Open arms

The defence ministry's decision, taken at the meeting of the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) earlier this month, to allow the Indian private sector to participate in the bidding for artillery guns is a welcome step. But it should have come years ago. There was no convincing rationale for the MoD's practice of trusting foreign private arms manufacturers with its armament details, while continuing to exclude domestic private firms. That's set to change with the army's plans for upgunning 300 of its 130 mm M-46 field guns.

But this is just a first step and must be seen as the beginning of a longer, arduous process. The new acquisition process, approved at the DAC meeting, places global procurement at the bottom of the pile. Buying arms in the global market as a last resort would hold only if domestic ordnance production were up to the task of meeting the military's quantitative and qualitative equipment needs. India's ordnance factories and PSUs, such as HAL, till date have managed little beyond joint production; so far, private players have been restricted to the manufacture of ancillary equipment. The UPA's instinct to ban and blacklist foreign manufacturers after each procurement scandal has stalled India's military modernisation and eroded the military's conventional edge in the subcontinent. The artillery regiments, in particular, have been grounded, since most of the major foreign suppliers are blacklisted. India's immediate military needs include new guns, air-defence missiles to protect naval assets, fighter aircraft and new-age submarines. Clearly, this is a tall order for the domestic ordnance industry to meet any time soon.

For the long term, the MoD has to ensure that successful private bidders are not circumscribed by a restrictive environment. They must be free to discover their partners abroad and acquire the best technology possible. In the aftermath of the UN's approval of the Arms Trade Treaty, perceived to be biased against net importers like India, the imperative of an overhaul of domestic arms production is clear. Only that will give shape to the military-industrial complex that a country with the world's fourth-largest armed forces should have created long ago.

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