The Indian Air Force has been clever over the years in a petty sort of way. Short-range or medium-range combat aircraft and so on are uniquely IAF nomenclature; no other Air Force has such categories. In the age of aerial tankers, describing warplanes by their radii of action is a distraction.
Forty years ago the IAF invented another category of warplanes — “deep penetration and strike aircraft”, which permitted the purchase of Jaguar. The IAF sees this sort of thing as a harmless ruse to serve its interest. The multiplicity of combat aircraft thus procured allows, the service believes, for it to have in crises at least some squadrons in its fleet not subject to sanctions or the spares-and-servicing tourniquet, which supplier countries in greater or lesser measure always apply, depending on their foreign policy goals and national interests of the moment, and which tool of manipulation is now legitimated by the recent Arms Trade Treaty.
This policy of buying aircraft from diverse sources was first articulated in a 2006 note from Air Headquarters (AHQ) to the ministry of defence (MoD), which stated that the requirement for a sub-30-ton fully loaded combat aircraft was being deliberately proposed to escape the Russian stranglehold, and avoid going in for more Sukhoi-30 MKIs or the upgraded variant the “Super” Sukhois. Thus, Rafale passed the spurious test, clocking in at 27 tons. Of course, the IAF-invented range-dictated categories serve another purpose. They confuse generalist civil servants in the MoD and convince clueless politicians that there are big gaps in combat aircraft numbers which need filling.
In this game of “fool you, fool me”, where the IAF is being jerked around by supplier countries, the threat to national security stays unaddressed. IAF is principally to blame, of course. But the inability of the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and other Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) units tasked with aircraft and on-board systems designs, and the sheer incompetence of Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) are equally responsible. So criminally negligent has HAL been that in all the years it assembled a variety of MiG-21s, MiG-27s, MiG-29s, and the Jaguar, and the power plants for each of these aircraft at its Koraput factory, it failed to maintain a database. In other words, for all the licence manufacturing it has done over the years, by failing to compile how every component in the aircraft and in the engines does what and how, it has learnt nothing. Had HAL maintained a database of all the items it has put together, the country by now would have had the built-up capability to manufacture the Tejas Mk-I and Mk-II on the run. But this defence public sector unit has reduced itself to an adjunct of supplier companies. That top HAL leadership has not been brought to account on this score and that the Indian taxpayer continues funding such profligacy only reflects the state of things.
DRDO, on its part, has prospered by creating illusion. Other than in certain areas, such as in writing sophisticated software and devising complex algorithms to drive military systems, DRDO projects are mostly scams. Behind every project that’s touted for realising “self-sufficiency” lies imported technology in some guise. In fact, it has been so grossly inept in not insisting on total transfer of technology from its partners that foreign defence firms happily strike deals in which Indian monies fund the development of state-of-the-art technology in other countries but get nothing out of it except finished high-cost products. It is not the fault of the supplier firms that DRDO has proved so inattentive, gullible, and plain reckless with public monies. Take for example the advanced medium-range and long-range missile systems supposedly being collaboratively developed with Israel. Except in striking a contract for Rs15,000 crore, DRDO settled for only a work-share arrangement and that too to fabricate the low-value backend of these missile systems, with the Israeli company retaining the intellectual property rights on all the technology so developed. A similar deal for a short-range missile system with Dassault Aviation has just been signed and another Rs`30,000 crore is consequently going down the drain. Because in this business suckers are not given an even chance, the foreign companies can hardly be blamed for exploiting DRDO’s unwillingness to leverage India’s financial subsidy to obtain full proprietary and production rights for all technologies generated in such projects. So what is the department of defence finance doing other than sleeping on the job?
If DRDO brass were to be hauled up, it would be like pulling out a foundational stone that could bring the whole fraudulent public sector defence industrial edifice that, notwithstanding its claims, has produced no original technology after the Marut HF-24 in the 1970s, tumbling down. It is the reason why the Naresh Chandra Committee’s recommendation that the offices of scientific adviser to defence minister, head of DRDO, and secretary defence R&D be separated, may never get implemented. There are too many vested interests in the armed services, DRDO, and DPSUs who have it good to want this situation to change.
Coming back to Rafale, had Reliance Aerospace gone about it the right way it could have emulated Larsen & Tubro (L&T), which has indigenously developed the engineering, tooling, and manufacturing capability to locally produce everything from nuclear-powered and conventional submarines of any design to artillery systems. This proactive attitude to build up its all-round capability means it is in a position to benefit from “transfer of technology” portions of deals for high-value weapons platforms India has signed in the past two decades, and very quickly to absorb foreign technologies India pays for but which, owing to the complete inability and incompetence of defence public sector units, has to-date not capitalised on. We are talking cumulatively of waste now reaching the thousand billion dollar-level.
If the L&T business model is too onerous, Reliance Aerospace, instead of turning itself into a mere cog in the Dassault Aviation machine by channelling payoffs to the right quarters in the ruling party to lubricate the Rafale deal, could have tried to buy off large chunks of the Rafale-maker, Dassault Aviation itself, as the Tatas have done by purchasing the South African company Denel’s entire 155mm/52 calibre Howitzer line. That might have been the second-best strategy to become a commercially viable defence production entity in double-quick time and do right by the country as well.
[Published as “Zero for DRDO” in the ‘Ásian Age’ on April 26, 2013 at http://www.asianage.com/columnists/zero-drdo-089 and in the ‘Deccan Chronicle’ at http://www.deccanchronicle.com/130426/commentary-columnists/commentary/zero-drdo