstly, several items on the list of 101 [including wheeled armored fighting vehicles, naval corvettes, offshore patrol vessels, shallow water and water jet fast attack craft and the ASTRA [Beyond Visual Range Missile] were already being built in India,” Bibhu Prasad Routray, a strategic analyst and the director of Mantraya, a strategic think tank based in India, told Anadolu Agency.
“It has been India’s longtime ambition to be self-reliant in defense production. To the extent possible, India needs to be self-reliant in matters of national security.”
According to the Indian government, the embargo on imports is planned to be progressively implemented between 2020 to 2024.
“Our aim is to apprise the Indian defense industry about the anticipated requirements of the Armed Forces so that they are better prepared to realize the goal of indigenization,” it said.
Routray said if the government pursues its ambition in a systematic manner, India can hope to be self-reliant perhaps in about 25% of what is being aimed for.
“Even that would be a huge achievement. So it is up to the government how to stay committed to this declared objective. Realistically speaking, the announcement still has enough scope for continuing foreign acquisition, which I am afraid will go on forever,” he said.
Sameer Patil, a Mumbai-based security analyst, told Anadolu Agency that the new announcement indicates the government’s confidence.
“Now the government is confident that India has sufficient defense industrial capabilities to produce this hardware domestically. If you see many of the items which are on the recently announced list, it is evident that most of them are already being produced domestically,” he said and added: “India’s bid for self-reliance in defense is ambitious.”
Reacting to the questions raised about the presence of such items on the embargo list, the ministry said, “It is highlighted that systems like LCA Mk-1A [fighters], the Pinaka rocket system, Akash missile system, etc. are developed with qualitative requirements framed by the Defense Forces. Such systems are also available in the international market. The nomenclature of such weapon systems have been included in the negative list of imports to ensure that the Defense Services do not go in for procurement of similar systems ex-import.”
In India, which has upgraded the military capabilities mostly through imports, commenters also see many challenges in the government’s plans. According to a paper by the Mumbai-based Gateway House think tank released last month, India’s ongoing modernization of the military has been mostly met by imports, and in the last decade, India imported a total of $33.8 billion worth of defense equipment, with Russia, the US, Israel, France and the UK the top import countries.
Amid border tensions between India and China in Ladakh in the Himalayan region, a first batch of French-made Rafale fighter jets arrived in India in June this year.
“It is also a bit of an irony, as the announcement comes at a time when foreign acquisitions seem to be the norm of the day. So I see this mostly the [announcement] as optics rather than any substantive move,” said Routray.
He listed several challenges, including whether all the stakeholders are on board, irrational and lackadaisical planning, the state of home capacity [like Defense Research and Development Organization has toiled for decades to provide a field worthy battle tank, a decent rifle etc. without success] and the impact on India’s relations with major countries it stops importing items.
“To cite a parallel example, didn’t India-Iran relations plummet after New Delhi cut imports of crude oil to zero from that country?”
Although the experts said that all of these items were either made in India or planned to be made in India, some said the intent needs to be welcomed.
“Some items mentioned are only made in India, so the question of importing them does not arise as such. The announcement doesn’t really move the needle meaningfully on the import versus indigenous issue, [but] as a statement of intent, it’s a welcome first step,” Angad Singh, a project coordinator with the Observer Research Foundation’s Strategic Studies Programme, told Anadolu Agency.
He said, however, that “the gap between imported and domestically produced equipment is constantly narrowing, both by value as well as volume.”
‘Private sector in defense production’
According to the commentators, the latest announcement is an opportunity for the Indian private sector, which has been kept out of defense production.
“The private sector would be definitely interested to put in their money, since the banned items have been listed. But for this, the government needs to address the bureaucratic loopholes that play spoilsport,” said Routray.
Patil however, sees the anxiety of the private sector as a challenge for the government.
“The major challenge, I think, would be that many of these items are still being produced by the defense public sector units, so the private sector has an anxiety that it may be left out majorly in defense production, despite the government’s push. So the major task for the government will be to address this anxiety of the private sector,” he said.
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