Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Changing mindsets: the Brahmos effect

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 29th January 2008

It could be the new direction of Indian defence production. The Brahmos assembly plant in the DRDO missile complex in Hyderabad is, in every way, a multi-national joint venture that churns out cutting edge weaponry. It looks like one; the spacious, landscaped campus, with Russians working alongside Indian technicians, is very different from your average defence factory. And the Brahmos anti-ship and anti-surface cruise missile system that is produced here is specifically tailored to global regulations. The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) disallows the transfer of technology for missiles with ranges of more than 300 km; the range of the Brahmos has been set at 297 km.

Success stories like the Brahmos are changing mindsets within India’s defence establishment, particularly amongst the high priests of indigenisation in the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO). The ease with which the Indo-Russian Brahmos has been developed and produced contrasts sharply with projects like the Trishul and the Agni, which have taken decades to develop. Nevertheless, there was surprise when the DRDO’s chief controller of R&D, Dr Prahlada, declared, on 8th January this year, that India’s missile development programmes would increasingly take a Brahmos-like form of joint development with international partners.

That far-reaching shift in mindsets within the DRDO indicates a greater nimbleness than their colleagues in the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). Both establishments have faced the same problems. Since the start of India’s nuclear programme in the 1960s, and especially after the nuclear experiment of 1974, their world-view has been forged in the flames of technology denial. But now, after decades of painstaking autarky, the growing tide of offers of foreign collaboration is creating a new confidence. The traditional apprehension that doors could be slammed shut in India’s face at any time, is being whittled away by a new recognition of India today: a growing economic power, a responsible democracy, and a market that simply cannot be disregarded by anyone with a love for profits.

From the perspective of the MoD, the present paradigm is epitomised by the new attitude of the world’s greatest repository of high technology, the United States. Setting aside decades of technology denial regimes against India, the Clinton and Bush administrations have assiduously created a legislative framework for stepped up technology transfers. Beginning with the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP), the Indo-US nuclear deal is as much about high-technology transfers in non-nuclear fields as it is about nuclear power generation.

That framework of cooperation is well in place. Even if the Indo-US nuclear deal cannot be revived, high-technology cooperation in military production is unlikely to be derailed. The rationale is not just strategic, but also economic. With France, the UK, Russia and Israel queuing up to supply high technology to India, America simply cannot afford to miss out.

In sensitive fields like space, nuclear technology and strategic missile systems, India’s scientists will still have to go it alone. The makers of the Agni missile point out that technology denial regimes on the Agni project are getting stronger every year. But that strategic reality can no longer be allowed to block the flow of beneficial technology that can dramatically speed up India’s weapons programmes. 

The Israeli defence industry is a good model for India to emulate. Despite the closeness of its relationship with America, Israel does not enjoy access to US nuclear or strategic missile technologies. But the US-Israeli relationship has given it access to a wide range of “commercially available off-the-shelf” (COTS) components and sub-components, which it buys from the US and integrates into weapons systems. Some of Israel’s most advanced systems, e.g. the Arrow theatre missile defence system, were joint endeavours, with the US providing not just financing, but also technologies that would have otherwise taken Israel years to develop.

While this level of cooperation with America is still some way off for India, several joint development programmes have been initiated with Russia. The Brahmos is already a success; a multi-role transport aircraft and a 5th generation fighter aircraft are now on the anvil. And Israel, always commercially nimble, has seen the benefits of the joint development model, which not only distributes the cost of development, but also provides, in India, a big-spending customer for the final product. India and Israel are setting up a Brahmos-type commercial structure for developing and producing a long-range surface-to-air missile (LR-SAM), which will build on the technologies of Israel’s highly successful Barak missile.

With the winds of change blowing through the DRDO, the MoD must tread carefully to avoid opposition, of the kind that sprang from within the DAE to the US-India nuclear deal. There are deep professional emotions involved; it is unrealistic to expect establishments that have battled through decades of technology denial to suddenly abandon their foxholes for happily collaboration. The DRDO must be brought on board and given institutional stakes in the new glasnost.

The potential for conflict is real. The Indian Navy pushed through the LR-SAM collaboration with Israel, despite DRDO protests that its Trishul missile would do the job. Despite all its failures and delays, the DRDO remains the MoD’s premier technology bank. It must have a say in what technologies are developed and with which partner.

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