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To stop relying on imported weapons, govt must create separate MoD for production, rejig DRDO

The naval variant of the Tejas fighter put India in an elite club of nations. But India remains an underperformer in the military-industrial field.

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The first simulated carrier-landing on 13 September by the naval variant of the Tejas fighter using a tail-hook was a unique achievement that received insufficient recognition and applause in India. It placed India in the elite club of just five nations capable of not only designing and building aircraft-carriers, but also the aircraft that can operate from them.

This accomplishment demonstrated that technological talent, design expertise and engineering competence are abundant and yet, India remains an under-performer in the military-industrial field.

Seven decades after independence, India’s failure to attain self-reliance in military hardware, and abject dependence on import of defence equipment, represents a huge vulnerability as far as national security is concerned.

While the Comptroller and Auditor General of India often draws Parliament’s attention to our half-empty arsenal, our adversary Pakistan has ensured a steady arms-supply from its ‘iron brother’ China and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). India’s claims to the ‘major power’ status will remain hollow until we develop the capability for design and serial production of our own weapon systems.

Also read: Here’s why former Navy chief wants India’s next Raksha Mantri to personally guide Tejas

How China raced ahead

China’s formidable capabilities in the conventional, nuclear, cyber, space and other domains apart, the true strength of the PLA lies in the country’s vast and innovative military-industrial complex.

Ironically, in 1949, when the People’s Republic of China came into being, India was industrially ahead, because the demands of World War II had led to the establishment of arms, ordnance and aircraft production facilities to support the war effort of the Allied powers worldwide.  So, how did China manage such a ‘great leap forward’ in this field?

In the early 1950s, a fraternal Soviet Union began a massive transfer of arms to the PLA, but as ideological differences with China emerged, the Soviets started to choke-off this aid.

In the mid-1960s, the Chinese leadership launched a national mission of reverse engineering Soviet weaponry. Termed ‘guochanhua’ in Mandarin, the first phase of this project enabled China to establish, by the mid-1980s, serial production of the full range of Soviet-origin tanks, artillery, submarines, jet fighters, bombers and missiles.

Manufactured without Soviet licences, many of these defence products had serious flaws, and mishaps occurred. Subsequently, by using industrial espionage and often violating intellectual property rights, China launched repeated cycles of ‘guochanhua’.

Today, China has surprised the world by its ingenuity and innovation. Till 2018, China’s ‘TaihuLight’ was the world’s fastest supercomputer (currently, the US’ ‘Summit’ holds that distinction), the J-31 fifth-generation stealth-fighter, anti-ship ballistic missiles, new aircraft-carriers and huge strides in robotics, artificial intelligence and drones.

Where India faltered

India, by quirk of circumstance, became an economic and military entity with ‘great-power’ aspirations before it could become a significant industrial power. Consequently, we see an anomalous situation where a nuclear-weapon state, despite having the world’s fourth-largest armed forces, has to support them through massive imports of everything from tanks, submarines, fighters, missiles and artillery to small-arms and ammunition.

Illustrative of this conundrum is India’s aviation industry, which traces its roots to the establishment of Hindustan Aircraft Ltd (HAL) in December 1940. During WWII, a nationalised HAL repaired and overhauled thousands of aircraft for the Allied powers. HAL’s crowning glory came in 1961 with the flight of the HF-24 fighter jet ‘Marut’ designed with the help of German designer Kurt Tank.

The Marut was ahead of its time and had huge potential as a supersonic fighter, but powered by two small turbojets, it lacked adequate thrust and its performance remained below par. Instead of pursuing the acquisition of a new engine from abroad, and persevering with the development of this successful design, the Indian government, in a stunning display of apathy and myopia, allowed this project to lapse. The Ministry of Defence (MoD), the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the scientific community remained mute spectators to this historic blunder.

Also read: Indigenously-built INS Khanderi adds to Indian Navy’s submarine strength

No lessons learnt

Regrettably, no lessons were learnt from the aborted Marut project, and two decades later, when the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) embarked on its Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) project, the approach of all agencies involved — MoD, DRDO, IAF and HAL — was marked by the same apathy and lack of imagination.

