Will 2014 see bolder steps towards military self-reliance?

Last Updated: Tue, Dec 24, 2013 07:20 hrs

In contrast to the gloomy prognostications on India's economy and its place in the world, the year that is ending offers a happier picture in politics and national defence.

The meteoric rise of the Aam Aadmi Party holds the tantalising promise of aspiration-based politics and an embrace of rights and duties by the citizenry. National defence, too, offers scope for optimism.

Emblemising the promise of more indigenous weapons and equipment was last week's induction of the Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA) into the air force after almost three decades on the anvil.

While the Tejas remains a work in progress, the air force could well be more enthusiastic about speeding up development and ordering larger numbers. A second aerospace success is within touching distance, with the Sitara intermediate jet trainer nearing the milestone of air force acceptance.

An advanced medium combat aircraft (AMCA) is taking tentative shape, building on the design skills and technologies that accrued while developing the Tejas.

Also holding promise is the Indo-Russian partnership to design a fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA), with negotiations advanced on a $12-billion research and development (R&D) contract that will frame the joint effort. So far, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) have waged lonely struggles to reinvent the wheel.

With their basics in place, these agencies are in place to absorb the next level of design and manufacturing skills alongside Russia. With the Tejas programme having taught them the intricacies of building a light fighter, and with the FGFA programme now extending those skills to heavier aircraft, the indigenous AMCA programme is poised to benefit. Encouragingly, the air force and the ministry of defence are eager to support this effort.

Ongoing structural changes also warrant optimism. Aerospace experts have long clamoured for an overarching body to co-ordinate the development of national aerospace design and manufacturing expertise.

The government has now accepted that logic, even if belatedly. Separately, the ongoing rejuvenation of HAL by a dynamic new chairman and the aggressive entry of private sector companies like Reliance Industries hold out the promise of a competitive market environment replacing the tired old sarkari ways of doing business.

Even greater promise lies in naval shipbuilding. While the commissioning in Russia last month of the 44,500-tonne aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, grabbed the headlines, the more significant development was the launch of the indigenous aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, at Cochin Shipyard in August.

The 40,000-tonne Vikrant would join the naval fleet only in 2018, but this success positions India to build all its future aircraft carriers. The Vikrant's successor is likely to be a bigger, 65,000-tonne aircraft carrier, which would start construction well before the Vikrant is completed.

This means India can build the entire range of surface warships, even though submarines remain a worrying capability gap. In June, Russia handed over INS Trikand, the last in a series of six stealthy frigates that the navy imported over the past 10 years. Today, all 45 warships being built for the navy are taking shape in Indian shipyards.

Another giant stride in indigenisation occurred in August when a miniature nuclear reactor powered up INS Arihant, the nuclear-propelled, nuclear missile-carrying submarine built by the DRDO alongside private companies, especially L&T. This crucial underwater component of the country's nuclear deterrent will be followed by several larger and more capable successors.

The navy, more enthusiastic about indigenisation than the army and the air force, is emerging as a significant aircraft operator. In May, a squadron of Russia-built MiG-29K fighters was commissioned to operate off INS Vikramaditya. This year, Boeing delivered the first two of eight immensely capable P-8I multi-mission maritime aircraft.

The navy also inducted several indigenous aircraft - operationalising its first squadron of Dhruv light helicopters, and inducting its first Hawk advanced jet trainer, both in November. The admirals have committed fully to the naval Tejas fighter, which will operate alongside the MiG-29 from the Vikrant and its successors. As a step towards Blue Water capability, the navy had its own GSAT-7 satellite launched, allowing direct communication with warships anywhere in the Indian Ocean.

The army remained a laggard in both indigenisation and procurement, with little movement on the acquisition of badly needed artillery guns and anti-tank missiles. These delays could be transformed into an advantage, since indigenous capabilities have grown since these procurements were initiated. At least three entities - the DRDO, the Ordnance Factory Board and a slew of private companies - are eager to develop artillery for the army, even if ultra-light howitzers needed for mountain divisions remain a daunting technological challenge.

Meanwhile, the procurement landscape for anti-tank missiles has been transformed by the unprecedented US offer to co-manufacture the highly rated Javelin missile in India and co-develop an advanced version of it for the future. It remains to be seen if the defence ministry embraces these opportunities.

Endemic delays and corruption allegations plague major foreign procurements. The contract to buy Rafale fighters is stuck in the defence ministry's throat, too big to swallow and too big to spit out. The purchase of VVIP helicopters is mired in allegations of wrongdoing.

Realisation is growing within South Block that indigenous development offers an alternative to these quagmires. The Defence Procurement Policy of 2013 explicitly recognised this.

Will 2014 see the defence ministry take bolder steps towards self-reliance?

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