Defence minister Manohar Parrikar has three things going for him. First, he has prime minister Narendra Modi’s confidence. Two, he is an IIT engineer and able to digest the technical aspects and imperatives of national security better than the generalist civil servants in the ministry of defence (MoD). And three, he may have an instinctive understanding of national security considering he was chief minister of a small coastal state with big naval presence (which, after mining and tourism, perhaps, pumps in the most money into Goa’s economy).
There are many issues he will have to deal with on an urgent basis. But nothing is more important than for this country to produce the weapons it needs. Self-sufficiency in arms has to date been mostly political rhetoric and indigenisation is reduced to passing off licence manufacture of foreign weapons systems by defence public sector units (DPSUs) as a great leap in self-reliance. Instead of the government insisting that the military assist the Indian defence industry to obtain its requirements at home, it has left it to individual services to decide whether to participate in indigenous design, development, and production schemes. Navy showed its earnest long ago with a warship and submarine design directorate.
The air force and army are way behind, with the former displaying distrust in extremis of home-made aircraft even after the Marut HF-24 showed it could be done 50 years back, and the Tejas light combat aircraft is a beautiful fighter plane. According to Pushpindar Singh, agent for Dornier, the German aviation sector was so impressed it offered to jointly develop the latter aircraft. With the lack of foresight the Indian government is known for the MoD, of course, declined just as it had done the offer by Bonn in the Sixties to co-develop the Marut! The import option has proved a bonanza for foreign defence suppliers, providing foreign countries the handle to influence Indian foreign and military policies by manipulating, especially during crises, the supply of spares.
Parrikar’s predecessor, Arun Jaitley, decided boldly on the indigenous manufacture of the Project 75i conventional submarine, rejecting MoD’s attempt to take the private sector major, Larsen & Toubro (L&T), out of the running by suggesting it move its main production base to Hazira—a techno-economic decision it was incompetent to make, had no business to try imposing on L&T, and was plainly designed to favour the low-productivity DPSU Mazgaon Dockyard Ltd (MDL), which has huffed and puffed and run up huge cost and time over-runs in assembling the French Scorpene submarine. It is hardly to be wondered that the ideologically blinkered Congress defence minister, A K Antony, didn’t see the logic of entrusting L&T producing the technically challenging Arihant-class nuclear-powered nuclear ballistic missile-firing submarine (SSBN) with the manufacture of the far simpler diesel submarine!
In any case, Jaitley’s decision to have DPSUs compete with L&T and Pipavav Shipyard, and give the winning bidder the full contract for six submarines and the freedom to choose a foreign partner (because the navy’s diffident submarine design needs hand-holding) can be the model for Parrikar deciding to produce the medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) at home and give a fillip to India’s aircraft industry. Such an industry has been prevented from emerging by the IAF preferring imported fighter planes and, another DPSU, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, like MDL, specialising in screwdriver technology, manufacturing them under licence.
Parrikar will, however, have to first terminate the negotiations for Rafale. It is a buyer’s market and Paris can ill-afford anger and damage the prospects of French firms losing out on potential partnerships with Indian companies to produce weapons systems in toto in India. Such a decision will oxygenate the Tejas light combat aircraft programme, particularly if it is combined with the speedy approval of the upscaled Tejas Mk-II design—the Advanced MMRCA (AMMRCA) project, which has been finalised by the Aircraft Development Agency (ADA).
As in the case of the 75i submarine, it is the more efficient and capable private sector who should be lead contractor and prime integrator on the AMMRCA with ADA design and production technologies transferred to it, so that the 15-year timeline for induction is met. Indeed, the country is farther ahead in the realm of combat plane production than of diesel submarines, considering the technology is indigenous and ingested, the design is ready as are the tooling and manufacturing processes for the Tejas series. To ensure success, however, Parrikar will have to make the IAF responsible for the success of the project and bringing the AMMRCA in on time and within cost. This is a larger, truly 5th generation, warplane with the fully composite fuselage and leading edges, higher ordnance-carrying capacity, and more advanced avionics compared to the Rafale straddling the 3rd and 4th generations of fighter aircraft dating to the 1980s.
That India even shortlisted Rafale, a day-before-yesterday’s plane for tomorrow’s needs, and has made ready to spend in excess of $30 billion over the next 30 years when a home-grown alternative is available, shows how skewed the procurement system has become and which Parrikar will have to right on a war footing. He can show India’s resolve to be self-sufficient in arms and invest such vast sums, in line with Modi’s “Make in India” policy, with a design-to-delivery AMMRCA product and thus power the Indian aviation sector with private companies permitted to utilise the under-used wherewithal of the DPSUs. Or, Parrikar can funnel the `1,80,000 crore into helping Paris recover its investment in the prohibitively expensive Rafale programme that has found no other buyers and keeping the French company, Dassault, financially afloat. What makes more sense doing?
Parrikar should not be intimidated by IAF’s media orchestrated squawking about depleted combat aircraft strength, especially when there’s a ready solution the IAF is loath to pursue to meet short-term needs, namely, buying more Su-30s, MiG-29Ms, and sprucing up their spares situation. The AMMRCA at the top end and the Avro 748 medium transport replacement and the army’s requirement for 197 light helicopters in its train will help consolidate a strong aerospace sector that India has waited too long for.
The author is professor at the Centre for Policy Research and blogs at www.bharatkarnad.com