For six decades, slow progress in developing indigenous defence equipment and a Nehruvian squeamishness about exporting arms have together made India’s presence in the international arms only that of a buyer — last year the world’s biggest.
That has begun to change. A large Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) team is heading to Seoul, in South Korea, where it will be one of the biggest exhibitors at the Aerospace and Defence Exhibition (ADEX-2013) later this month.
The DRDO will display a variety of indigenous defence systems at Seoul, including the Akash surface-to-air missile (SAM), the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), the Pragati surface-to-surface missile (SSM), an airborne early warning system (AEWS) and several other high-technology systems like sonar, battlefield radars, and identification-friend-or-foe (IFF) systems.
After half a century of operating below the international radar, often in the teeth of tough international sanctions, the DRDO’s emergence at Seoul highlights a growing confidence. With Rs 1,57,000 crore worth of DRDO-developed systems already in service with the Indian military and more on the cusp of delivery, the DRDO is targeting the Asia-Pacific region, where the rise of an assertive China is driving strong defence spending.
“A large number of products developed by DRDO and produced by Indian Industry including those being displayed at ADEX-2013, have immense export potential,” says the DRDO.
The military’s reluctance to induct DRDO weaponry into its arsenal has hindered overseas interest in Indian equipment. That is changing with the army and air force placing large orders of Akash SAM systems, the Tejas fighter entering squadron service, the Arjun tank proving its capability in comparative trials with the Russian T-90, and a string of development successes in ballistic missiles, radars and avionics.
The DRDO chief, Avinash Chander, confirms that at least two south-east Asian countries have expressed interest in buying the Indo-Soviet Brahmos supersonic cruise missile. He has declined to name the countries, but MoD insiders say they include Vietnam and Indonesia. There is also interest in the Akash SAM.
Significant foreign orders would drive down production costs, which are high because the Indian military places such small orders that economies of scale are unobtainable. The air force has so far ordered just one squadron of Tejas (20 aircraft), with one more squadron promised later. The army has ordered just 124 Arjun tanks, while an order of at least 300 tanks is needed for indigenising key components like the thermal imaging sights by purchasing technology and manufacturing them in India.
The DRDO intends to set up a marketing arm, a measure recommended by the Rama Rao Committee in its still classified 2008 report, entitled “Reconfiguring DRDO”. Meanwhile, the DRDO is doing its marketing in-house. In August, it sold an American company the technology to manufacture an Explosive Detection Kit in the US.
“We have been hesitant in showing our capabilities in building weapons. But in ADEX-2013, we will be telling the world that India is here. Our presence at Seoul will provide an opportunity for building technology partnerships for R&D and manufacture, and for creating export potential,” says Chander.
Several private sector companies that have partnered DRDO in manufacturing advanced defence platforms will also attend ADEX-2013. Tata Power (Strategic Electronics Division), which has built two of the Akash launchers that will be on display, will make its presence felt in Seoul. So too will public sector undertakings, Bharat Electronics Ltd and Bharat Dynamics Ltd.
“We want to project not just the DRDO, but all of India’s emerging defence capabilities. Indian industries are well-poised to emerge as Tier-1 and Tier-2 suppliers to foreign original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), which will build capabilities and enhance exports,” points out the DRDO chief.
Among the hurdles before foreign vendors who choose to partner Indian companies are obtaining licences to produce defence equipment in India; and obtaining export permissions. The DRDO chief says these are not major issues, and the MoD would evaluate overseas requests on a case-by-case basis.
ADEX is being held at Seoul from October 29 to November 3, with more than 30 countries participating. The MoD has planned an Indo-Korean defence meet, where the Minister of State for Defence, Jitendra Singh will deliver the inaugural address, and an Indo-Korean industries meet.