Many years ago, in the eighties sometime, one fine afternoon we received the first “RM Series” MiG-21 in our Squadron. A pilot’s curiosity and excitement at receiving the first “Raw Material” or “Made in India” MiG-21 was short-lived as we noticed the changed colour tone of the cockpit and realised with horror that some switches and gauges had not only been changed but so was their location in the cockpit! Worse was to follow when the next ‘RM Series’ aircraft that arrived had no conformity or compatibility with the first! The resultant confusion and disorientation was quickly nipped in the bud by the Flight Safety specialists who passed a dictum that RM Series aircraft are to be flown only by ‘experienced’ pilots, to obviate the possibility of an accident. Now, does this inspire confidence in the pilots on our ‘Made in India’ products doled out by the HAL?
Over the years HAL has never been held in high esteem by the user, primarily because he is the person affected by the product. The basis of acceptability and satisfaction has been quality, reliability and timely availability. HAL has not met these essentials thereby undermining its credibility. Unfortunately, these are also the factors that make for a good business model. The fact that HAL has not been an exporter of aviation components in a big way is testimony to its lack of recognition in the international arena. While the emphasis here is on HAL, it is just an example and symbolises what ails our Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs). For years on end the IAF has been clamouring for two basic things, user satisfaction and manufacturer (PSU) accountability. Both continue to remain elusive.
Imports from abroad are not only a huge drain on the exchequer but also indicates dependency and vulnerability to choking or sanctions in critical conditions of conflict. It is a sad commentary that a country boasting some of the finest brains in science and technology, not to mention economics, is unable to produce a suitable rifle and ammunition for the infantry soldier, let alone produce a world class fighter aeroplane. The ‘fastest growing economy’ tag that India boasts, the fact that we possess the world’s fourth largest military and the Prime Minister’s thrust to his ‘Act East Policy,’ has actually energised the ASEAN nations in hoping that India will provide the balance and/or the counter to China and its hegemonist designs. Power projection finally boils down to two main factors — economy and security. While economic growth may show great strides it must be backed by a strong military. In our case the two are not keeping pace.
China however has matched its economic growth with its military might. The Chinese have embarked on a modernisation plan which is the envy of every country in the world, including the USA (though they may not admit it). Trimming the military to a lean and mean force, providing an integrated orientation for optimising combat power, providing state-of-the-art high technology weapons with the assured backing of a strong indigenous defence industrial base, increasing international visibility by moving military elements well outside the confines of its geographical boundaries, China today is the epitome of a giant in the Asian context.
India’s Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) has not only undergone many iterations but immense criticism over the years. Our legendary lengthy bureaucratic procedures in a field which, because of its inherent nature, has large gestation times to fructify, pays little heed to the long term planning undertaken by the defence forces. Why do experts and specialists in our country come up against
a wall of bureaucracy when they put up well thought out professional proposals? Come on, India! Grow up! Offset and Transfer of Technology procedures are in place in the DPP for the last decade but strangely, interpretation issues abound raising the fear of being cuckolded because the financial implications are immense. Another question that seems to play on people’s minds is the quantum of technology that is being demanded in every capital acquisition and whether we have the wherewithal to absorb the technology. I wish I had the confidence.
I believe our Prime Minister has understood that unless there is hand-holding, this country’s defence industry will continue to flounder. His ‘Make in India’ policy and offer to foreign countries, promotes the creation of joint ventures where there is no choice for the Indian partner but to imbibe some of the ethos and work culture that the western world thrives upon. Hopefully we will become focused, circumspect and critical of the quality of production but more importantly feel the need for accountability by the manufacturer. The introduction of the private sector into the defence arena should provide the necessary competition so that the PSUs are made to perform. The ‘Make in India’ mantra is one of futuristic success. For the time being we will have to be content with carrying the sobriquet of ‘the largest arms importer of the world’.
An alumnus of NDA and DSSC, Air Mshl Sumit Mukerji has served the IAF as a fighter pilot with distinction He has commanded three units, a MiG-29 Sqn, a MiG-25 SR Sqn and TACDE (considered the ‘Top Gun’ school of the IAF) and also served as the Air Attaché in Washington DC. He retired in 2011 as the AOC-in-C of Southern Air Command.