Faultlines in Defence Production

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

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Asian geopolitics, civil-military relations, Defence Industry, DRDO, Europe, Great Power imperatives, India's strategic thinking and policy, indian policy -- Israel, Iran and West Asia, Military Acquisitions, Missiles, South Asia, Technology transfer. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Faultlines in Defence Production

  1. RK Anuj says:

    The canards that @Bharart Karnad spreads!! No air force in the world flies only a single type of aircraft. Nomenclatures vary but military air-crafts perform diverse roles, a capability not even the most advanced technologies guarantee on a single platform. Aerial tankers do not fly over enemy skies, hence the need to refuel close to the borders and then perform deep strike, short or medium range missions. It may be a distraction for arm chair strategists like @Bharat karnad, but for the experts its the rule of the game.

    Our Air Force is petty minded, the bureaucracy so obviously naive that they can be fooled by the ruses of the IAF, the scientific community is incompetent and can produce nothing of substance, and to top it all is the Family that is so corrupt that nothing happens in the country without it pocketing a big chunk of the monies. In the midst of all this gloom, there is but one sane and rational Strategist, who trashes everything that happens in the country, because he no longer sits in a position to influence matters. Hence, allegations are made against one and all!! Wish we had libel laws firm as in the US, so that making insinuations without evidence, so obvious in the regular rants of the learned author, would become an adventure sport of the very extreme kind.

  2. Ah, yes, @Anuj, but have I said anything that is not right?! Combat aircraft are more properly designated by missions rather than range. Operations by the sheer diversity of aircraft in the inventory (procured on the basis of their range), moreover, which are logistically impossible to sustain in war is the real problem. This seminal fact — which I have always stressed — is sought to be covered up by kindergarten homilies about refuelers not being able to take to enemy skies, etc. Nor is the case for the manifest incompetence of DRDO to prove which I have sketchily made (there’s only so much detail that can be provided in a 1,000 word piece) embellished by recent examples — MRMS, LRMS, and SRMS, contested. And the larger reality of the reasons for the abject Indian dependence on foreign countries for all our armament needs, is not addressed at all. And the seriously flawed manner of HAL’s functioning, the deliberate neglect of built-up capacity in the pvt sector compared to DPSUs, all of these and other aspects perpetuating dependency brought up are likewise elided over. May be if the Govt and its agencies and a public that is not as “informed” as it should be — permitting the Govt and its agencies to get away with the present state of slovenliness, high-octane claims, and deep and widespread corruption, were to be honest for a change about why things have gone so wrong and the reasons for the country coming to this sorry pass, there would be consensus on the way forward. On the other hand, the rah-rah, all’s well. heads in the sand attitude, will make the situation worse. Indeed, the situation in actuality is far worse than I have so far depicted in my writings. And those in the know, know it.

  3. Shail says:

    And naturally Shri Karnad is an Ace Pilot with over 10000 hrs of combat flying in all warplanes all over the world.
    You just cant fool him with names.
    He can fly a Tanker right into enemy territory and do loops over the enemy generals.
    Also He is an ace designer, scientist, bureaucrat and accomplished politician.
    He has” been there done it all” and is an ace in procurement, contract negootiation, testing and evaluation and contract execution.

    The entire world is wrong and He is right !

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