by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 13 Feb 2007
Aero India 2007, India's biggest ever air show, terminated in Bangalore on Sunday. Costing over Rs 100 crore, most visitors agreed it was a spectacle. But the displays, the bands, the line-up of top line fighters and transport aircraft, the flags of 33 countries fluttering in balmy Bangalore and the delegations of businessmen from the world's largest arms corporations --- none of these could mask the embarrassingly obvious fact that in sixty years since independence, India has achieved little in building up its indigenous defence industry.
Defence Minister AK Antony bravely paid lip service in his welcome address: "Aero India aims to provide a platform for Indian aerospace industry to showcase its capabilities to the global audience." The one thing clearly showcased was that large portions of "India's aerospace industry" are better at building plastic mock-ups than systems that fly. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), having rented probably the largest space in the entire exhibition, created an inadvertently symbolic display. Dominating the HAL stand was a hastily constructed scale model of the planned Light Combat Helicopter (LCH). Other than that, the LCH actually exists only on a government document dated October 2006, sanctioning HAL vast sums of money for its development. Displayed next to the LCH was a smaller plastic model of the Medium Transport Aircraft that Russia signed up for two weeks ago to co-develop with India. Nearby was a model of the Hawk trainer; HAL's role will be to build it on machinery supplied by British Aerospace, to blueprints from the same company.
Outside the exhibition halls, HAL's products were responsible for the only accidents in an otherwise safe show. Just two days before the opening ceremony an accident involving a Dhruv helicopter of the Indian Air Force (IAF) aerobatics team claimed the life of a young IAF pilot and critically injured another. And during the show, in an embarrassing accident in front of horrified spectators, a HAL-developed Intermediate Jet Trainer (IJT) veered off the runway and ploughed into the ground, triggering off a full-scale accident drill.
HAL-built Dhruv helicopters continues to grapple with tail rotor design problems, but they must be fielded because there is nothing else. The IJT continues to be an expensive hobby. And HAL's Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), a black hole for funds, and an embarrassment in every other respect, rounds off HAL's resume as the cutting edge of "India's aerospace industry".
But instead of hard questions and accountability, there is indulgence. In a jaw-dropping press conference at the Aero India 2007, head of the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) and ex-officio Scientific Advisor to the Defence Minister, Mr M Natarajan, announced a new 15-year DRDO programme to build combat aircraft that is not just hugely expensive but unrealistically, indeed laughably, ambitious. Funding this programme would require stepped-up allocations from the defence budget, but the DRDO chief points to a Parliamentary Consultative Committee on Defence recommendation that the DRDO should get increased funding: from the current 6% of defence budget, it should be stepped up to 10%. Mr Natarajan says the government has reassured him he will get what he wants. With defence allocation heading for the Rs 100,000 crore mark, the DRDO would get Rs 10,000 crores a year.
Mr Natarajan envisages building 300-400 Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) for the IAF and the navy, about 50-100 advanced trainer aircraft, 200-300 Medium Combat Aircraft (MCA) and then 100 Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV) that will fly without pilots. The possibility of India buying 126 fighters soon has the world aerospace market slavering today. The DRDO chief has rolled out plans for making 650-900 aircraft. At current rates this amounts to an expenditure of US $54 billion, or Rs 243,000 crores, spread out over some years.
Besides the unrealistic financial projections, what makes such talk outrageous is the failure-plagued platform from which it comes. But the DRDO chief has a ready answer: India doesn't appreciate the healing nature of failure! "In this country, everyone assumes that R&D efforts must have a 100% success. Failure is an integral part of learning. In fact, I call failure as the initial step to success… we have to change the psyche of this country."
This celebration of failure is seldom understood by the armed forces which plump for foreign equipment, regardless of its higher cost. The rationale, they say, is that lives often depend on equipment reliability. But if the military prefers foreign equipment, Mr Natarajan clearly doesn't think highly of them.
The DRDO chief says, "Our own services or our own people, they may be getting very glamoured (sic) by visiting the foreign firms…. unfortunately when you buy a car, you only look at the paint. Very rarely you open the bonnet to see what is inside. The fact is technology is hidden. If you expect the services to appreciate all aspects of technology, we are asking for too much from the environment in which they have grown."
This is an already yawning gulf that is growing ever larger between a government-funded DRDO which produces, at best, passable equipment, and users who expect and demand more. The government, meanwhile, stands and watches.