Aligning Atmanirbhar Bharat to Calibrated Defence Modernisation Strategy

Given its fragile security environment and strategic objectives Indigenous defence industry is a vital objective for India, and aligning Atmanirbhar Bharat initiative to calibrated defence modernisation strategy and technology strategy is thus a strategic imperative and a challenge which must be overcome

Special Feature

By Lt Gen AB Shivane (Retd)


NATIONAL SECURITY CONSTRUCT AND ATMANIRBHAR BHARAT: India’s strategic security canvas, if not perilous, is fragile and susceptible to escalating threats to national security. Both on the western and northern front we face adversaries who have a revisionist and expansionist strategic culture and a history of backstabbing. The internal front will have its challenges. The pendulum of war and peace on our turbulent disputed borders will thus continue to have its dynamics with possible sparks igniting confrontation and flaring into limited conflict. Thus, the imperative of strong and modern military based on the foundation of a self-reliant and self-sufficient defence industrial base.

Ironically India is the second biggest importer of arms for the period 2015-19, with no Indian defence manufacturing company figuring in the top 30 global defence companies. This gap between demand and supply for a technology-enabled military might, escalatory threat matrix and a nascent defence industrial base impinges upon the national security calculus. The ‘Make in India’ initiative announced nearly six years ago aimed at focusing its efforts on increasing indigenous defence manufacturing and becoming self-reliant. Since then a large number of bold and well-meaning policies and initiatives have been announced for fostering self-reliance under the ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat or Self Reliant India’ including the recent import embargo on 101 defence items. While these policy reforms are laudable, the experience is that they have not achieved the desired transformation from a cliché to reality, in terms of their true potential, desired pace and realistic outcomes. I have commented on some of these in my article that India needs outcome-oriented reforms (

‘Make in India’ initiative announced nearly six years ago aimed at focusing its efforts on increasing indigenous defence manufacturing and becoming self-reliant. Since then a number of bold and well-meaning policies have been announced to foster self-reliance under ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat or Self Reliant India’ including the recent import embargo on 101 defence items

The reality remains after every crisis to national security, there is an emergency procurement impetus for meeting operational deficiencies through off the shelf foreign procurements. Thus the strategic gap between desirability and reality to building Atmanirbhar defence capabilities though certainly narrowing remains a strategic challenge which requires a pragmatic and holistic dispassionate introspection at the national level. A need is thus felt to calibrate “Atmanirbhar” Policy aligned to Defence Modernisation Strategy and not vice versa as at times professed. Operational Effectiveness which is a major outcome of modernisation strategy is based on empowering the warfighter with the best possible means for victory at least cost to live and in minimum time – Swadeshi (indigenous) or Videshi (imported) in the order of preference. Of course if Videshi it should be indigenised at the earliest for self-sufficiency and self-reliance.

If this capability is met by Atmanirbhar initiative without diluting operational requirements, it gives immense pride not only to the soldier but also bolsters the standing of a nation’s global stature. Decision-makers will do well to appreciate that when bullets fly, the technologically superior opponent prevails – either you kill or get killed. This is the Catch 22 anomaly. Warfighters correctly want the top of the line technology existing systems and a nascent evolving Indian Industry cannot provide at the first instance such a truly indigenous system. Thus the option is a spiral approach or JV with Foreign OEM to make/ produce in India. Thus transition management from Videshi to Swadeshi and quantifiable monitoring its progressive indigenous content including IPR, empowered by homegrown R&D, is the key to fostering Atmanirbhar. 


Modernisation preserves the Army’s core capability to detect, deter, degrade and defeat threats from adversaries through combat overmatch. This forms the Army’s foundational pillar for the threat cum capability building approach to force modernisation.  Future force modernisation thus needs to build on the principles of retaining the capacity and readiness to accomplish combat superiority, expand new technology-enabled state-of-art capabilities to cope up with the emerging threats and future warfare, harnessing joint force capabilities and optimising indigenous defence industrial base. To build and maintain these fundamental capabilities, we must make operationally oriented, time-sensitive, technologically focused, sustainable, and cost-effective decisions based on the value, vulnerability and risk analysis. Thus, the Army Modernisation must be driven by the operational requirement and balance the technological, indigenous and fiscal realities in a time-critical domain to achieve the stated objectives. The challenging lies in devising a dynamic and innovative modernisation strategy defining the ends, aligning the ways and prioritising the means based on warfighters operational capability. The outcome must ensure decisive combat edge across the entire spectrum of conflict. It must also be understood that expansion and modernisation impact each other’s growth and cannot pragmatically go hand in hand.

