India’s indigenous defence research and production capabilities have not kept pace with the country’s military requirements. By RAVI SHARMA

DEFENCE Minister A.K. Antony has said on numerous occasions that India still meets around 70 per cent of its military hardware and software requirements through imports. This makes India the world’s largest importer of major conventional weapons, which means it is vulnerable to supply lines being chocked at inappropriate times and arms procurement scandals (Bofors howitzer, Tatra truck, and more recently AugustaWestland VVIP helicopter) erupting occasionally. It also reflects poorly on the country’s capabilities and efforts to indigenise its military requirements. According to data released recently by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, India in 2008-12 accounted for 12 per cent of global arms imports, significantly ahead of second-placed China.

It is also an established fact that neither the indigenous defence research and development efforts nor the defence production capabilities —despite both being around for well over half a century—have kept pace with the armed forces’ requirements, either qualitatively or quantitatively. India, unlike China, is yet to build a robust and responsive defence technology and industrial base.

In the face of the allegations that Rs.362 crore was paid as kickbacks in the purchase of 12 VVIP helicopters from AugustaWestland, Antony has again asked the armed forces to ensure that military hardware “imports are the last resort and not the easiest resort”. He has also indicated that the government is looking to tweak its defence production and defence procurement policies so that indigenisation of military hardware can be speeded up in “mission mode”.

Antony’s desire for indigenisation has been welcomed by the armed forces. In the Eleventh Plan period, the Indian Air Force (IAF) handed out 325 capital acquisition contracts worth Rs.1,52,000 crore (around $28.5 billion). Of these, 217 contracts totalling Rs.84,000 crore ($15.5 billion), a good 66 per cent, went to Indian companies.

But delays and quality issues persist. Now, with all the three services buying equipment worth billions as they look to modernise and recast themselves for the 21st century, the task of indigenisation is daunting.

The armed forces are overwhelmingly equipped with and dependent on platforms and systems acquired from Russia, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and now increasingly Israel and the United States. According to numerous reports to Parliament by the Comptroller and Auditor General, a high proportion of these imported systems are frequently not serviceable, thus affecting the combat readiness of the armed forces.

Defence experts also highlight the fact that even the so-called indigenously built platforms have an unacceptably high degree of imported content. The indigenously developed light combat aircraft Tejas is a prime example: the engine and the multi-mode radar are imported from the U.S. and Israel respectively.

The country’s defence research establishment is represented mainly by the 50-odd laboratories and other establishments of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), with a collective budget of over Rs.10,000 crore. These and the defence industry, almost exclusively the preserve of defence public sector units (DPSUs), are strongly convinced that the armed forces will rather “buy from abroad” than allow them to develop, design and produce. The armed forces complain of time and cost overruns and unreal promises. The DRDO and, to a lesser extent, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), a DPSU, complain that the armed forces have unrealistic expectations and constantly change general/air staff qualitative requirements. The armed forces counter this by saying that delayed deliveries force them to change requirements in order to keep pace with newer technologies.

During the Aero India 2013 air show in Bangalore, Antony and the Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne criticised the DPSUs and the DRDO for their inability to deliver quality products in time. Antony singled out India’s biggest aerospace company, the HAL, and said that it “must show results” and that the DRDO “must design products that are acceptable and meet the user’s requirements”. Antony said: “Delay in delivery is a big problem for the armed forces. The [indigenous] Light Combat Aircraft Tejas [under development by a number of DRDO laboratories and manufactured by the HAL] is yet to get its IOC-2 [initial operational clearance-2]. And the intermediate jet trainer [under development at the HAL] is delayed—we must make it a reality. Quality must also improve.” A number of other indigenous projects, most notably the DRDO’s Kaveri engine, Arjun tank and Airborne Early Warning and Control System, the HAL’s basic trainer, and the National Aerospace Laboratories’ Saras light transport aircraft, are long behind schedule.

Delayed deliveries are the armed forces’ biggest worry because they hamper operational availability and maintainability and drastically affect modernisation. Air Chief Marshal Browne, who has frequently called for restricting imports and increasing indigenous content, is of the view that penalties should be imposed on designers and production houses if they do not deliver on time. He explained: “We need to get our project management right before we embark on programmes. Many of our key projects have faltered because of poor management.” He spoke of “a disconnect between design houses and the production agency” and added that “production houses must also have their own design centres so that quality specifications can be maintained”. He wanted the user to be enmeshed in the project management team and closely connected at various levels of the project in all indigenous programmes, as in the Tejas programme, where, after decades of resistance by the DRDO hierarchy, an air vice marshal was appointed “Director, IAF Project Management Team”, a sort of IAF pointsman for the programme. He also wanted user groups working full time at the factory level so that the user’s inputs and work patterns could be taken into consideration. The user would be aware of the project’s progress and any delays could be immediately communicated back to service headquarters.

