Of indigenising military hardware and conspiracy theories

By Vishnu Makhijani,

For a country that produces just a handful of domestically-developed cars, SUVs and trucks — two and three-wheelers are deliberately left out of this — it would seem an extremely tall order to reduce the 60-70 percent reliance on imports for military hardware.

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It was more than a decade ago that Pranab Mukherjee, then the defence minister, had rapped the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) for reducing the import element by a mere five percent, from 25 percent to 30 percent, and precious little has changed since.

But then, isn’t “indigenous” an oxymoron in an increasingly globalising world where nations that are even sworn enemies are interdependent on each other to some extent.

Take even an advanced country like the U.S. and its two major manufacturers of military aircraft. The companies are more facilitators, designing a product, getting initial funding from the government and then outsourcing the entire acquisition process — the bulk of it from outside the U.S. – to end up as assemblers and testers of the finished product.

But in this country, it is the DRDO that calls the shots with its affiliates like Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and the Combat Vehicles Research and Development Organisation (CVRDE) being all-rolled-into one behemoth, handling everything from the drawing stage to the rolling-out process. This often results in a mismatch and cost over-runs as the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Indian Army often change their Qualitative Requirements for a product — with the manufacturer caring a fig for rising costs.

A case in point is the Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA) that has been 30 years in the development and has seen its costs rise from Rs. 560 crore to a whopping Rs. 25,000 crore and received the go-ahead for induction into the IAF only late last year.

Even so, its crucial power plant is imported; has been found unsuitable; and is to be replaced by a more powerful engine. This is because of the delay in developing the indigenous Kaveri engine whose story runs in tandem with that of the Tejas.

But then, it’s not just the power plant that is imported — much of the avionics and other key equipment too are.

Now, it must be remembered that the Tejas was touted as the replacement for the Soviet-era MiG-21s that were acquired in the 1960s. The delay in induction has meant that the IAF had to float a tender in 2007 for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA), with the French Rafale emerging on top for the $20 billion contract.

So, what’s the big deal about indigenisation? Considering that it took a quarter of a century to induct the British Hawk advanced jet trainer (AJT), had the search for the combat jet begun at the time the Tejas was conceived, the replacement might have arrived by now — and Rs. 25,000 crore saved!

Then, take the case of the Arjun main battle tank (MBT). Almost as long in the making as the LCA and after Rs. 3 billion being spent — against the originally sanctioned Rs.155 million — and only 124 tanks ordered, its Mark-I was quietly dumped, with one senior army officer asking this writer: “What am I supposed to do with it? Use it for target practice?”

Its successor, Arjun Mark-II, was displayed at this year’s Republic Day parade but is still about 70 percent imported, including its power plant, fire control system and other vital elements.

So, who’s the wiser?

And what’s that about conspiracy theories?

Well, it goes back to the 1960s, when India’s first indigenous combat jet was developed in collaboration with, of all countries, Egypt. It was designed by a German and had a British power plant. However, only limited numbers were built and though the aircraft performed extremely well in the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan, it was quietly retired in 1990.

There were whispers that the military-industry combine of the West – and the emerging scenario in the Soviet Union — felt uncomfortable at the contours of what was emerging in the developing world. India, let’s not forget, had a commanding presence in those times and could have fuelled the growth of a Southern arms industry to take on the dominant North.

Also, the Cold War was just taking shape and none of the two major protagonists could afford the distraction of a third player in the field. This apart, it was anticipated — and this was later validated — that the two major military-industry combines would produce far more than their principals could consume. The South would be the ideal market.

Let’s leave that aside for the moment. The 21st century is just 14 years old and there’s plenty of time for a new beginning. This would require all Indian stakeholders — the military, the bureaucracy and industry – to come together on a common page, decide what’s best for the country, where to obtain the necessary technology from, introduce best manufacturing practices and create a pot from where there’s enough for everyone to share.

Who then, is willing to bell the cat?

(Vishnu Makhijani is an Associate Editor at IANS. Views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])