The Indian military aviation industry seems to be progressing in factors of 20. It was 20 years after World War II that the IAF was flying the first fighter aircraft of Indian manufacture, the HF-24 Marut. 20 years later the Marut was phased out and HAL commenced the development of the state-of-the-art Light Combat Aircraft (LCA).
A little over 20 years later, the Kargil conflict erupted and now 20 years after the Kargil conflict the IAF still does not have an operationalised LCA in the field, while it entered into yet another skirmish with the Pakistan Air Force recently. Strange are the ways of numbers and how they can haunt you sometimes into reminders of ‘what could have been’.
India’s Department of Defence Production was set up in 1962 following the India-China conflict. Its mandate then was to set up and deal with research, development and production of defence equipment. In 1965, the Department of Defence Supplies was created and their mandate was to oversee the planning and execution of schemes for import substitution for defence requirements.
Subsequently, these two departments were merged to form the Department of Defence Production & Supplies. In 2004 the department attained its present avatar as the Department of Defence Production. The department is now mandated and responsible for matters pertaining to defence production, the functioning of the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) and indigenisation of imported stores and equipment in a bid to achieve self-reliance.
The department is also responsible for the functioning of the DPSUs like HAL, BEL, BEML, BDL, etc. The department is possibly the most important in the Ministry of Defence but unfortunately, in the almost 50 years of its existence, its contribution does not carry much weight with the defence forces and its credibility, far from being tenable, is actually suspect.
It is not the capability or the funding which can be attributed to the malaise surrounding the department because the department and the DPSUs are well looked after in the defence budget. The problem is the attitude, not only of the department but the nation as a whole, to give short shrift to national security.
The need for modernisation is an ongoing process, but it has to be acknowledged and accepted so as to budget the requirements as they develop. Starting with a defence budget which is not able to keep pace with the requirements of the Armed Forces, the Ministry of Defence seems to be nonchalant of the threats that continue to haunt our borders.
In the recently presented interim budget, the defence allocation is still below the ‘magic’ figure of 2.5% of the GDP. In fact, the Rs 3.18L crore allotted, which is just 1.6% of the GDP, is the lowest the country has seen since the 1962 war if reports are to be believed. Wasn’t it the debacle of 1962 that prompted our thrust towards defence production?
Are we going full circle? Doesn’t it seem a paradox when the Finance Minister, who just a short while ago was the Defence Minister, said that ‘military modernisation is of paramount importance and a national priority’? The actual amount of the defence budget available for procurement and sustenance of hardware, as we know, is about 40 % of the allocation, the remainder going for revenue expenditure, including salaries.
To my mind, the biggest hurdle our Department of Defence Production has to overcome is the product output from its various sub-organisations or DPSUs. They have not kept pace, either technologically or in terms of speed of production for any product they have been entrusted to manufacture. Military capability is directly proportional to its men and machines. And the bottom line is ‘quality’. There is no room for compromise because in war there are no shades of grey.
There are only winners and losers. There are those who are alive and those who are dead. In a structured, well thought out long term plan which is projected by the services, the system that can guarantee an indigenous product which can meet the demands in a given time frame just does not exist. The only option thus is in import. National security demands the best.
Over the years we have been pursuing our goal of achieving self-sufficiency through indigenisation to become self-reliant. We have established and then changed and modified our Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) many times in the past 20 years (there we go again!), but one just has to read how many people say that the procedure is skewed and not modelled for acquisition in a suitable time frame.
Over the period of these ‘modifications,’ a major thrust has been given to “Make Indian, Buy Indian”. Avenues have been provided for the private sector to make a foray into a domain absolutely dominated by the government and its PSUs because of an over-conservative security policy.
Private industry in the field of military aviation is active across the globe. However, there is a need to support them financially, especially the SMEs, and be able to find a place for their products in the long run, or else they are doomed to collapse. Transfer of technology and the offset clause in the DPP have given the opportunity to the industry in India to acquire state-of-the-art technology to be competitive in the market. But the momentum does not seem to be catching on.
The government, the Indian defence industry and the OEMs are inextricably linked with the buyer, which are the Indian armed forces. India has the wherewithal to provide the space and infrastructure for the industry to develop. When the Prime Minister said “Make in India” he was giving an opportunity to OEMs to set up factories and make their products in India (for whichever market they wish to choose).
The vision was clear—Make in India would generate jobs for the locals and it would offer the opportunity to absorb technology for our own use subsequently. While there have been several moves in this direction, the defence industry has not quite achieved its objectives.
OEMs have been, and still are, wary of the rules that govern the business transaction and the ease of doing business in India. Rampant corruption and overarching bureaucratic procedures have made the OEMs keep India at arm’s length. The cheapest resource pool of technically skilled workers is being overlooked.
We need to introspect on identifying and channelising our skills and technical education towards the defence industry. We should lay a lot of emphasis on reverse engineering to access information and then accelerate our own development and production capability (much like the Chinese have done).
Good management with a dynamic business outlook will go a long way to promote our products. But they need two major factors to succeed—quality and accountability. Without these, one will remain in limbo as the operational requirements arise and we will keep asking ourselves whether ‘to buy or not to buy’ and that is the question.
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 AOC-in-C, Southern Air Command.