May 13 has a special significance in India’s contemporary history, as on this day in 1998 India tested the last two nuclear devices as part of Pokhran II. They propelled India into the select league possessing a nuclear deterrent, but deep down Indian military power lacked the strategic depth afforded by an indigenous defence industry. May 13 of this year added another bookmark to this date; India took the first real step in its drive to address this void when the Defence Acquisition Council accepted the single vendor Tata-Airbus offer of manufacturing, in-country, the C-295 as an Avro replacement aircraft for the Indian Air Force (IAF). It is just the catalyst required for defence indigenisation as also an indicator of the government’s determination to get a home-grown defence industrial base going, with the private sector being an equal partner to the defence public sector undertakings (DPSUs).
It has been repeated ad nauseum that our defence ministry has gone through a long Arctic winter these past ten years during which, among many things, the Army got depleted of its artillery guns, the Navy of its submarines and the IAF of its strike squadron strength. So, how does acquisition of a transport aircraft become a game-changer? The answer lies in understanding the environment of fear and trepidation that has prevailed in the ministry of defence these past years, with decision makers looking for any straw in the wind to avoid recommending a purchase—anonymous letters, protests from rejected vendors, from MPs and even pressures from the DPSUs! As per South Block folklore, there was this defence secretary, who, on retirement, proudly announced that he did not sign a single contract in his term! The fear of the three Cs—CVC, CAG and CBI—stymied any proclivity on part of a bureaucrat or a politician to put his signature on a contract. The acceptance now of the $2 billion C-295 proposal shows a positive and bold mindset and “Make in India” seems to be on its way. Fast decision making can also be expected in future as the forthcoming amendment to the Prevention of Corruption Act (which makes obtaining prior permission a pre-requisite to file a case against a retired government official) would remove persecution worries of decision-takers.
It is just the start, and to paraphrase Robert Frost, there are many miles to go before we get a foothold on the slippery indigenisation track. But is all this brouhaha only for the 56 aircraft that the IAF would buy, plus a few more for other services? While an element of corporate gain is the underlying sine qua non for any private venture, the Avro replacement decision has to be seen as something bigger on the national canvas. Having been involved in the project from start, this author can attest to the fact that the IAF had this larger vision while proposing the novel private sector route. Besides future IAF requirement like replacement of the An-32 and maritime recce aircraft for the Navy, it is a unique opportunity to empower the private players in the multi-billion dollar civil aviation sector.
It would be incumbent on the Tatas to seize this opportunity and become trailblazers again, as they were in the early days of Indian aviation. They must build an ecosystem of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) around the C 295 project to service the larger aviation sector so that these MSMEs feed into the global supply chain of aircraft majors—remember how the Maruti project has built up a world-class ancillary industry? The C-295 is a civil certified aircraft, too, and the Tatas must use their international image for quality to export it to other countries. And on the horizon, beyond the C-295, is the distant dream of our aviation pioneers to see a genuine Made in India aircraft take to the skies; the C-295 should give us the technology to be used as a base for further innovation and research and development (R&D).
Aerospace R&D requires brainy individuals and it is a pity that in our institutions of higher learning, very few students are opting for aerospace engineering. So, besides the philanthropy angle and the fact that the aviation industry requires skilled manpower, it would help the larger national cause if business houses (the likes of Tata, Mahindra, L&T et al) sponsor chairs of excellence in premier institutions to further the cause of aerospace learning; the channel to feed private enterprise has to be well endowed if the output is to be of some quality. The industry must remember that the Indian market (civil and defence) is in need of UAVs of all sizes, a host of helicopters (the Ka 226 deal with Russia is just a speck) and a multitude of aerial armaments—the list is endless; incidentally, the acquisition of 36 Rafale fighters would be just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, considering the defence posture that India has to adopt due the prevailing security environment. And, as we expand our footprint across the high seas, the requirement of an amphibious aircraft gains great importance for surveillance and search and rescue; one must remember that as flight refueling aircraft extend the operational range of our Sukhois, Jaguars and MiG-29 Ks, the Combat Search and Rescue has to keep pace.
And finally, one just hopes that the government gives up the hair-brained scheme of some retired scientists and technocrats to make an 80-seater Regional Transport Passenger Aircraft. The government must channelise the scarce monies into genuine and doable R&D projects (including by private industry); while dreaming is good, let’s learn to walk before trying to sprint. Get the tax exemptions going for local players and ensure a level playing field for them vis-à-vis DPSUs and foreign OEMs by opening up DRDO labs for research as they are national assets. Since we will still be importing for the next decade (as setting up a defence industrial base takes time), we must use the buyer’s clout to force big buys to be manufactured in India. But for coordinating this national endeavour, ownership of the government’s indigenisation vision has to be entrusted to an accountable entity that has a long assured tenure in the job, to the tune of at least five years; implementation of this imperative is the key to making India self-sufficient in the cut-throat world of defence procurements. The first year of the defence ministry under the new dispensation has shown welcome positivity whose momentum needs to be maintained.
The writer, a retired Air Vice Marshal, is a distinguished fellow at Centre for Air Power Studies.