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Ashok Parthasarathi: Some myths about the Indian military-industrial complex

There are too many uninformed fallacies about our defence production programmes

Ashok Parthasarathi 

Ashok Parthasarathi

As a student of and security affairs, I find both analysts and the media having many misconceptions about our industrial complex. This article deals with some major ones to promote a correct understanding of the matter.

First, our hardware imports are around 60 per cent, and not 70 per cent. Second, delays and cost over-runs in our production programmes also occur in all (Nato) countries; the reasons are many and complex. These have been documented in numerous reports of the General Accounting Office of the US Congress. The UK Comptroller and Auditor General has done likewise.

A specific major example is the M-88 aero-engine for the latest French fighter-bomber France's sole and public sector aero-engine manufacturer, Snecma, which has been making aero-engines for 30 years, took 11 years to design and develop that engine against its commitment of seven years to the French ministry of There was also a 320 per cent cost over-run. As a result, there was also a massive delay in Rafale's first test flight from 1982 to 1987.

Another misconception is that the design and development (D&D) of the (LCA) took three decades. In fact, it took only two, despite encompassing laboratory R&D, production of two technology demonstrators and two prototypes plus 2,500 hours of test flying. The series production plan would be: six LCAs in 2014-15, eight in 2015-16 and 10 in 2016-17, all for induction in operational (IAF) squadrons against an IAF order of 40 aircraft by 2020 - which will be met.

As for the IAF mainstay, the 4.5 generation Sukhoi-30MkI, it is misconceived that the plane continues to be assembled and not manufactured in depth by Ltd (HAL). Actually, the 30MkI (where the I stands for India), is radically different from the Su-30 Russia makes for its own air force. Their plane is a pure air-defence fighter; ours is a multi-role aircraft, i.e. it also includes air-to-ground attack capabilities. Moreover, the MkI was a joint D&D project with large technical and operational inputs from IAF engineers and Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) scientists working with Russian engineers. So, the 30MkI is the creation of joint Indo-Russian knowledge, ingenuity and skill to meet the IAF's operational needs.

HAL started its phased manufacturing programme for the 30MkI in 2004-05. Over 2004-05 to 2012-13, HAL manufactured 174 aircraft. By 2012-13, the air frame was 100 per cent indigenous while the more complex engine was 70 per cent indigenous. This included some 1,500 highly sophisticated and complex castings and forgings - to the great surprise of Russian engineers. Today, the aircraft's overall indigenous content is around 75 per cent. A detailed plan is underway to take that to 85 per cent in 2015-16.

Frequently, the D&D, the Su-30MkI production and the contract between HAL and French aerospace company Dassault for the medium multi-role combat aircraft are compared in terms of costs and supply time frames with the allegedly "speedy operationalisation" of finished import-based aircraft, such as the Mi-17v5 helicopter from Russia, the C-130J and C-17 transporters from the US and Pilatus PC-7 basic trainer from Switzerland. But doing so is not comparing apples with apples because the latter constituted direct imports. Additionally, Tejas uses indigenous technology.

Direct imports make the user eternally and massively dependent on the foreign supplier for spares and technical services, and when modifications, add-ons and upgrades over the 30- to 40-year lifetime of the aircraft have to be made. Financially, foreign suppliers jack up prices for both spares and service to exorbitant levels.

If an Indo-Pak war occurs or we conduct nuclear device tests, the government of the foreign supplier will embargo all supplies of spares and technical services, thereby immobilising our imported weapon systems. Only Russia has never applied embargoes on us.

Another problem with direct import occurs if the foreign supplier phases out production of the supplied weapon system. It then cannot supply spares or technical services, so the weapon system becomes non-operational. This occurred with seven US-origin enemy artillery-location radars India imported in 2005. Consequently, all seven radars have been non-operational for the past six years and more.

A common uninformed allegation is that decades of defence ties with the Soviet Union have not helped "kick-start" our defence industry and that they have the character of a "patron-client" relationship. The contributions of such ties in building our defence industry have been so wide ranging and deep that they need a separate article to deal with them. Here, however, are some major examples: laying the foundation for the industrial capabilities and capacity for in-depth manufacture of fighter aircraft with the MiG-21 models FL, M and Bis from as far back as 1964 and the MiG-27 fighter-bomber from 1974. Taken together, these projects did, indeed, kick-start our defence aircraft industry by: (i) training a huge number of specialist engineers, technicians and skilled workers; (ii) building a large vendor population; and (iii) supplying highly specialised equipment and facilities to HAL to manufacture, test and prove the aircraft. The Soviet ties built our domestic technological and industrial capabilities so wel
l that our own engineers and technicians were able to upgrade the MiG-27 without any Russian assistance.

Further, the experience and expertise developed as a result of these defence ties played a major role in enabling HAL, DRDO, IAF and the Aeronautical Development Agency to D&D, engineer, flight test, and manufacture the Tejas

The ties also contributed to numerous other major weapon systems, such as the stealth frigates of the Navy and two generations of main battle tanks for the Army - the T-72 of the 1970s and the T-90 of the early 2000s.

Then there is the major case of the nuclear weapon-tipped ballistic missile firing nuclear submarine, Arihant, and the futuristic Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft now in progress. These are weapon systems no other country was, or is, willing to even discuss with us, let alone undertaking joint technology development as the Russians have.

The Russians have also provided us enormous technical assistance to overcome our design and engineering problems in successfully launching and targeting the critically important 3,500 km Agni-3 intermediate range, nuclear-tipped, strategic ballistic missile developed by DRDO. These few examples put paid to the allegation that Indo-Soviet/Russian defence ties were, and even now are, those of a "patron" vis-à-vis a "client". Would a "patron" help a so-called "client" overcome problems in a strategic missile developed by the "client"? Would the US be willing to even consider providing us such help?



The writer is former science and technology (S&T) adviser to the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and former secretary of several major S&T ministries of the Government of India

First Published: Thu, February 27 2014. 21:46 IST
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