Explained a senior military officer dealing with acquisitions: “Both the HAL and the DRDO are guilty of not wanting to fix accountability and responsibility for delays. There are no realistic timelines; they promise unrealistic schedules in front of the Defence Minister and then change deadlines without the concurrence of the armed forces/customers.” Under existing procedures, when the armed forces raise a statement of case for procurement of equipment or systems to maintain their operational preparedness, an exhaustive process is followed, governed by the guidelines of the defence procurement policy (DPP), which is updated and revised every few years. And the first option, rightly so, is for indigenous equipment. But service personnel closely associated with procurement procedures allege that this clause gets into a mire. Under the DPP, a requirement by any of the armed forces is first assessed by the Integrated Headquarters (IHQ), which then collectively decides the category and mode of the procurement of that specific item; whether it should be “Make Indian”, “Buy global” or “Buy global and then make in India under licence”. The IHQ, through the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC), then makes all possible attempts to go the indigenous way, provided the technology is available in the country. During the categorisation, the DRDO is given the first option to make a commitment and proposal if it can develop a piece of equipment or a device within the DRDO and offer it to the armed forces within the scheduled time and in the desired quality according to the specifications given by the respective service, so as to maintain or enhance operational effectiveness and capabilities.

This, according to the armed forces, is where problems set in. The DRDO readily opts to make the device indigenously and grabs such development projects, but it has rarely met the production specifications in terms of quality or schedule. Hence, the services suffer as they neither possess the desired equipment nor are allowed to procure it from a foreign vendor. It is learnt that the government is thinking of amending the DPP procedures by agreeing to the armed forces’ long-standing request that while 40 per cent of the equipment will have to be compulsorily procured locally, 60 per cent can be bought from abroad. Explained an officer from Air Headquarters: “The DRDO gets projects in the name of indigenisation and promises to deliver irrespective of the cost, capability or state of development. And then it falters. This is hurting us.”

Take the case of Tejas, which has been under development by the DRDO since the 1980s. The light weight trainer made its maiden flight in January 2001, but a good dozen years later it is still to enter squadron service. There have been serious glitches like Tejas being underpowered (there is a mark 2 version being developed with a more powerful engine), the indigenous radar is years away, and many on-board systems of the fly-by-wire aircraft such as the open architecture computer (OAC), which in layman’s terms are the brains of the aircraft, and the digital flight control computer (DFCC) have been found wanting in reliability.

In other words, the mean time between the failure rate of the Mil (military) specification components in the OAC—which is being developed by 14 vendors, integrated by the DRDO’s Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), and produced under a transfer of technology agreement by the SLRDC (HAL Hyderabad)—and the DFCC (being developed by the Aeronautical Development Establishment and produced by Bharat Electronics Limited) were too high for the IAF to accept. Components were failing primarily because of obsolescence in technology and the expiry of usable lives. The OAC itself is of 1994 vintage, and components in it have been extensively used, with many of them acquired years ago from overseas and stockpiled even while the component manufacturers themselves have closed shop. Delays in development have further accentuated the issue over reliability.

Tejas is still to get its IOC, a step which means that the fighter is ready for limited service in a fighter squadron. While the IAF has termed the “IOC function” of January 2011, when a release to service document was handed over to Antony, a “motivational IOC”, the ADA has now begun calling it a “pre-IOC”. Officials on the Tejas programme confessed that an IOC was at least a year away, with the fighter having to clear more than 1,500 test points, including air-to-air refuelling, before this is achieved. This will need at least another 300 more sorties.

Officials of the DRDO have their own woes. Speaking to Frontline during the Aero India 2013 air show, K. Tamilmani, Chief Executive, Centre for Military Airworthiness and Certification, a DRDO facility, said: “We need the willingness and have to mandate ourselves that we will look to indigenise our military requirements. The HAL should also be prepared to invest in modern production technologies so as to produce, both in terms of quality and quantity.” The HAL’s slow production rate and ability to absorb technology are also areas of concern.

According to Antony, the private sector also has a large role to play in the defence indigenous effort. Recently, the Ministry of Defence, acting under advice from the IAF, mandated that the aircraft to replace the 40-year vintage Avro HS-748 medium transport aircraft (used by the IAF for communications and troop movement) would be designed, developed and manufactured in the private sector. Requests for proposals (RFPs) are to be sent out shortly to a number of private sector companies, including Reliance, Tatas, Larsen & Toubro and Bharat Forge, for the manufacture of 56 aircraft in the six-to-eight-tonne payload capacity, which can operate in hot, cold, saline and dry weather conditions.

The chosen player will be designated the Indian Production Agency and will be allowed to choose its partner, foreign or Indian. Though thus far the response has not been very positive for the contract, which is expected to be worth around Rs.12,000 crore, Antony feels that this is the only way forward to push indigenisation. He said: “The HAL is unhappy and angry about us giving the project to the private sector. But it is good for the HAL that it should have rivals and competition.”

At the air show, Antony repeatedly highlighted the need for the Indian private sector to play a larger role in the defence industry. But thus far, companies in the private sector have not shown the willingness to invest heavily in an industry that is capital intensive and where the returns are unsure and painfully slow. According to Air Chief Marshal Browne, the defence sector needs “long-term partners with commitment from the private sector who will stay the course, avoid risk aversion, start small, and build up to tier 1 projects”.