Atmanirbharta must be aligned to and become the principle means for Force Modernisation to achieve combat overmatch which in turn becomes the way to the desired end of ensuring national security

The pillars of such a balanced defence modernisation strategy must rest on five key aspects and acronym ‘SUDRO’Sustain current army capabilities and address voids; Upgrade legacy equipment/ capabilities to bridge technological gaps; Develop new future technology-enabled capabilities through spiral approach for combat overmatch and in tune with future warfare requirements; Replace obsolete and beyond service life equipment progressively; and Optimise indigenous capability progressively for technological induction and capacity generation.


Logically, Atmanirbharta must be aligned to and become the principle means for Force Modernisation to achieve combat overmatch which in turn becomes the way to the desired end of ensuring national security. This should be the principle strategic outlook to preserving national security through a strong military capability. Thus, Atmanirbhar initiative must include the following essentials:-

  1. Budgetary Support and Concept of Reservation. A supportive budgetary allocation for fostering capital procurement and desirably a Capital Revolving Non-Lapsable Fund for new schemes is mandated. Being strong has a price tag for the nation, so no option but to raise our defence budget to 2-2.5 per cent of our GDP as the driver along with the capacity to efficiently utilise it. Separate budget provision for ‘domestic capital procurement’ was a long-overdue reform which needs to be followed up by a roll-on appendage. However, a separate dedicated allocation to Indian Industry as planned must not be like a reservation quota policy where concessions on standards (GSQR tweeted) are accepted. This is neither desirable in the development of a defence ecosystem nor for war-fighting. The competitive spirit must be financially empowered and concessions made to home-grown solutions only when at par capabilities based on spiral approach are assured. Thus, to encourage limited Spiral 1 items could be given to rear non-contact echelons where the threat is minimal and subsequently upgraded for frontline forces.
  1. Risk Sharing Gain Sharing. A risk-sharing gain sharing product financing formulation between the government and the defence industry is desirable. Make 1 in DPP was a good example but did not see the light of the day in terms of outcome and financial support by the government. No industry will invest heavily in JV or R&D for ‘big tickets procurements’ unless there are some assurances of it evolving into reality. The Indian experience in this regard has been far from satisfactory.
  1. Home-grown R&D. Primary driver must be indigenous R&D. It must be encouraged and if required enforced in terms of hardware, software, skinware and financial allocation in areas like raw grade metallurgy, strategic critical electronics, system design and manufacturing technologies. The Indian investments in Defence R&D as compared to the global average is subpar.

  1. Indigenisation and Indigenous Production. Indigenisation must foster indigenous production and indigenous products must have a very high indigenous content including all identified critical technologies with IPR. We have had cases like the Arjun Tank where the initial indigenous content was only 35 to 40 per cent, yet called an indigenous product. Indigenisation is reverse engineering of a foreign OEM design as often the TOT is either not comprehensive being without design technology, or not absorbed to the desired extent or critical technology voids. Thus, progressively the indigenous content in foreign OEM equipment is increased by indigenised replacements. In indigenous production, it is essentially IDDM (Indian Design, Developed and Manufactured) with existing 40 per cent indigenous content (proposed 50 per cent in DPP 2020, which is also grossly inadequate to be called Swadeshi) and Indian IPR. Clear mechanism and neutral agency for quantified objective calculation of indigenous content and costing is a grey area that needs to be addressed.
  1. Import Substitution and Indigenous Content. Import embargo and encouraging Indian OEMs to make these would still have some import content in these items. This import substitution must be followed up by a progressive reduction of the import component. This must be clearly defined and verified in terms of indigenous content (cost, subassemblies, design and raw material) by an independent verification agency including IPR holding (both foreground and background). It is also important that other measures like a strategic partnership, Make projects, 74 per cent FDI, Defence Offsets and DICs are energised to show commitment, outcome and thus foster confidence in the sincerity of intent and encouragement to the Indian Industry.
  1. Collaborative Approach. Competition and cocooned growth between DPSU, DRDO, OFB and Private Sector must give space to collaborative and cooperative JVs duly integrating academia, technocrats and scientific community, but driven by the user-centric requirement approach. The need is for an integrated defence ecosystem and a vibrant defence industrial base. The integration of MSME’s particularly new start-ups must be encouraged in an ocean where survival against sharks is a challenge. It is unfair to compare the Private Sector with DRDO, OFB and DPSU and talk of level playing field without empowerment.
  2. Pragmatic Business Model. The proposals for procurement must also make good business sense in terms of minimum assured quality and continuity of orders for future requirements to be a sustainable business model. The unpredictability and uncertainty of the commitment and frequent changes of the proposal are inhibitions in the minds of the Private Industry to investments and R&D.


