Earlier this month, a tragic accident in Bangalore of a recently upgraded Mirage fighter jet – that was upgraded by HAL- took the life of two IAF (Indian air force) test pilots. It has raised questions about the capabilities and professionalism of HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) an Indian government-owned defence public sector undertaking. Coincidentally, the accident occurred just weeks before Bangalore is to host the Aero India show, during which, every two years, every major aerospace company in the world brings along its aircrafts and associated technologies to showcase them to Indian officials in the hope of getting a purchase order that would at best transform its fortunes, and at the least keep its production lines running. Also present will be a number of Indian companies alongside defence public sector undertakings (DPSUs) – on which rests India’s hopes for aerospace indigenization – like DRDO and HAL- which will showcase their products. But such large air shows and defence expos also remind us that India is the world’s largest arms importer, because its domestic defence and aerospace industry cannot meet its own requirements.
Every major global power – particularly the P5 UN Security Council members – and even aspiring powers like Brazil, produces fighter jets that its own forces use and it sells them abroad as well. We, on the other hand, are yet to produce a fighter jet to meet the needs of the dwindling inventory of the Indian air force. Our inability to meet the exacting standards required for the production of fighter jets – the Mirage air crash being the latest example – had led the French manufacturers of the Rafale jets – 36 of which will be supplied to India in flyaway condition – being reluctant to sign up with HAL to license manufacture the other 90 or more aircrafts that the IAF would eventually need. But the fault doesn’t entirely lie with HAL and other Indian DPSUs. They often complain that they receive inadequate support from the armed service that they are making products for. And there is some truth in that claim. The only service that has got its act together, is the Indian navy.
In fact, the one area where Prime Minister Modi’s vision of ‘Make in India’ has had considerable success is with naval ships, frigates and submarines. The most recent example is of INS Arihant, India’s first home-built nuclear propelled, ballistic missile armed submarine. This has now completed India’s much needed nuclear triad, two decades after India joined the nuclear nations’ club, formally. And though it can be argued that this project was initiated well before Mr Modi came to power, there are still lessons that it has to offer to our armed services. Despite it being a DRDO project, the Indian navy had closely managed its huge countrywide indigenization by co-opting India’s small and medium industries and private sector companies, to manufacture all the components for this submarine to high levels of precision and reliability.
In contrast, is the story of our Light Combat Aircraft (LCA Tejas). The blame game hasn’t stopped between the IAF and the HAL, on the reasons for the delay in the production of the LCA and why it hasn’t been added to the IAF’s depleting fleet. Considering that the development of INS Arihant has taken two decades, the delay in the LCA’s delivery by over three decades, wouldn’t have been so annoying if the IAF had not been staring at its fast depleting fighter squadron numbers. And even though the IAF plans to induct the LCA ‘Tejas in all versions to arrest the depletion of combat squadrons’ the orders for the Tejas are yet to be placed, stated Air Marshal SBP Sinha, in a piece in the Indian Express on 23rd January. For this ‘HAL needs to bring in institutional flexibility to quickly adapt its production line’ to the evolving changes in the design and development of Tejas or any other subsequent aircraft.
There would be equally telling counter arguments that HAL officials would have to offer. But a fall out of this delay has been the reluctance of Dassault to bulk produce the Rafale jets with HAL, since the likely delays due to the slow pace of Rafale’s production through HAL, would increase the cost per aircraft substantially, the political arguments against the deal notwithstanding. But a lesson to be learnt from the Navy’s achievements is that its designers have worked steadily to make ships and submarines in India. In contrast our DPSUs have yet to produce game-changing weapon systems for our two other armed services. One reason has been that the acquisition of weapon systems is done when our capabilities have come down to critically low levels. And then the only option is to buy from a long row arms merchants worldwide and their fancy inventories.
While in the short term, this is perhaps the only answer, but we need to ask how Israel, which became a nation-state in 1948, just after our independence, has a flourishing arms industry, while India’s politicians have made loud claims on the need for self-sufficiency in this field, but India lags sadly behind. This is not the case with missile and satellite technology, where India produces world class items. A reason for this achievement is that we were denied access to top end technology that couldn’t be bought easily, and so our scientists went out and produced what we have today. Thus a two-point agenda to ‘make in India’ should require each of our services to have a dedicated cadre of officers whose entire career should be in the field of defence acquisitions and design. And the other is for the government to give the services a window of 5 or 10 years to acquire what they critically need, and after that, they must be forced to make do with what is made in India.