By Ajai Shukla
India is co-developing and building missiles and military aircraft with Russia; it is co-developing missiles with Israel. But targeted American sanctions, and a Washington licence raj that stifles the outflow of military technology, has ensured that India's Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) has never co-developed weaponry with the world's most evolved and high-tech defence industry - that of the United States.
The US, in turn - even while selling billions of dollars worth of military aircraft to India - has failed to mine the richest lode of the Ministry of Defence (MoD): Joint development contracts like the Indo-Russian Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA), which will be signed next month with a corpus of $12 billion, which could rise to over $20 billion. Or, like the $2-billion partnership between DRDO and Israel Aerospace Industries to co-develop an anti-aircraft missile.
But that seems likely to change with Washington agreeing, during the run-up to President Obama's just-concluded visit, to relax controls on technology and defence exports. Top DRDO officials now believe that, given the growing closeness between the US and India, the two defence establishments would be jointly developing high-tech military weaponry by 2020.
DRDO's chief controller, Prahlada, told Business Standard just ahead of the US president's visit: "Within a decade, we will have major joint collaboration. Maybe in aeronautics, maybe radars… something will click. We are working with Israel and Russia in missiles; with the US, we may work on something else. Both countries are moving towards that."
DRDO, aware of the US defence industry's technological self-sufficiency, believes India's key attraction would revolve around lowering the cost of a product through cheaper development and testing costs. And, as the US defence budget plateaus and even reduces, the assured custom from India's military would add significant economies of scale.
DRDO's chief, V K Saraswat, is explicit about the military projects the US and India could undertake jointly. He says: "We have discussed this many times. India has an excellent base in IT, especially computer simulation, virtual reality, and robotics. In any contemporary military platform, you need command and control and communications software. We have some of the best brains in this area and we can develop these systems for both India and the US. If these Indian strengths are harnessed with American technologies, we could build the best and the cheapest military systems in the world.
As DRDO notches up successes in high-tech fields like missiles, aerospace, electronic warfare systems and command networks, its senior officials are confident that their laboratories have much to offer. Prahlada says: "American and European companies earlier believed that the Indian defence R&D was at some lower level. But now they listen and observe because they know we have developed systems of complexity and that… if they do not work with us, we will somehow find a solution. So, that is not there. Definitely there is an improved way of looking at India."
While the Indo-US Defence Policy Group (DPG), a joint deliberative body that meets regularly - has long provided a forum for exploring research areas, Saraswat complains that US legal restraints have hamstrung its work: "We have identified areas where we can work together. But the US legal framework - regimes such as the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR); and the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) - require many permissions and raise legal issues on dual-use technology."
Now, after Obama's unambiguous promise to reform export controls, DRDO expects that many of these difficulties will ease.
According to Saraswat, the US technology regimes have permitted cooperation in fundamental research, but not in developing specific technologies or military systems. The DRDO chief explains: "If we wanted to do research on, say, bio-medical engineering, then it is okay (with the US). But there would be hesitation on their part for research on, say, hypersonic technology, which is used in missiles."
Washington's technology safeguard regimes have hindered not just joint military R&D, but also Indian academics researching in US institutions. Saraswat says: "A large number of Indian scientists go and work in the US universities, etc, but when it comes to really doing research in application areas, these US laws are not permitting cooperation in application-oriented research."