The need for a strong military was first felt soon after independence when Pakistan launched a limited war against India, in a futile bid to wrest Kashmir from India. The right lessons were however not learnt and it remains a sad commentary on the then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who felt his diplomatic acumen and Gandhi’s legacy of Ahimsa would allow peaceful coexistence with the neighbours, notwithstanding the recently concluded skirmish in Kashmir.
While the rest of the world, in the wake of the two horrendous and debilitating World Wars, though ravaged and with their economies dented, chose to absorb industry which would promote growth, India discarded the idea, instead of pursuing agricultural growth, to ensure there is enough food for the masses. It was a fatal mistake. Playing ‘Catch Up’ in later years, at the tail end of the race, was an absolute disaster.
Strangely, the setting up of the Hindustan Aircraft Company, established in 1940 as a Private Limited Company, with Walchand-Tulsidas-Khatau Ltd as the managing agency, created a niche and very promising base for the aviation industry to develop in India. Created as an agency to repair and overhaul Allied aircraft operating in the Eastern theatre in WW II, this was not only a huge fillip to the growth of possible aircraft industry in India but a virtual platform or launchpad for take-off.
During that point in time, the Hindustan Aircraft Company became a repository of expertise, experience and knowledge gained, as our men worked on various types of aircraft that operated in and transited to the theatre of war in the East. Converted to Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) in 1964 and taken under the wings of the Govt of India, it provided the enthusiasm and the momentum for the industry to produce a jet fighter if it’s own.
The renowned German aeronautical scientist and engineer, Dr Kurt Tank and his team of 18 engineers, with assistance from aviation engineers and technicians in India, produced the redoubtable HF-24 (Marut), a twin-engine fighter bomber, for the Indian Air Force. While it proved its mettle over the Indian skies and in war, the lack of a suitable engine to power the aircraft to its design capability, sent it to an early grave. It was expected that the expertise gained from the German designers and engineers would fuel our necessities for future development. But that was not to be as we sat back on our laurels and never even considered passing the heritage and knowledge.
As the Americans looked the other way during the 1962 Indo- China conflict, our woeful state of defence equipment was exposed. Russia provided us with all types of military hardware but to take an example of fighter aircraft would indicate the level of competence of the receiving agencies involved. Capitalising on
the flawed approach of the Govt of India not to permit private industry participation in defence production, HAL acquired full responsibility to supply the Indian Air Force with fighter aircraft and spares, by entering into a contract with the Russians. Over the years, instead of building intellectual capacity and spreading its wings to access its components from ancillary units, HAL became a behemoth of “screwdriver technology,” assembling Semi Knocked Down (SKD) and Completely Knocked Down (CKD) kits under the garb of ‘license production’ with no capacity for technology or process engineering.
It is never easy to produce an indigenous, state-of-the-art combat aircraft. There is a huge difference when one has to go through the design and development process which fructifies into military hardware products. The need to set up an eco-system of various areas that would be necessary to cover the whole spectrum of production is a huge task. Needless to say, there is no company in the world that can set up the whole program on its own and reliance on ancillary units to provide components which contribute effectively cannot be undermined. Stringent quality control in military equipment is the only answer to acceptability.
The “Make in India” movement initiated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the introduction of the private sector into defence production seemed to provide the much needed shot in the arm, a move that would encourage foreign companies to produce their items in India, using our manpower, thereby infusing technology and expertise in the country (reminiscent of Kurt Tank)? While there has been a certain level of enthusiasm towards this, our rules of the business transaction have deterred many takers. India needs to harness its capabilities in a focused manner and aim towards identified goals.
Military weaponry and armament require a very high degree of precision and finesse during the manufacturing process. A definitive approach can address the inherently long development periods and gestation periods until delivery. The need for indigenisation and self-reliance has never been more acute than now, with plunging defence budgets and the economy at an all-time low. Can the Indian private industry come up with thought-provoking and state-of-the-art products to meet our future needs? Maybe the DefExpo 2020 being held at Lucknow will showcase our talent to produce world-class equipment for the Indian armed forces and propel the “Make in India” movement into an upward spiral. Will the indigenous defence industry remain a ‘bane’ or become a ‘boon’ for India?
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.