“No country is really independent unless it is independent in matters of its armament.”
It was a bright sunny morning in winters of Jaipur, where I was reading a newspaper as part of my latest hobby in order to improve my general knowledge. My interest was more into defence news as I was an aspirant to join the Indian Air Force, and thus my eyes quickly got glued to the breaking news: “Creating aviation history, India’s indigenously built Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Technology Demonstrator 1 (TD 1) undertook its landmark first flight on Thursday.” That day, 4 January 2001, got engraved on my memory walls. Maybe because it was “the historical moment” for every proud Indian like me or maybe I easily imagined myself flying the fully operational indigenous fourth generation fighter aircraft in near future.
Obviously, I was not collecting the “general knowledge” about indigenisation culture of the country or I would have been careful in nurturing high hopes even after I was selected in flying branch of the IAF in then near future.
Today, it has been over two decades from the maiden flight of the prototype of LCA project (Tejas as named by Mr Vajpayee, the then PM). The project which actually was conceived in 1983 with cost of 2500 crore is yet to deliver its first fully operational baby (in 35 years and counting). And, it will be apt to mention here itself that this project LCA, was only to replace the light combat aircraft inventory (MiG 21, the then backbone of the IAF) in last decade of 20th century. Which, by the way, waited for replacement, got tired, stumbled a lot and then got upgraded in form of BISON and now may be given retirement in third decade of 21st century.
The point here is that only this project is not ‘The Project’ to have a formidable, diverse, multi inventory (light, medium and heavy) IAF with combat-ready 42 fighter squadrons (the minimum desirable number) in near (or far) future which as on date is managing to fulfil its role in security of the nation with 33 fighter squadrons.
On the other hand, if we look at the fighter aircraft inventory (obviously the first line of responders in our case) of the IAF, we find a healthy mix of all kind of good aircraft like Mirage 2000 (few old and few upgraded), Su-30 MKI (with bit of maintenance problem but making the edge still sharp), MiG 29 (again mix of old and upgrades), MiG 21 Bison (still performing with upgraded avionics but soon to be retired), Jaguars (the good old bombers with most of the avionics indigenised) and the never say die MiG 27(mix of old and upgraded bombers with at home upgraded avionics suite).
Hawks are being successfully utilised as advanced jet trainers (which reminds us of the IJT — the project with HAL which had to be scrapped recently), which can be used in limited operational capacity if need arises. The transport aircraft fleet is gleaming with C-17s and C-130s and will soon be replacing its pretty old Avro’s with 56 Airbus C-295 Ws (with TATA Advanced System Ltd playing the assembling role for 24 aircraft and putting 30 percent indigenous content).
The helicopter fleet is majorly Russian along with HAL built ALH ‘Dhruv (undoubtedly not completely indigenous) and preparing to welcome American Apaches and Chinooks. The concept of having mixed imported fleets has been the pattern for the IAF since independence and has given India decent results (specially post 1962 where air power did not get a ‘go’ signal) in times of conflicts. And why should we not have state of the art imported platforms? Such a dynamic air force needs dynamic mighty machines. Yes, it is the fourth largest air force in the world and has credible potency to deter certain kind of threats but looking at its inventory (fighters exclusively) we see only hints of indigenisation or if we take reference of Mr Nehru’s quote, we see hints of ‘independence’.
The need to be indigenous
India is a strong economy. The experts have already started terming us as Super Power (‘Economic’ prefixed) and we are involved with many nations on same platform of the world’s strong economic forum. Major economies like US, Russia, France and China have acknowledged the growth potential of India and shaken hands on many occasions to be benefited mutually. But one stark difference that comes to light is that all leading powers make their own aircraft (even Brazil and Sweden) and obviously other defence equipment.
The reason to have an indigenous setup for aircraft, ships or tanks is simply to have a sense of independence. In other words to have confidence, self-sustained defence capabilities that enable us to handle our issues without looking outwards as it has been in past. The imported foreign-origin fleet can neither give a sense of confidence nor the ability to handle a long duration conflict to a force. The possibility of loss, attrition, delay and ‘sanction,’ all become real-time ‘non-battlefield threat’ as seen in the past when foreign suppliers were pressured to either reduce or switch off the flowing supply tap in accordance with the big brother’s wishes — 1965 War and post-1998 Pokhran nuclear test come to mind.
WE MUST FACE THE STARK REALITY THAT DESPITE FIVE DECADES OF EFFORTS TO DEVELOP A CAPABLE DOMESTIC ARMS INDUSTRY, INDIA STILL HEAVILY DEPENDS ON THE IMPORT OF SEVERAL CATEGORIES OF WEAPONS, THE FOREMOST OF WHICH ARE COMBAT AIRCRAFT.A KEY REASON FOR INDIA’S HIGH LEVEL OF IMPORTS IS THE FAILURE OF ITS INDUSTRY TO CONSISTENTLY PRODUCE INDIGENOUSLY DESIGNED WEAPONS THAT ARE CAPABLE OF BECOMING REAL ALTERNATIVES TO THE EQUIVALENT DESIGNS FROM OTHER COUNTRIES.
We must face the stark reality that despite five decades of efforts to develop a capable domestic arms industry, India still heavily depends on the import of several categories of weapons, the foremost of which are combat aircraft. SIPRI 2016, by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, spells it out: “India’s attempts to design, develop and produce its own advanced major weapons remain beset with delays, spiralling costs and quality problems.
