Self-reliance in Defence was always a part of the Indian State’s lexicon in defence. But the manner in which it panned out in practice was not quite Aatmanirbhar: the principal stakeholders – the Armed Forces were at best onlookers, the private sector was categorically excluded, and the start-up experiment had not even been seeded. DRDO and the DPSUs monopolised the main effort: it was a mixed bag really – dotted with a few successes, but one of sub-optimality and inefficiencies in the main. Self-reliance became more of a slogan and a proposition of selective exclusion rather than an integrated endeavour towards progression. And one that was wholly out of step with global metrics. It led to a predicament whereby India became one of the largest importers of arms (accounting for 11% of global arms sales), striking at the root of our strategic autonomy while exposing the vulnerability of our supply chains.
Apex level political resolve and commitment are for all of us to see – the concept has been well thought through, fleshed out in great detail and road mapped with specific schemes; the Armed Forces are not only integral participants but also the principal drivers; the DRDO and DPSUs are being realigned and restructured to address the new realities; the Private Sector is enthused, and the Start-Up eco-system in Defence is delivering beyond expectations.
Challenges remain, saboteurs could still surface, but in aggregate, the key tenets of this New Aaatmanirbharta are sound and, therefore, of considerable promise. The vision of Aatmanirbharta goes far beyond mere ‘import substitution’ It is designed to facilitate investment, foster innovation, enhance ease of doing business, enable global competitiveness as also build for and export to the world. It is as much about a cultural makeover as it is about institutional restructuring. It is in our utmost National Interest that it succeeds. In our journey through Amrit Kaal, as the Aatmanirbharata Initiative acquires momentum and resonance, it will become the transformational metric in India’s National Security Endeavours. An indigenously powered, technologically-enabled military, one immune to supply chain maneuvering and pressures, will be a strong lever of deterrence – the surest guarantor of peace in South Asia.
With some nudging and a new realisation, the Armed Forces are now the key drivers of the framework. They have begun to conceive, drive and own technology initiatives. Their outreach to Academia, IITs, IIMs, and private sector spaces like Amity, the RRU and MIT Pune for research and knowledge creation is unprecedented. Companies like Bharat Forge and Tech Mahindra have enjoined the Indian Army’s Technical Institutions with novel Internship Schemes. The energy of the Start-Ups has been particularly revealing. They have waded into emerging domains and, in a short span of time, are now the beneficiaries of orders in a suite of technologies: drone swarms, robotics, precautionary, low light imaging and EO / IR technologies. India’s first Start-Up Company to make Semi-Conductors in India could soon become a reality. An Indian version of the Bayrakhtar TB-2, built by an Indian Start-Up, could find its way into military inventories in a couple of years. Women Entrepreneurs in the Defence Space, too, have begun to make their mark. These are awe-inspiring benchmarks indeed.
The Aatmanirbhar Initiative also recognises that Technology Innovation is at the centrepiece of Strategic Competition. A new culture of risk-taking is therefore being energised. The government is committed to funding failures. We need, however, to realise that centralisation, rules and procedures mitigate against the very spirit of innovation, the latter being an ethos and philosophy that will simply die in the face of centralisation and control
For years, the Private Sector was willfully excluded – it could not be trusted with the secrets of Defence and high-end strategic knowhow. The ‘puerile notion’ has thankfully been thrown out of the window – not only is the private sector being positively wooed – the lifelong commitment to the Defence of far-sighted entrepreneurs like Mr Baba Kalyani is being acknowledged and rewarded. Industry-led design and development will hopefully deliver the indigenous light, weight tank, the multi-role helicopter, low orbit satellites, hypersonic glide vehicles and lithium sulphur batteries – so critical in power management and for the reduction of reduction combat trains.
Private Sector skills are not only critical to Capacity Building but are also of great essence in warfighting. The innovative use of Musk’s Starlink Terminals in combat in Ukraine is illustrative. Deployed in response to a tweet (not as a consequence of protracted government to government exchanges), the terminals were not only leveraged by President Zelensky for strategic communications (to influence global councils, affirm street resolve and boost troop morale) but also to designate artillery fires. Timely software updates are now being used to enhance survivability in the face of targeting by Russian airpower: creativity and innovation at their combat best. What were once exclusively country things are now becoming company things – pointers perhaps to the nature and direction of our strategic – military futures.
The Aatmanirbhar Initiative also recognises that Technology Innovation is at the centrepiece of Strategic Competition. A new culture of risk-taking is therefore being energised. The government is committed to funding failures. We need, however, to realise that centralisation, rules and procedures mitigate against the very spirit of innovation, the latter being an ethos and philosophy that will simply die in the face of centralisation and control. If the animal spirits of innovation are to be truly unleashed, we will need a leap of bureaucratic faith – governmental intervention will need to be minimised, rules and procedures will have to be surgically scaled down, and innovation centres created in every arm of government and entrepreneurial cross-connects allowed their natural flows.
Aatmanirbharta is as much about self-belief as it is about self-reliance. Self-belief will propel us to step up our game and our ambitions. From mere technology transfer, it will lead to knowledge transfer; from project companies, we will begin to create product companies. That is the larger vision that informs Aatmanirbharta. A new genre of ‘thought leadership,’ to sketch out futuristic pathways is perhaps the need of the hour: a think tank focused on technology may be the vehicle for such transformation.
We must use the Aatmanirbhar Juggernaut to build technologies of the future that are integrated into our statecraft. If Turkey can emerge as a ‘Drone Superpower,’ that is using its power projection capacities to eliminate threats at the source, why can India not emerge as the prized, strategic enclave for ‘Brain-Computer Interface’ or ‘Programmable Materials.’ Buoyed by the initial successes, we must now leverage the Aaatmanirbharata Platform to look further and aim even higher.
In conceptual terms, we must dissolve all silos and bring together talents of all kinds from all quarters. In doing so, we must fuse the prowess of Saraswati (our centres of learning and research), Laxmi (centres of wealth creation) and Durga (instruments of power) to develop a strong and robust strategic – military complex; one that is indigenous in content and calibrated in purpose. Create a paradigm that will help India attain its place and promise in the world. There will still be many false dawns, but our Bharatiya resolve will eventually get us there.