Thiruvidanthai, Tamil Nadu: Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Wednesday said the government cannot walk a "thin line" to compel Indian armed forces to buy indigenous weapons, after she opened a major defence trade fair that projects India - world's biggest global arms importer - as one of the major military equipment manufacturing hubs.
The four-day DefExpo India, themed Emerging Defence Manufacturing Hub, and being held at Thiruvidanthai off the East Coast Road, is the 10th biennial exercise aimed at establishing Brand India and highlighting the manufacturing capabilities of the country's defence sector.
Asked about the huge export-import gap in the defence sector of a country that does not even figure among the top 25 exporters of arms with even its own forces hesitating to buy locally-manufactured weapon systems, Sitharaman said she could only tell the Indian armed forces to procure from indigenous companies "as much as possible".
She said she could not cross a "thin line" to impinge on the freedom of the Indian Army, the Indian Air Force or the Indian Navy "to make their own decisions" as per their operational requirements.
"When I am promoting Indian exports, Indian manufacturing, I am also telling the forces to procure domestically as much as possible.
"I would want to draw a thin line between the government's enthusiasm to make sure the production capabilities are such that they meet international standards and are export-worthy and the other side of the line where the Army, Navy or Air Force make their decision on what they want, what combination of equipment they want and in that combination if an India produced item fits in well.
"I can only go that far and not further, just as they can only go that far and not further without compromising each others' interests. I can't imagine prevailing upon them. We will only want them to give space to local manufacturers and buy indigenous products."
With the third largest armed forces in the world, India's defence market is one of the most lucrative in the world. According to estimates, the country is expected to lay out a $620-billion budget for defence procurements till 2022, offering foreign as well as local businesses immense opportunities.
Over 30 per cent of India's defence budget goes on capital acquisitions and 60 per cent of defence-related requirements are met by imports. The government is trying for import substitution and has offered foreign countries to "Make in India" - a key facet of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's governance aspects.
The defence exhibition that targets India's futuristic goal of building a self-sufficient domestic arms industry comes even as the armed forces of India facing multiple security threats continue to be saddled with sub-optimal weapon systems.
At the heart of this is the country's inability to boost indigenous defence manufacturing, which is often blamed on inordinate procedural delays, making a product redundant by the time it gets market-ready.
For example, the advanced versions of the indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft and the Arjun main battle tank: while the aircraft is still not combat-ready despite being in the making for over three decades, the main battle tank is said to be too heavy and poor in serviceability.
At the defence exhibition, dozens of foreign and local companies and defence public sector undertakings are hard selling their products to the Indian armed forces and foreigners, including defence attaches.
Defence Secretary Ajay Kumar said the government was not targeting any specific number of deals or agreements expected to be signed at the exhibition that "showcases the strengths of India's public sector and also uncovers India's growing private industry and spreading MSME base for components and sub-systems".
Over 650 exhibitors, including some 520 Indian companies, are participating in the event.
The response from foreign companies this time, as compared to the previous DefExpo held in Goa in 2016, has not been that good. A total of 232 foreign companies had participated in Goa, while it is 154 this time.
Official delegations from nearly 50 countries, including the US and the UK, are attending the expo that has participation of some major global companies including Lockheed Martin, Boeing, BAE Systems, Rafael, Saab, Airbus, Rosonboron Exports, United Shipbuilding, Sibat, Wartsila and Rhode and Schwarz.
Also on display at the 2.90 lakh-square-feet exhibition area along the sea coast are indigenously developed land, air and naval systems.
These include Tejas fighter jets, advanced towed artillery gun systems designed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), Arjun Mark 2 tank and Dhanush artillery guns.
The DRDO is showcasing the Nirbhay missile system with its launcher, MBT Arjun Mk-I tank, Astra missile, low-level transportable radar system, medium power radar system and Varunastra - the heavyweight anti-submarine electric torpedo.