The missing links
A key reason for India’s high level of imports is the failure of its industry to consistently produce indigenously designed weapons that are capable of becoming real alternatives to the equivalent designs from other countries.” In a way, it implicitly concedes that India is capable, but incapacitated, in producing capable aircraft for long. And if someone asks that if we can make largely appreciable and prominent leaps in World Space programme, why not Aerospace industry? This question needs answering by political experts with good economic background and sound historical knowledge, who have closely observed nuances of international relationships.
While IAF completed 85 years of glorious service to the nation in shadows of Doklam stand-off in September, as natural reaction of a pilots mind involved in threat analysis, I recollected news of China (possible threat during Doklam) completing a maiden flight of its twin-engine, fifth-generation, second FC-31 fighter prototype in January this year. And this followed the news of Sukhoi-35 being the last imported fighter aircraft for China. The simultaneous flash was of news showing India ‘now’ becoming self-reliant in making spares and few parts of aircraft with the involvement of the private sector. Though the purchase of Rafale fighters, more C-17s, Chinooks and Apaches has been justified but the bottom line remains – “India importing, China indigenising”.
Things have become more challenging with the possible two-front scenario created by an aggressive Sino-Pak axis. This is because both China and Pakistan appear to have made considerable progress in air assets’ indigenisation vis-a-vis India. The latest situation, however, emerged from/in the May 2017 information that the single-engine Sino-Pak “twin-seat Pakistan Aeronautical Complex/ Chengdu Aircraft Industry Corporation JF-17B Thunder/FC-1B Xiaolong combat aircraft has made its maiden flight,” which emphasised on increased payload and combat radius. What makes things more complex for the IAF is the traditional slow reaction of the government to address, among other things, the urgent hardware equipping and replenishment owing to its inability to develop steady and sustained indigenous air assets’ production.
It thus speaks volumes about the IAF’s professionalism to maintain its glorious record and try and upgrade its assets in a complicated and deteriorating security environment of the 21st century. Although the IAF is neither the final decision maker nor the industrial policy planner, yet it needs to advise the government of the supreme importance of using indigenous air operation assets for future eventualities and maintain combat readiness without any possibility of supply disruption from foreign vendors in times of crisis.
While IAF today needs to go with imports so as to have decent credible deterrence catering for ageing fleets, looking at long ‘shining’ run few things can be looked into. The IAF can bear the responsibility but the authority is Indian Government. Because every nascent military aviation and major defence programme, as history shows, was initiated, supported and developed by the state. Both in the West as well as in China. Make no mistake. Aviation research, development, production and technology up-gradation would require millions and billions of rupees.
But the continuous and dedicated effort is required towards “the airforce” without thinking about “my airforce” or “your airforce”. India has plenty of clever people (within and without) to achieve all the above. The Chinese concept of investing in Non-Resident Chinese (NRC) for gaining R&D experience in the USA, funding their research and then involving them in aviation assets’ development at-home is another idea to be looked into.
The “Make in India” needs a dedicated Minister like “Minister of Defence Research and Development (Preferably someone experienced from field), a government department (which can revamp DRDO and make it accountable for quality and deadlines of projects) and follow the examples of how the Germans, Americans, the British and Japan were able to achieve all those, which India in 2017, is still struggling with. The “Make in India” won’t achieve much, unless, a dedicated group under the Prime Minister’s Office is created and he directly monitors, like Winston Churchill or Truman and sees that things get done. The Indian Navy has dedicated eligible officers involved with the indigenous manufacturers at the time of development of their machines and thus the desired qualities are found in indigenous defence products (as this is referred as most common apprehension for aviation sector). So we have examples of successful indigenously developed defence machinery and we can reduce our import dependence significantly. But so far there has been a lot of talk, but no direct control and accountability, except asking the foreigners to get involved!
MRO and a big push
Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) can be the beginner’s step with involvement of private players. Initiatives can be seen in present but with it needs an aggressive speed. The objective must be to highlight the opportunities in the Indian Aviation MRO market and provide a platform for the established and aspiring entrepreneurs to network with Aviation MRO leaders across the globe with a view to translating the opportunities into realities. In short, get the technology not the product. Sounds like Chinese way; well, we already have own designs ready and waiting for a push (which wont look like copy of any western or Russian machine). Remember ‘China indigenising, India importing’ needs to go.
Annual Defence Budget for a developing nations with good economic growth experiencing constant stand-offs with neighbouring countries cannot continue to have mere figure of one point something of its GDP while the other has three times more than its defence budget for last two and a half decades. Lets not talk about budget allocation to R&D sector. This is simple mathematics behind ever increasing gap between two militaries.
Time is running short for India as neighbours have gone too far ahead of us in indigenisation of the military aviation industry. It is evident from our experience that this sector of home built aircraft industry has a long gestation period and only those willing to invest long-term research and development with constant funding will succeed. India had the intention since beginning (for example HAL Marut was not a complete failure) yet it somehow lost focus and became victim of ‘no one’s baby’ syndrome which most probably was infused in ‘system’ by import inclined authorities. To make the Indian Air Force a formidable self reliant force, it has to be indigenised. It is time to concentrate fully on developing aviation assets in India for the Air Force. We must look for import substitutes, else the nation is heading towards catastrophe.
Wg Cdr Vikas Kalyani is a Senior Research Fellow at India Foundation