Government and governance, Trade and industry, National security | Asia, South Asia

10 May 2018

Defence voices in India are calling for the country to build an indigenous defence manufacturing sector. Rajesh Soami takes a look at whether the new Defence Planning Committee could help pave the way.

In April 2018, the Government of India established a new permanent body to undertake planning on national defence matters. Called the Defence Planning Committee (DPC), the new government body will define a security strategy for the country, conduct a strategic defence review and plan a path towards building an indigenous defence manufacturing sector.

The last time the Indian Government moved to bolster its administration of strategic planning activities was in 1998. That led to the creation of the National Security Council (NSC) and the post of National Security Advisor. The new committee will, in many ways, be an appendage to the NSC, attracting potential criticism about the real need for it. But there are other questions the DPC needs to answer.

The committee will be headed by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, and will include the Chairman of the Chiefs of the Staff Committee, the Service Chiefs, the Defence Secretary, the Foreign Secretary, and the Secretary for Expenditure in the Finance Ministry.

A career officer from the Indian police services, Ajit Doval has been eloquent about the need for India to develop its own military-industrial complex. His views have struck a chord with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in New Delhi. (It was an earlier BJP government which created the post of National Security Advisor). The new responsibilities are likely to make him one of the key figures as India tries to give concrete shape to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Make in India’ campaign as it relates to defence manufacturing.

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The Indian economy has lagged behind in the growth of its manufacturing sector, especially when it compares itself to China. The government realises it needs to bolster the manufacturing sector if it wants to reap the demographic ‘youth dividend’. Failure on this front could lead to increased unemployment and hamper India’s growth story.

The lack of coordination between the defence forces and defence production organs in the country stymies the development of a domestic defence manufacturing sector. The armed forces have been regularly accused of preferring imported products over indigenous ones.

For its part, the armed forces claim that government-owned defence research and development centres overstate their achievements and try to force substandard products on them. A coordinating mechanism may, therefore, be necessary to develop a coherent national strategy, as well as to bridge divisions between various state organs.

In the meantime, India remains the world’s largest importer of armaments. This leads to enormous loss of capital which Delhi could use for much-needed infrastructure development. At a time when there is increasing competition in the arms market, India has realised that lucrative contracts could make or break friendships.

Russia is the traditional arms supplier to India, accounting for up to 62 per cent of Indian expenditure between 2013-2017. However, recent contracts going the way of Western suppliers have soured this relationship. India’s reluctance to invest in joint development and production of fifth-generation fighter aircraft has led to frustration in Moscow.

More on this: India’s approaches to the South China Sea

At the same time, US President Donald Trump is pushing for the sale of American defence products abroad. India’s purchase of the Rafale aircraft has also led to the growth of friendly ties with France. It is no surprise then that India now seeks greater coordination between its foreign and defence procurement policy.

Having said that, the National Security Council already exists to cater to strategic discussions, so whether or not an additional Defence Planning Committee was needed is debatable. But influential National Security Advisors have often found a way to convince their political bosses to give them more say in strategic matters. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

Politicians are already exhausted from negotiating the myriad combinations of castes, communities and constituencies in India. They have neither the time nor the expertise to formulate policies or deliberate upon complicated issues like the development of a military-industrial complex. So, the onus lies on the bureaucrats to direct policy in these fields.

But, if the goal of the new committee is to change or influence India’s defence or foreign policy in a larger sense, it will quickly realise that this is no mean feat.

Strategic policy in India reflects the deep internal divisions in its society and polity. For the last 70 years, policymakers have been unable to decide whether Delhi should treat Pakistan as a younger brother, friendly neighbour or hostile enemy. Similar confusion reigns with respect to China.

In addition, there is no certainty that political forces friendly to the policies of the current government will come to power after the next national election in 2019. Despite some experts commending the consensus in strategic policy matters, it exists only so long as it cannot be used for political purposes on the domestic front.

More on this: India’s challenge to China

As seen in the Rafale aircraft purchase, opposition parties are not averse to questioning government decisions if it can earn them political advantage.

It is difficult to imagine how the new committee, formed at a relative eleventh hour of the present government, will stay relevant if another government comes to power after the elections.

The DPC must stay focused on reducing the foreign content of the armoury of India’s military. At the same time, it should try to maximise diplomatic gains when India is forced to buy expensive hardware from abroad.

However, delving into broader foreign policy efforts is likely to negate its effectiveness. India has a deeply divided political class which lacks a culture of strategic planning – no committee or council can change that. And the NSC already exists for strategic foreign policy planning.

If the Defence Planning Committee stays focused and the BJP manages to form government again next year, there is a possibility that it could achieve something. This also depends on future national security advisors sharing Ajit Doval’s enthusiasm for developing a defence industry in the country. For the moment, many ‘ifs and buts’ shadow the future of the nascent committee.

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