The art of modernisation will be to balance capability, sustainability, and readiness within the allocated resources to achieve the desired ends. This requires us to build our equipping priorities based on value, vulnerability and risks in temporal terms.The contours of such a strategy must entail:-

(a) Tiered Modernisation. This approach prioritises in terms of progressive capabilities and tiered modernisation while mitigating the risks of low funding reality. The Army must place a priority on frontline formations most operationally critical to be equipped with the best, that is, those facing the greatest risk and providing the maximum payoffs when employed in battle. The rear supporting or logistic echelons could be provided with the tier two equipment. A large army must refine its scaling philosophy for realistic modernisation needs within defined budgetary support.
(b) Spiral Approach to Technology Induction. Enhanced functional capabilities and increased weapon effectiveness index contributing to combat overmatch must dictate the desired technologies. Many capability gaps can be closed with equipment or mature technologies that already exist; this will also shorten acquisition timelines, enabling us to buy more often and divesting rather than sustaining some legacy items. Simultaneously develop R&D for state-of-art technologies for future time-critical technology infusion in the midterm. In the long term invest in Science and Technology projects for generation after next disruptive technologies in the long term. This spiral and progressive approach must be based on indigenous solutions need to be institutionalised.

An integrated R&D approach by all stakeholders including academia is required as part of the integrated defence ecosystem and a collaborative vibrant defence industrial base in the country

(c) Value – Vulnerability and Risk Analysis. Modernisation strategy must give quantifiable upgraded value and mitigate vulnerabilities of the war-fighter. Risk is a function of the values of threat, consequence, and vulnerability in time and space. Prioritised modernisation must be based on acquisitions adding maximum value to combat effectiveness, mitigating critical vulnerabilities and accepting certain risks in temporal terms. Risk must be assessed in temporal terms and accepted in certain areas to ensure that the more critical areas are added value while mitigating vulnerabilities.
(d) Cost Informed Decisions. Modernisation decisions must be both affordable and cost-effective within the overall budget to include life cycle costs. The opportunity cost of “over-spending” to close a specific high-cost gap is that we will not be able to afford closing several other gaps; thus, we must make cost informed decisions to manage ‘best bang for the buck’.
(e) Balance Modernisation and Sustenance. Modernisation and sustenance cannot be progressed in compartmentalised mindsets. The fiscal requirements for modernisation must be carefully balanced against the financial requirements necessary for sustaining the force at hand in its life cycle. Thus, standardisation and commonality of a family of platforms and interoperable technologies will reduce sustenance cost with better inventory management.
(f)  Cost-Benefit of Sustaining Beyond Service Life Equipment. To generate additional resources for modernisation, we must accept risk by divesting beyond service life obsolete systems to decrease sustainment costs; when planning platform replacements and upgrades, assess the economically sustainable life of the current platforms to determine the cost-benefit of continuing to sustain, upgrade or replace these platforms.
(g)  Indigenous Solutions to Indian War-fighting. Modernisation foundation must be based on indigenous capabilities even if it costs marginally higher but no dilution in capabilities accepted. However, the spiral approach to technology enhancement should find favour, and where insufficient then be based on a joint collaboration with levers in the hands of the Indian firm.