Here was a third-world nation embarking on an ambitious and exciting adventure of designing and building a lightweight, unstable, fly-by-wire 4th generation fighter. So, challenges, impediments (including US sanctions) and delays should have been anticipated by the Indian government and the MoD. However, general indifference, bureaucratic mismanagement, failure to address hurdles and stalling of critical decisions, injected huge delays in the LCA project.

The IAF has ordered 83 Tejas aircraft from Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, but the fate of the programme remains uncertain. This is because the MoD is yet to announce its long-term ‘vision’ for the Tejas and its successors – if any.

Also read: European defence major, Swedish firm in race to clinch deal for Navy’s missile project

The need for introspection

Another project, complementary to the LCA, was the development of a suitable turbo-jet engine.  Having been tasked to develop an indigenous power plant for the LCA mission, DRDO’s Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE) started work in 1986.

The first prototype turbofan, called the ‘Kaveri’, began tests in 1996. Progress remained hindered because the GTRE was struggling with daunting design and performance issues, beyond its ken. No one in the MoD seemed to care, and it is understood that in 2014, this vital project was shut down by the DRDO, only to be subsequently revived. The reasons for the peremptory termination of the project, as well as its revival, remain unknown.

It is also understood that DRDO approached foreign aero-engine manufacturers for consultancy to enhance Kaveri’s performance, but negotiations failed reportedly on cost considerations.

There is no doubt that formulating a turbojet design and its indigenous manufacturing constitute a huge and expensive technological challenge. China has struggled for three decades and considered it worthwhile spending billions of dollars to finally produce the WS-10 turbofan engine.

Critics of Tejas and Kaveri have had a field day, pouring scorn on them, overlooking their strategic significance for our national security. No matter what it costs to make these two programmes successful, it cannot possibly exceed the huge ‘strategic’ and ‘opportunity cost’ that India will pay in terms of its eternal dependence on (unreliable) foreign sources.

We also need to introspect how, starting from a similar base in the 1950s, the defence industries of China, Brazil, South Korea, Taiwan and Turkey have left India miles behind.

Moreover, the question lingers whether we should even persevere with a model that has brought us hardly any success in the last 72 years.

India does have an alternate model in its warship-building industry, which demands a quick look.

The Indian Navy persuaded the government way back in 1960 to embark on indigenous warship construction, and took full ‘ownership’ of this enterprise. As an important stakeholder, the Navy has remained involved in every aspect of this mission: be it design, construction, project management, quality control and financial management. The last 60 years have seen this successful programme deliver warships, ranging from patrol boats to destroyers and aircraft carriers, as well as conventional and nuclear-powered submarines.

While India’s warship construction paradigm may not be applicable across the board, the ‘best practices’, must be replicated elsewhere in the defence industry.

Also read: General Rawat is front-runner for CDS but all he talks about is cosmetic changes in military

Blame all four stakeholders

It is worth noting how each of the four main stakeholders in the defence-industrial arena has contributed to its dismal performance:

–  At the political level, there has been little or no appreciation of the need for self-sufficiency in military hardware. Successive defence ministers have shown little comprehension of why we need to invest in research and development in defence and failed to provide impetus to vital indigenous projects.

–  The MoD bureaucracy that wields power and takes executive and financial decisions has, in general, lacked comprehension of military technology as well as interest in its pursuit.

–  The defence-science establishment, lacking guidance and direction from the political or bureaucratic levels of MoD, has focused on ‘research’ and ‘technology demonstrations’ whereas the military has been seeking timely delivery of ‘hardware’ and ‘products’.

–  India’s armed forces have failed to devote adequate attention to the future of our defence-industrial capability, given their justifiable concern for maintaining ‘current combat capability’. This focus is perceived as a ‘bias’ against indigenous projects, in favour of the import option. The crux of the problem, however, is that as users, the armed forces should have shown far more concern for and involvement in indigenous projects.

