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The Rediff Special/Colonel Anil A Athale (retd)
October 17, 2003
Nearly four decades after the first Russian entered space, China has joined the US and Russia as the only space power to achieve this feat on its own. It is easy to belittle the Chinese achievement as that puts her good 40 years behind the leaders. But this misses several important points. With this mission China has sent a signal that it is deadly serious about capturing the next high ground -- space. It has also served notice that it is ready to join international efforts at building a space station.
It is true that the manned space launch has no immediate practical impact on Chinese capability in space. Yet, it would be extremely short-sighted on India's part to ignore this development. Manned space flight needs the development of many exacting technologies, and the Chinese have proved that they have mastered them. It is only a matter of time before some of these begin to have a direct impact on the military imbalance between India and China with all its attendant dangers.
If there is one lesson from the US attack on Afghanistan and Gulf War II, it is that domination of space gives a country a decisive edge in any ground war. In the mid to long term, that is what the Chinese are bound to achieve.
China-India Space Race
Right till the 1980s, both in nuclear and space technology, India remained ahead of the Chinese. While China continued to have World War II technology of liquid fuel-based rockets, India successfully launched its SLV-3, a solid fuel based rocket, in 1980. Werner Von Braun, the father of V-2 rockets on a visit to India in 1968, commented on this Indian quest for difficult solid fuel technology. This was a deliberate Indian decision since the Indian space programme always had a clear military dimension. Solid fuel rockets with low preparation time and ability for long-term storage are ideally suited for military applications as opposed to liquid fuel rockets that need a huge support system and are vulnerable to detection and neutralisation by the enemy.
But by the turn of the century, China has caught up with India and powered ahead. To an extent this was possible due to the fact that China decided to concentrate all its energy and resources on missile technology at the expense of aircraft. In India, the strong manned aircraft lobby led by the myopic Indian Air Force treated missiles as rivals and never really took interest in their development. Even more fundamental problems plague Indian research in science and technology.
Dismal Indian record on defence R&D
Everytime one sees a defence vehicle, the Shaktiman and Nissan trucks, one is transported back to the past. These vehicles actually use 1942 technology. Even the basic weapon for Indian soldiers has remained, till recently, the 7.62 Self Loading Rifle, introduced in 1963. In aviation we have regressed rather than progressed. In the 1960s, India designed and produced the HF-24 Marut, a sub-sonic fighter bomber that was not all that far behind frontline aircraft. Since then we have struggled to make the LCA (Light Combat Aircraft) for the last 20 years and have been importing even transport aircraft like the Dornair! Countries like Brazil, Spain and even Indonesia have stolen a march over us.
Also Read: Chinks in the Armor
No false sense of patriotism must blind us to the fact that our efforts at making a modern tank (Arjun), multi-barrel rockets (Pinaka system) or Akash/Trishul anti-aircraft missiles have all failed to deliver. There are several reasons for this state of affairs.
Also Read: Will the LCA fly?
First and foremost is the power of the import lobby. Since defence deals involve huge sums, the kickbacks are also substantial. Right from the 1970s when Indira Gandhi took on the Indian industrialist lobby with her 'Socialist' agenda, she decided to rely on these funds for electoral purposes. Even that was made possible due to the basic failure on the part of indigenous R&D.
In India, research has come to mean 'reverse engineering' -- dismantling an imported product and then copying it. Great emphasis was also paid to 'import substitution' or indigenisation of components of imported products. In addition, most of the emphasis shifted to licensed production. All this gave an illusion of scientific prowess. All this killed the initiative of scientists to create anything new. The syndrome can best be understood when we see the spectacle of Indian factories year after year churning out MiGs, SS 11 B-1 wire guided anti-tank missiles and, of course, the trucks exactly as they were 40 years ago.
License agreements prohibits any innovations and improvements. So when a newer Sukhoi-30 or MiG-29 or homing anti-tank missile comes on the horizon, we again import the technology and begin 'license' production. After all this we blame the aeronautical engineers from our IITs for being unpatriotic and migrating!
Then there is the totally artificial divide between defence technology and 'civil' technology. We have been producing fighter aircraft for several decades (even under license) but we have no comparable civil aircraft manufacturing industry. No other country believes in this artificial divide. The Chinese, American and Russian space and aviation industries are joint civil-military application affairs. Chinese space projects are controlled by the People's Liberation Army.
To compound the above follies, we then created public sector monopolies and banned all private industry from so-called 'strategic' sectors like aviation or arms production. There has been some improvement of late but it is still a case of too little and too late.
The final folly was to make the armed forces the ultimate arbiters of defence technology. A soldier by the very nature of his profession is conservative when it comes to new technology. Even a great leader like Napoleon rejected steam ships and submarines when presented to him by the American Robert Fulton. The centralised, bureaucratic DRDO that lacks accountability then completes the circle.
The recent announcement that India is to import arms worth nearly $8 billion tells a sorry tale. Indian arms purchases increase poverty while providing jobs in Sweden, UK or Israel. According to a US Disarmament Agency study, India spent close to $6.1 billion on arms purchases between 1995 and 2002 and ranked sixth in the world.
One can neither be a world power or even retain independence on the basis of borrowed plumes. In 1957, the US was shocked when Soviet Russia launched the Sputnik satellite and stole a march over the Americans. The Americans vowed never to be second in the technology race and created ARPA (the Advanced Research Project Agency) now renamed the DARPA, with defence added to its name. Ever since the US has maintained its lead in technology, both civil and military. In India we need a drastic surgery of existing structures, attitudes and procedures. The time to look for patchwork solutions is over.
Design: Uday Kuckian
Part II: Mortuaries of Science