The decision by the Modi government to award INR 48,000 crores to the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautical Limited (HAL) Tejas MK1A for investment and integration in a native light fighter in to the Indian Air Force was long overdue. Although 50 percent of the Tejas MK1A’s components, including most prominently its American built General Electric engine, Israeli Elta Radar and British Avionics are imported, nevertheless the basic design, the composite materials used for the aircraft, mathematical proficiency and metallurgy undergirding the design of the aircraft are the product of native effort.
Beyond the complex intricacies of technology and manufacturing requirements of the Tejas MK1A, the more consequential takeaway from the award HAL has secured is the move towards greater defence indigenisation. The size of the order with state-owned HAL bagging the contract reflects a growing awareness within India of the importance of developing weapons platforms and systems domestically. The Union Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh, captured it well when he spoke about the Tejas contract to HAL: “India cannot be dependent on others for its defence.” This was as emphatic a statement as any government’s commitment to a native defence capability. While the Modi government has touted or at least sees this move as consistent with its Atma Nirbhar initiative for which it deserves credit, the intent and effort towards building a strong defence base that can supply reasonably top of the line weapons platforms for the Indian armed services goes back to governments since India’s independence.
Most importantly, the development of the Tejas testifies to the imperatives of internal balancing in international relations. Internal balancing relies on a state or country’s domestic resources and efforts to augment its strength. The internal balancing approach is generally a costlier approach to accumulating military power. India has already shown a readiness to strengthen itself through internal balancing through the acquisition of nuclear weapons and their delivery capabilities. The country, albeit with initial external or foreign assistance, built a civilian space programme and, today, it has a space weapons programme that includes a confirmed kinetic Anti-Satellite (ASAT) capability. The Indian nuclear programme also benefited from initial external assistance, although it was at its inception guided by a commitment to exclusively civilian uses. Progressively, due to adverse shifts in India’s strategic environment, it aided a weaponised nuclear capability that was exclusively indigenous. In addition, India has a Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs) programme that possibly includes taking out space-borne targets. Indigenous investments are also being made across the cyber, electronic and space military domain. All these efforts and several others are to a significant measure, but not exclusively due to internal balancing.
The Tejas going to HAL, however, signals a greater resolve on the part of the Indian state to augment sovereign military strength and for this reason the Modi government deserves its due in making good on paving the way for a firmer indigenisation in the conventional weapons domain. The source of this decision is also at one level among Indian decision-makers the growing realisation that investing too heavily in imports spells greater dangers in the long term. Firstly, India ends up boosting the strength of the Military Industrial Complexes (MICs) of other countries, rather than its own. A second factor that has acutely weighed on Indian decision-makers, which was tacitly acknowledged by Rajnath Singh, and not often stated publicly is in part due to the fact that the Indian state could become susceptible to external weapons embargoes that could cut-off supplies. Thirdly, taking external supply of military equipment granted for a state the size of India is a risky gambit. The 1965 war India-Pakistan, is a perfect example of a war where Pakistan committed the aggression, but the United States of America (USA), which supplied equipment to both states prior to the war, wound up cutting off supplies to not just Pakistan, but India as well. For Americans, this was entirely justified because it was in their interests. The point to underline here is that international politics is not an exercise or practice of justice and fairness. The simple reality is that the power and interests of supplier states matter. Weapons acquisitions from overseas is one area where the Indian state is acutely vulnerable. It is for this reason that New Delhi ought not to take for granted the support of any country from where it imports military equipment including Russia, Israel and France and not just the USA.
Finally, indigenisation is not simply about creating a defence ecosystem where indigenous development weapons can thrive, it is equally getting the end-users — the Indian armed services to change their attitude towards Indian Research and Development (R&D) by reposing greater faith with the Indian defence industry. This is a difficult task, as the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) attitude towards the Tejas ever since inception testifies, which has veered from scepticism to derision over whether it could meet the IAF’s quality requirements. Unlike the Indian Navy (IN), which has been at the forefront of indigenisation of defence equipment among the three services, it is the IAF which has been dubious about India’s native development and sometimes not unjustifiably. Nevertheless, the IAF eventually accepting the decision by the Modi government to award this substantial contract to HAL, is in part, due to civilian intervention to change the IAF’s service culture towards native development. While the armed services mandate is to plan, prepare and fight wars and secure and field the best equipment money can buy, their effort should also be to aid internal balancing by the Indian state, which in the long run will yield dividends by creating a more dynamic defence industrial base that services their needs. The Tejas M1A contract to the HAL is a step in that direction.
Kartik Bommakanti @KartikBommakan1 is a Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme. Kartik specialises in space military issues and his research is primarily centred on the Indo-Pacific region. Views are personal.
The article first appeared on the Observer Research Foundation website.