The defence minister must have the political courage to order the military to induct specified Indian weapons platforms
by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 16th Apr 13
We know that Defence Minister A K Antony is honest, at least financially. But if there is truth in even half the allegations of corruption that dog his ministry, Mr Antony's probity has failed to keep his subordinates straight. The defence minister's thoughtless and knee-jerk reaction has been to declare that developing weaponry in India is the way to end corruption. Mr Antony, it would appear, believes that corruption is a foreign product.
But ending corruption does not feature in the many benefits that will flow from building our own military systems. Our defence acquisition process has been internally corrupted not by foreign devils, but by our own holy cows. Much of the responsibility lies with the prime minister and his national security team, who have shrunk from the hands-on management of defence, limply acquiescing to the military's insistence on making us the world's largest arms buyer. Then there are the generals and air marshals (I shall explain why I leave out admirals) who have deployed the manipulative argument that national security is under dire threat, and only the immediate purchase of this or the other foreign weapons system can protect us from the Chinese/Pakistanis/jehadis, take your pick. Next comes a sprawling, state-owned defence production establishment that has promised much, delivered little, and has never been held accountable for doing so little with so much. Bringing up the herd are the holy calves --- a new crop of private defence companies --- that have sensed clearly that India's rotten defence system is easier joined than reformed.
This country has what is needed to build its own weaponry --- talented engineers, software designers, an industrial base that supplies the world's automotive industry, and a military that can plan and oversee development programmes. But successive governments have failed to provide the political leadership needed to combine these elements. Mr Antony has publicly scoffed at the "miserly" R&D budgets of private defence companies, but history suggests that governments alone have the budgets and organisational clout to create a defence industry.
An aerospace honcho from Russia whom I asked why Indian defence production was doing so badly lobbed a question back at me. Why, he asked, was Russia such a successful builder of sophisticated fighters and helicopters when that country was still unable to build a passable passenger car? The answer, he said without waiting for a reply, was Moscow's strategic direction. Through famine, hardship and war, Russia's leadership systematically brought together the myriad elements of an aerospace industry: educational institutions that churned out aeronautical designers; design bureaus where legends such as Sukhoi, Mikoyan, Beriev, Ilyushin and Tupolev developed generations of aircraft; science laboratories that produced the special materials that go into aircraft and aero-engines; an industrial base that produced high-quality components like pipes, hoses, rivets, pumps and actuators; technological institutes that churned out trained and productive shop floor workers. With all this in place, Moscow decreed that the Russian military would use only Russian aircraft.
While India must upgrade its training, technological manpower, R&D base and production ecosystem, the biggest obstacle to indigenisation remains the military's argument --- supinely swallowed by a political leadership that is still haunted by memories of 1962 --- that Indian soldiers must be equipped with the world's best when they go into harm's way. Not one defence minister, or any national leader, has had the political courage to argue that Indian strategic interest demands that the military equips itself primarily with Indian weaponry, accepting short-term weakness to build long-term capability. The army and Indian Air Force (IAF) do not see that overseas procurement does not solve even the short-term problem, given how frequently it is disrupted by allegations of corruption.
The Indian Navy provides the army and the IAF with daily reminders of the benefits of indigenisation. With the same R&D base, the same feeble defence industry and the same defence ministry the navy has canalised its meagre allocation of 18 per cent of the defence budget into genuine indigenisation. Today, 43 warships are being built in Indian yards, with just two being built abroad. Initial warships were significantly below global standards. But the navy accepted those, building up industry and creating the capability to deliver warships that are currently up to regional, if not global, standards.
The army and the IAF have inexplicably rejected incremental improvement. The army continues to oppose the Arjun tank, apparently willing to countenance nothing less than a perfect fighting machine. Ironically, it is willing to use the outdated T-72, even though the Arjun has outperformed the more modern T-90 tank in comparative trials. Every major army employs "spiral development" of weaponry, accepting into operational service a "Mark I" product, using it and providing feedback that allows the scientists to develop it into a Mark II. The Israeli Merkava tank is currently being developed into a Mark IV.
In a similar quest for sublime perfection, the IAF resists the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft. The development of Mark II Arjuns and Tejas has been grudgingly conceded, but the process is being stifled. Such small numbers have been ordered that no industrial ecosystem will be galvanised.
Mr Antony must bluntly tell the army and the IAF that the days of importing weaponry are over. He must order them to identify their requirements and place development orders on Indian industrial consortia. He must bring to the table the components of a defence industrial base --- R&D, industry and the military --- and substitute rhetoric with the placing of firm orders. Sixty Tejas and 500 Arjuns in their Mark I versions would be a good beginning.