Also read: Indian Army tanks now have sharper night vision equipment developed by DRDO

What needs to be done

If India is not to perpetuate its 72-year-old dependence on imported weapons, it is time for two vital stakeholders — the three chiefs of the armed forces and the Director-General of the DRDO — to take the initiative and draw up a Defence Production Strategy Paper for the government to rejuvenate India’s defence-industrial base over the next 50 years. The issues that the strategy must address are:

– Creation of an independent Ministry of Defence Production

–  Earmarking DRDO’s budget for urgently required technologies/military capabilities, prioritised by the military

–  Restructuring of DRDO; adopting features of successful models in Israel, Singapore and the UK

– Mandating the involvement of user service(s) at the concept design stage, in terms of management as well as financial contribution to a project

–  Specifying time frames for capability development, after which external consultancy must be obtained or the project foreclosed

–  Mobilisation of private sector as a full partner in R&D as well as production

To prove a point, the government should declare the Tejas and the Kaveri projects as ‘national missions’ and implement a long-term strategy for product enhancement and evolution of follow-on versions of both the products.

The success of these two programmes can not only transform India’s aeronautics landscape, but also provide a major boost to our somnolent defence-industrial sector.

The author is former Indian Navy Chief. Views are personal.

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  1. Just take the example of ‘man on the moon’ mission announced by president Kennedy of the US. NASA did not have enough funds, so they tied up with all companies in the US to carry out research. I do not have details of the agreements but whatever was discovered was licenced back to those or other companies for further development and scaled production. things like carbon fibre, hardening of electronic devices against different radiation in space, fibre glass for data transmission different kinds of industrial plastics and a host of many other inventions came about and were put to commercial and military use. NASA got the royalty and used it for further R&D. These applications were used in everyday life because these were not regarded as secrets and put in closets. Now, if we can also licence our findings, the labs will get the funds ans others will find the commercial and military use. This is utterly lacking in our country. What is invented, is put in closet and never monetised. This is the 1 st hurdle.

  2. I live next to the DRDO in Bangalore. While I dont get to see their ‘research’ activities I find that their administrative component is far to high compared to their R&D component. They have sports teams that take part in tournaments and have a huge establishment for administrative duties. I dare say that even in the number of junior and middle level scientists and engineers are far too many and wonder what contribution they make.
    On the other hand compare the more sophisticated missile division. They are far ahead thanks to Abdul Kalam. They are maintaining a high level of proficiency. They are also a branch of DRDO.
    Also in comparison take the case of ISRO. They have by and large delivered far latest more sophisticated space technology at unbelievably low cost. How do they manage that? Do they have more freedom than our DRDO establishments?
    The Govt and its bureaucrats need to re organise DRDO into a leaner and more efficient organisation. Theyalso need to encourage companies like L&T, HCC, Kalyanis and others to invest and develop weapons and sophisticated technologies even with foreign collaboration.

  3. Admiral has hit the nail on the head. We owe current state to military leadership, for selling their souls to politicians and baby’s. I can see some changes with under Modi leadership. Tx

  4. Yes, before you could feed yourself, the damn power aspiration came in the way. Result after 70 years is neither economy nor power.

  5. I would like to add a Strategic Defence Review at the top of the what is to be done list. Unless we do this and account for everything- threats, imperatives and choices given the stringent fund availablity, we cannot succeed either as a munitions user or producer. Surprisingly, only the venerable K Subramaniam talked about the importance of a SDR lead review and restructuring of India’s defence and defence research-production complex. I have not heard one serving or ex service chief talk about the SDR or its importance.

  6. I want complete privatization of defence manufacturing. A defence insider told me that Indian defence industry is like 20 to 40 years behind that of Western world and our technology is crap. Privatization will make us competitive.

  7. A very good article. Comments of readers are also top class. The Print must be congratulated for not debarring these comments from getting published which has become a trend in Indian media.

