Time to push own weaponry

India recently showcased its defence capability in Seoul, South Korea, displaying its full weapons systems for the first time in a foreign country. Two of its missile systems, the surface-to-air Akash and surface-to-surface Pragati, were on display. Having come a long way from being a mere importer of arms, the Indian defence sector is now looking at export potential. Avinash Chander, the scientific advisor to the defence minister, secretary, Department of Defence (research and development) and director general, Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is spearheading this new shift in policy. He spoke at length to ANINDITA CHOWDHURY about the transition in the Indian defence sector as it readies for export and the need for our armed forces to be more open-minded about indigenous products.    

Tell us about Seoul. Are we looking at a change in our policies?
If you have to grow in the defence segment you have to export. It helps in many ways. It ensures quality because you need to be globally competitive and gets us to that cutting-edge capability. Secondly, we have to develop partnerships. India is not just an importer of arms but also a technological power. Based on this, there can be transformation, which is happening now.
India and South Korea are among the biggest importers of arms. If we are able to integrate, there are areas of vast potential. There is recognition that India needs to build partnerships for export, joint development and integrated facilitation of resources.

So long, DRDO was working for the armed forces. Now that you want to export, will that mean a shift in focus?
The needs of our armed forces are imperative, they get first priority. But having said that, I must add that India&’s industrial potential is immense. World over, economies are driven by defence needs and defence capabilities. Look at the US. I think we are reaching that maturity level where technology can translate into economic potential and build relations and markets. I am certain that we have enough entrepreneurship, capacity, resources and resilience for that.

DRDO has had its share of success and failure. When we export, we need to have weapons that are fool-proof. Have we reached that stage?

In any case, the lower version of the weapon that is inducted by the armed forces is exported. Nowhere in the world would they accept a weapon that has not been inducted by the country&’s armed forces.  Failure is a part of the development process. We are not worried about failure. Look at history—how many US programmes have failed, but it created a knowledge that led to success.

After Seoul, what are the new areas of research DRDO is focussing upon, right now?
DRDO is taking up many new challenges. In the next three years, we have to deliver light combat aircraft (LCA) and get into production. We are now looking at unmanned aircraft to be tested next year. We are going to dominate and saturate the missile sector overcoming our weakness in seekers.
But now, the most important area is ammunition. The Army may have thousands of tanks, but what is consumable is ammunition. We are building indigenous capability in tank armour, artillery shells, hand grenades, new type of warheads, aerial delivery bombs, precision bombs. Next year, indigenously developed ammunition will also enter the market.
Our aim is also to improve our time-cycle for a weapon to two-five years.

What is the time-cycle now?
It is seven-eight years. Earlier it was 15-20 years. The systems we are making now are globally competitive.

But when are we going to stop importing arms?
I keep telling in many forums that there has to be a policy decision on this. Today, Israel has grown in technology because they have made it a rule – they will not import arms. You will have some problems initially, but you can be selective.
Our policy is just the opposite. We first try to buy. If we cannot, then only we ask, “Can you make it for us?” whereas worldwide it is not so. This mind-set must change. As a policy, we must be conscious of the nation&’s strength and capability. Let&’s make it domain-wise. In the first year, I will not buy ammunition, the year next I will not buy this aircraft and so on. Let us set national targets, all of us are responsible to meet those targets and make it happen.

What are the broader policy changes you are looking at?
We are strongly advocating that whenever we are buying arms, major purchases should be linked with critical technology acquisition, fulfilling the needs of the country. We should enhance our ability to produce those systems in future. We don’t need to be afraid that he will not sell. If he does not sell, where will he go?
Secondly, we have to insist on indigenous products even if it is initially somewhat lower in performance. Then only can we move forward. Otherwise, that team will never create another product. There will be no production experience, no field experience to detect weaknesses. Now, we are working together with the Israelis to develop radar for the navy. The Israeli Navy is accepting their product. Our armed forces should also have that philosophy.
Suppose the specification for a weapon was 3 kg. Our product weighed 3 kg 60 gms. Just because it read 3.06 kg for two years, the weapon was not accepted though it was performing just as well.

We are still not making wholly indigenous weapons. Even Agni is 80 to 90 per cent indigenous. Isn’t this going to be a problem during exports?
Nobody in the world makes totally indigenous weaponry. Most of the non-indigenous parts are commercial ones, which have a hundred uses. Secondly, we must develop political relations to ensure supply chains are not affected.