Future technology infusion must follow a multi-tiered approach with a long-term vision. It must entail financial support to Defence R&D and integrated defence ecosystem. Further, “Transition Technology” poses challenges for a successful time-critical transition of tabletop technology to a military entity which needs focus. All multi-tiered levels are not sequential but simultaneous with the user, technologist, defence industry and academia interfaced in a hand holding model as under:-.

  • Level 1 Immediate time-critical technology gap be bridged by mature contemporary technology in a spiral approach, with emphasis on indigenisation, transfer of technology where indigenous capability void exists and integration in the earliest time frame. These components are items for which technologies rapidly change such as sensors, software, and optoelectronics; we want them to be adaptable and reconfigurable across multiple platforms, expansible and linked together to close multiple capability gaps. These must be modular fit and ensure easy adaptability to legacy equipment. These must essentially be addressed by internal R&D of the entire defence manufacturing sector including OFB, DPSU, PSU and private defence industry.
  • Level 2 Desired capabilities and emerging technology for next-generation emerging weapon technologies and thus ensure R&D focus on these technologies. These technologies change more slowly such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), IoT (Internet of Things), Big Data etc; and as such need to be planned for induction on equipment. MoD must identify five or six such critical technologies, where India must have complete control and support / encourage R&D in this quest. A rejuvenated DRDO, vibrant defence industry R&D laboratories and technologists from academia can play an important role in this sphere.
  • Level 3 Systems which are expensive and where technology changes very slowly such as active protection systems, new-generation engine and transmission or new major capability such new-generation missile, require to be changed less frequently to bridge technology gaps. An integrated R&D approach by all stakeholders including academia is required, as part of the integrated defence ecosystem and a collaborative vibrant defence industrial base.
  • Level 4 Loop Ahead Technology and disruptive technology for Next Generation equipment with a focus on science and technology projects. MoD must identify a few such disruptive technology challenges. We ought to constitute American’s DARPA (Defence Advanced Projects Agency) like funding body manned by project-specific technical experts to give an open call to qualified citizens to come up with ideas and contribute to this transformational technology development.


An Indigenous defence industry is a vital objective for India given its fragile security environment and strategic objectives. Aligning Atmanirbhar Bharat initiative to calibrated defence modernisation strategy and technology strategy is thus a strategic imperative and a challenge which must be overcome. Atmanirbhar initiative is not aimed to provide any sub-optimal system as compared to our adversaries, yet in a spiral approach can initially empower the rear echelons, followed by R&D to provide state-of-art system to the frontline. The transition will entail time and patience yet must have an assurance of being progressive and quantifiable. We must accept that a perfect indigenous system for immediate operational deployment by a nascent private defence industry cannot be made in the first go, however, the spiral effort can ensure that at least next generation should be top of the line. Further, a mechanism must be found to ensure predictable capital expenditure, to incentivise investment. Simultaneously the home-grown R&D must get a fillip.

India faces numerous challenges in the transformation of its defence industry from Videshi to Swadeshi. The normal rules of market economics do not apply, defence budget remains subpar and susceptible to cuts, ideal objectives of quality and quantity, cost, and timeframes cannot be achieved simultaneously and all three R&D, technological absorption and quality control leave much to be desired. The nation cannot live with the stigma of being among the top importers of weapon systems when both the capability and expertise exists in the vibrant Private Sector. It requires pragmatic focused stimulus and assurances to bridge trust deficit gap and the confidence. Simultaneously with the threats knocking on our door, capability voids cannot set in due to non-availability of quality indigenous solutions in desired timeframes.
-The writer is a PVSM, AVSM, VSM has had an illustrious career spanning nearly four decades. A distinguished Armoured Corps officer, he has served in various prestigious staff and command appointments including Commander Independent Armoured Brigade, ADG PP, GOC Armoured Division and GOC Strike 1. The officer retired as DG Mechanised Forces in December 2017 during which he was the architect to initiate process for reintroduction of Light Tank and Chairman on the study on C5ISR for Indian Army. Subsequently he was Consultant MoD/OFB from 2018 to 2020. The Officer is a reputed defence analyst, a motivational speaker and prolific writer on matters of military, defence technology and national security.The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily carry the views of Raksha Anirveda


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