  8. Since their Total Technical Life has been completed, IAF is planning to retire 10 squadrons (at least 160 aircraft) of MiG-21 fighter-interceptors and MiG-27 ground-attack aircraft, by 2024. This was announced by Subhash Bhamre, Indian Minister of State for Defence in Lok Sabha on Dec. 27, 2017.
    HAL plans to ramping up production capacity from 8 to 16 Mk-1A LCAs per annum. But… even if they stick to production schedules, that would just be 64 LCAs by 2024. We’re still going to have a huge shortfall of around 100 aircraft. Then, there’s the Navy’s requirement of 57 carrier-borne aircraft.
    We need to be producing at least 36 LCAs annually, just to satisfy the Air Force’s requirement. On account of the high maintenance requirement of the Sukhoi Su-30’s Saturn AL-31FP engines only around 55-60% of the IAF’s 210+ Su-30s are available for use, against the expected 75%. So, it is very unlikely that IAF will be ordering any more Sukhoi Su-30s. The HAL’s Nashik plant should be repurposed for making Tejas LCAs.
    It is very evident that HAL is simply unequal to the task — at least as things are now, so somebody — maybe the Defence minister should take the bull by the horns.

  9. GE Aviation’s F414-INS6 afterburning turbofan engine — 57.8 kN (13,000 lbf) dry thrust / 98 kN (22,000 lbf) with afterburner, which powers the twin engine Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and single engine Saab JAS 39E/F Gripen, seems to be the engine selected to power the home-grown Tejas Mk-2 single engine fighter.
    We should manufacture this engine under ‘Make in India’ and use it to power the Tejas naval variant. The additional 4 kN of power will come in handy during take off from the flight deck.
    GE has a manufacturing facility in Pune which contributes 40% engine components. GE has another facility at Bangalure. So, it should have no problem in meeting the mandated 50% requirement of local production for defence contracts within India.

  10. In areas of technology where we are sorely lacking — say, metallurgical expertise needed to make high performance aircraft engines, we need to identity and recruit foreign experts in the field as consultants.
    We too could actively consider reverse engineering, which could go on in parallel with research.
    In all matters pertaining to defence, incl. defence production units, we need to forget about the ‘quota’ bu!!shit, and select people ONLY ON MERIT.
    We also need a competent, go getter technocrat to head defence production, NOT lackeys of the ruling dispensation.
    Only then can we hope to get somewhere.

  11. The admiral raises a fundamental question. It has never been treated to date by the security officials of the country, nor by those of yesterday, nor by those of today. Since the establishment of the new government have been announced the launch of reports to define the country’s defense strategy, the creation of a chief of staff, and of course, as always weapons acquisitions here or there. These ads are similar to a dusting policy and can not be likened to a real defense policy. Perhaps it would be appropriate finally to launch a reform of the military administration of the country and in particular of the ministry which pilot it? Why not separate administrative tasks in this department? Why not create within the MOD a direction dealing only with armament. The leadership would be responsible for equipping the armed forces, preparing for the future, and having an overview of weapons systems to ensure their overall coherence. MOD’s current organization dilutes accountability and encourages silo-based operation. It might be time to review this organization!

  12. There is hardly anything to refute or add further to what Admiral has mentioned in this article. In fact, what is shameful is that not only China but other countries such as South Korea, Brazil, Turkey etc have progressed much beyond what India has achieved, despite presence of huge R&D infrastructure. We need to achieve a similar level as achieved by ISRO in the area of defense production. I hope Modi and Amit Shah read this article and understand seriousness of the issue and take appropriate measures. No one else will indeed matter at the political level other than these two!! At the level of armed forces, it is surprising that IAF and Army never bothered to have a similar indigenization initiative as was adopted by Navy and no one ever pulled them for it.

  13. Problem is every one sitting on the bank and keep blaming DRDO for everything and start preaching about Science and Technology without even knowing ABC of S&T. It is more fun for these Retired generals talk all this bullshit blame game on Scientific community. General, before talking of UK, USA, Israel models you should first know that India invest peanuts on Science and Technology and Scientists are least respected in this country.

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