The one area where Prime Minister Modi’s vision of ‘Make in India’ where a lot was expected but in which the achievements have been few and far between, is in the production of hi-end defence platforms, with the exception of INS Arihant, India’s first home built nuclear propelled, ballistic missile armed submarine. This has now completed the much needed nuclear triad, two decades after India joined the nuclear nations club, formally. And though it can be argued that this project was initiated well before Mr Modi came to power, there are still lessons that it has to offer. Though a DRDO project, the Indian Navy had closely managed the huge country wide indigenisation by co-opting India’s small and medium industries and private sector companies, to manufacture all the components for this submarine to high levels of precision and reliability.
In contrast, is the story of our Light Combat Aircraft (LCA Tejas), where the blame game hasn’t stopped between the IAF and the HAL, on the reasons for the delay of the LCA to be added to the IAF’s depleting fleet. Even the defence minister has gone on record to say that the IAF and HAL blame each other for the delay of the LCA project. Considering that the development of INS Arihant has taken two decades, the delay in the LCA’s delivery by over three decades, wouldn’t have been so annoying if the IAF had not been staring at its fast depleting fighter squadron numbers. And even though the IAF plans to induct the LCA ‘Tejas in all versions to arrest the depletion of combat squadrons’ the orders for the Tejas are yet to be placed, said Air Marshal SBP Sinha, in a piece in the Indian Express on 23 January. He says that ‘HAL needs to bring in institutional flexibility to quickly adapt its production line’ to the evolving changes in the design and development of Tejas or any other subsequent aircraft.
There would be equally telling counter arguments that HAL officials would have to offer. But a fallout of this delay has been the reluctance of Dassault to produce the Rafale jets with HAL, since the delays in its production through HAL, would increase the cost per aircraft substantially, the political arguments against the deal notwithstanding. But a lesson to be learnt from the Navy’s achievements is that its designers have worked steadily to make ships and submarines in India. In contrast, our DPSUs have yet to produce game changing weapon systems along with our two other services. One reason has been that the acquisition of weapon systems is done when our capabilities have come down to critically low levels. And then the only option is to buy from a long row arms merchants and their fancy inventories.
While in the short term, this is perhaps the only answer, but we need to ask how Israel, which became a nation state in 1948, just after our independence, has a flourishing arms industry, while India’s politicians have made loud claims on the need for self sufficiency in this field, but India lags sadly behind. This is not the case with missile and satellite technology, where India produces world class items. A reason for this achievement is that we were denied access to top end technology that couldn’t be bought easily, and so our scientists went out and produced what we have today. Thus a two point agenda to ‘Make in India’ should require each of our services to have a dedicated cadre of officers whose entire career should be in the field of defence acquisitions and design. And the other is for the government to give the services a window of 5 or 10 years to acquire what they critically need, and after that, they must be forced to make do with what is made in India.
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