May 30, 2002


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The Rediff Special/Colonel (retd) Anil Athale

India's Achilles' Heel
India's Achilles' Heel

The Tehelka tapes scandal and successive Comptroller & Auditor General reports have one common feature -- all of them dwell on corruption in defence deals relating to import of weapons and equipment.

Whether it has been the issue of snow shoes or tanks, ships or aircraft, guns or missiles, the Defence Research and Development Organisation has been a colossal failure. India, even today, imports nearly 70 per cent of its arms requirement. The remainder 30 per cent consists largely of items like tents and ammunition. With this kind of defence dependency, India is independent only in name; in reality our foreign and defence policies are hostage to the nations and multinational companies that supply us with the wherewithal of defence.

The DRDO has been treated as a holy cow for far too many years. It has been permitted to hoodwink the gullible public by displaying the same equipment time and again under the guise of 'new' development (take, for example, the Arjun tank or the Lakshya pilotless aircraft).

India can only boast of two major successes in the field of defence research -- one is the missiles programme and the other is the nuclear weapons programme. However, the success for the former has to be credited to the space programme run by the Indian Space Research Organisation, while the nuclear weapons programme has only recently been shifted from the Atomic Energy Commission to the DRDO. Even the DRDO's most prominent scientist, A P J Abdul Kalam, is an ISRO transplant!

The DRDO has, in Orwellian terms, redefined research as 'reverse engineering' (taking apart a piece of equipment so that one can study it and understand the technology before copying it) and 'import substitution' as development.

The malady that afflicts defence research in India is deep-rooted and part of both the bureaucratic structure and process in India. Any remedy can only come about if these are truthfully identified.

Culpability of the armed forces

The armed forces are equally responsible for the sorry state of defence research in India; in fact, a large portion of the blame for the DRDO's failures can safely be laid at their door. First and foremost, the services regard the DRDO as a 'supplier' and not a problem-solving partner! Thus, the services feel their job is over once they have formulated the Qualitative Requirement for a new piece of equipment.

Unfortunately, the armed forces in India still suffer from a colonial hangover and the brightest sparks in the officer cadre head for the operations branch! Generally, it is the 'also-rans' who man the crucial weapons and equipment directorate.

A typical way in which the QR is formulated is to take the existing top-of-the-rung model of, say, a tank manufactured in the US, Russia, France, etc, merge their characteristics and demand a tank that has American sophistication, Russian ruggedness and is as light as one manufactured in France. Very little thought or understanding goes into this formulation, which is generally utopian and violates the laws of science. You cannot have all these qualities in one piece of equipment!

Having demanded the impossible, the services also set impossible deadlines. Generally, a piece of equipment is needed yesterday. This is the result of the lack of long-term strategic planning, a flaw that is only being addressed now. Yet, despite the establishment of the Cabinet Committee on Security, we are yet to include technology forecasting in our long-term threat assessments. It is because of this that during operations like Kargil, India is forced to go on a buying spree.

The role of the US

The US has been Pakistan's patron since 1956. Thus, the Indian arms race was really with the US and not with Pakistan, a country that does not even produce an indigenous bicycle. Of course, we had the Soviet Union to bank on, but it was always a losing game as far as indigenous research is concerned.

The 1990s saw a change in the US outlook; a change in strategy that has resulted in improved Indo-US relations, especially since September 11. The US is no longer updating Pakistan's arsenal as a result of which the latter is now dependent on China. Witness the recent supply of 40 F-9 fighter aircraft by China to Pakistan.

Our technology race, hence, is now with China and the US is on our side. But, to retain this advantage, we have no choice (and we are not alone in this predicament) but to keep our relations with the US, the sole superpower in the world today, on an even keel.

State control over production and bureaucratisation

Whenever one sees the army's Nissan one tonne vehicle (of Japanese design) or the Shaktiman truck (of German origin), one is reminded of the havoc Nehruvian socialism has wrecked on India's defence system. The technology used by both these vehicles is of 1942 vintage.

We began to equip our soldiers with better rifles only when, armed with the 7.62 SLR (of 1962 vintage), they suffered at the hands of the LTTE and the guerrillas in Kashmir, who were armed with modern AK-56 weapons! The monopoly of public-sector undertakings in defence production has ensured that our soldiers get obsolete, substandard and costly arms and equipment. The PSUs have no incentive to innovate or cut costs. In any case, factory and shop-floor-level innovations have suffered because the R&D has been centralised with the DRDO.

Over the years, the DRDO has build up a vast infrastructure of laboratories all over the country. Unfortunately, today, these labs are merely mortuaries for defence equipment. Research involves generation of new ideas, a need for a new way of thinking. But the defence laboratories, divorced as they are from universities, have become government departments -- this is hardly conducive to fresh thinking.

Contrasts and contradictions

Today, countries like South Africa, Brazil, Spain and even Indonesia have left us behind in the race for new equipment or aircraft. India scouts for a gun in Serbia, which is 1/20th the size of our country! We buy our radars from Israel. A country that made the HF-24 Marut in 1960s has now regressed to making even Dornier aircraft on licence!

The pilotless aircraft that was shown to us in 1979 is still under trial! As for the Arjun tank or the Pinaka rockets, the less said the better!

On the other hand, our IITs produce some of the best engineering brains in the world. The designer of the universally used Pentium chip is an Indian. In the early 1970s, the carbon dioxide laser -- the world's most powerful laser at the time -- was invented by an Indian.

That there is something seriously wrong in our approach is an understatement. It is time we radically overhauled our systems, especially if we wish to safeguard our independence though indigenous methods.

Tomorrow: The Remedy

Chinks in the armour

The Rediff Specials

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