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Premvir Das: For defence, "Make in India" deserves more thought

Government procurement requires skills that do not exist and capacity that has not been created

Premvir Das 

Premvir Das

Recent reports indicate that the government has approved proposals, all long pending, which will lead to indigenous manufacture of submarines and assorted other military equipment at an estimated outlay of about Rs 80,000 crore. Follow-up action to identify those who can manufacture these, to negotiate with them, to get them to upgrade their facilities, to contract and equally important, to finalise the foreign collaborator, are not issues that can be resolved easily, no matter what the intent. It will take several years before any of these projects, the submarines in particular, will see the light of day. It has been claimed that orders issued some months ago to allow FDI up to 49 per cent in defence would facilitate this entire process; but that, at best, may just turn out to be a pious hope.

The issues, however, are more complex. First, there is only one shipyard in India, Mazagaon Docks (MDL) in Mumbai, which can undertake construction of submarines without significant investment in its infrastructure. That shipyard is already tied up with the building of six Scorpene class French submarines and will remain so for another ten years at the very least. Availability of skilled manpower including designers, tradesmen and overseers is another constraint. For example, the quality of welding required for a vessel which can withstand pressures of operating hundreds of meters underwater is far more stringent than that needed for ships that are built to operate on the surface. The same is true for every other element involved in the manufacturing process. Next, almost every weapon and sensor and propulsion units, both main and auxiliary, will need to be imported - as is being done for the Scorpenes. Finally, all this work has to be overseen continuously for quality assurance and those skilled in this work, all Navy personnel, are limited in number. Almost all of this manpower is presently focused on the construction work ongoing at MDL and to train additional people for such highly skilled tasks is not something that can be easily achieved. So, to begin a second line of production of submarines will take more than just decisions on paper.

A more pragmatic decision, without compromising the Make in India call, would have been to 'buy-and-make'. One or, preferably, two platforms could have been purchased outright from the chosen foreign collaborator and the rest built through technology transfer. Experience shows that in such cases, the vessels that follow the first few get the advantage of design and equipment up-gradations which make them more potent and effective than their predecessors. This was, reportedly, the Navy's proposal and a sound one but it has, evidently, been rejected. Under the scheme now approved, we should not expect to see the first of the six submarines for at least the next 10-12 years and this too if all the necessary steps are now taken speedily and implemented with determination.

Let us not forget that the first Scorpene, ordered to be built at MDL in 2002, will take to the seas only in 2016 and that too when MDL already has experience of having built two German design boats earlier. By 2020, the Navy will have just three of these submarines - at the most four, though that is very unlikely. All other boats, and their numbers need not be speculated upon, will be at least 25 years old and more, ready to go to the scrap yard rather than to sea. By no stretch of the imagination can this be considered a happy state of affairs. In this same time frame, we will, in all probability, have two indigenously built (with Russian assistance) nuclear submarines in the Navy's operational inventory but that is a different ball game altogether.

Submarines, like ships and aircraft, are platforms and technology transfer is quite easily available from many sources. Similarly, equipment like generators, compressors, pumps and, to some extent, the less sophisticated high-powered engines, can also be made within the country. However, the weapons and sensors that go into them require more intricate technology inputs which involve not just 'know how' but also 'know why'; the latter, understandably, is not easily available.

So, when we talk of an item like anti-tank missiles, our focus has to be on this critical need if the Make in India theme is to become a reality and co-development followed by co-production is the required route. In this context, the decision to reject the American offer for Javelin missiles in favour of Israeli systems makes little sense unless, of course, that also involves joint development. Even then, it seems unlikely that Israel can match the technology that is available with the US and one hopes that this aspect has been kept in view.

Also, looked at in broader terms, the political leverage afforded through a major arms deal with the US, especially one that involves transfer of higher-end technology, can hardly be equalled by Israel or most other countries. As is well known, several co-development and production offers from America are on offer and it would be advantageous to make use of them just as we have done for the fifth generation combat fighter aircraft with Russia, difficulties and costs regardless.

Desirability aside, there are few private sector entities in India, including the bigger and better-known names, which have the ability to produce much more than sub-assemblies or the less sophisticated equipment. To hope that any one of them will be able to manufacture major platforms in the foreseeable future is to live in a dreamland.

Our own capabilities for producing frontline ships, submarines, aircraft, tanks and so on will continue to lie in the domain of the public sector, and this is the area in which we must concentrate. These facilities can absorb transfer of technology more easily as they already have basic know-how and reasonably well-established expertise. There is a mistaken view in some quarters that foreign vendors will find it easier to collaborate with companies in our private sector, but experience thus far belies that belief. They may do so only if they have controlling interest in these companies for which the limitation of 49 per cent in FDI will not suffice.

It is also highly unlikely that private sector manufacturers will undertake investments where the returns are not commensurate with the interests of their shareholders, making cost of product an inhibiting consideration.

In short, the need is to focus on critical areas of force level and critical technologies where desired inputs are not easily available. As far back as 1994, then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao ordered the constitution of a high-level group of experts under the chairmanship of Abdul Kalam, head of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), which was tasked to identify measures necessary to convert the then existing 70:30 import/indigenous mix of military hardware to 30:70 in the next ten years. It says something for the difficulty and complexity of this task that, 20 years down the line, the 1994 dependency remains unchanged.

As a desirable long-term goal, Make in India is not an issue with which anyone can disagree. What is debatable is the manner in which we should try to reach that objective. A practical step-by-step approach, recognising both capabilities and constraints, is more likely to see us move in that direction than assumption of skills that do not exist or of expectations that are unlikely to be met.

The writer was member of the Task Force on Higher Defence Management constituted by the government in 2000. He has also served on the National Security Advisory Board

First Published: Sat, November 01 2014. 21:50 IST