August 29, 2002


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Admiral (retired) J G Nadkarni

Lost opportunities

Three items of news appeared about the same time recently. Read separately they do not amount to much. But taken together they constitute a severe indictment of India's self reliance policy in defence production.

It was reported that India was close to signing the long awaited Advanced Jet Trainer deal with British Aerospace. The contract involves the purchase of some 64 aircraft at a price of about Rs 4,000 crore.

The second item speculated that the visit of the chief of the naval staff to Russia would seal the deal for the aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov, given as a 'gift' but which would cost the Indian taxpayer a cool Rs 10,000 crore eventually.

Finally, India received the dubious distinction of being the second largest importer of arms from abroad during 1998-2001, after the United Arab Emirates.

Soon after Independence, India set itself the goal of self reliance in the supply of defence weapons and equipment. Over the next few years, with that aim in mind, India set up the Department of Defence Production, established the Defence Research and Development Organisation, augmented its ordnance factories and acquired or set up a number of defence equipment production units. The government acquired three shipyards, Mazagon Dock at Mumbai, Garden Reach Engineers at Kolkata and Goa Shipyard. It also set up Hindustan Aeronautics at Bangalore to produce aircraft, Bharat Electronics to produce electronics equipment and Bharat Dynamics to produce missiles.

DRDO went about setting up its own empire of over 40 laboratories and establishments with a staff exceeding 40,000. It dabbled in everything from aircraft to jet engines, from tanks to ammunition and from high altitude clothing to night vision devices.

Unfortunately, thanks to wrong priorities, misguided policies and a total absence of clear direction from above, we still continue to be a major importer of defence equipment.

Take, for instance, the case of the Advanced Jet Trainer. The negotiations for this have been going on well nigh 15 years. The yes, quite soon and no, not yet is beginning to bore everyone. And yet given some foresight and sensible policies we could quite easily have avoided the entire issue altogether.

In the early sixties Indian designers had produced the Kiron, a Primary Jet Trainer. The aircraft was designed in India (albeit with a nod towards the British Jet Provost) and has proved to be the backbone of basic jet training in the air force. It would have been an easy jump from that stage to designing our own Advance Jet Trainer. Not only would we have had our own AJT by now but it might have even got us some customers from the developing countries.

But our peculiar penchant for reinventing the wheel each and every time saw us diverting our entire efforts towards the Light Combat Aircraft. That particular project has been going on for over fifteen years with no end in sight. Ironically, it has not stopped us from placing orders abroad for Sukhois and other aircraft. Indeed, in recent years the government and DRDO have replaced the old policy of defence equipment substitution with a, what can best be termed, 'Live and let live policy.' We will continue with our pet projects but we will also not come in the way of any imports.

Thus the development of the Arjun tank did not stop the army from importing the T-90 tanks, or the Trishul missile from importing the Barak and the development of the PTA [pilotless target aircraft] from importing similar aircraft from Israel.

If there is one success story in indigenous production, it is in the construction of warships in India. In the initial years at least, the navy and shipyards went about it in the correct way. A contract was signed with the British firms of Vickers and Yarrow for the construction of Leander class frigates at Mazagon Dock. The design and most of the material for the first frigate were totally imported. The first ship was a copy of the frigates built in the UK. But from the second frigate onwards small changes were made to the design. At the same time a number of collaboration agreements concluded, saw the manufacture of a large amount of machinery equipment in India.

The second ship was fitted with Indian made engines, gearing, boilers and air-conditioning. The radar sets and other electronic equipment was manufactured by Bharat Electronics. The ship was fitted with Indian sonar.Side by side, naval headquarters also began strengthening its design organisation. By the time the third ship was built the designers were confident of undertaking major changes to the design. The last two Leanders were vastly modified, able to take on board two large Seaking helicopters. By the eighties, with their new built expertise and confidence, the Naval Design Organisation could produce the design for the Godavari class and subsequently the mighty 6,500 ton Delhi class. By now the naval designers were capable, with a little bit of help, of designing and building a medium size aircraft carrier.

Once again the government blundered. Having established three defence sector shipyards which were fully capable of meeting the needs of the navy, the defence ministry suddenly stopped any further orders on them. For over eight years in the nineties, the defence shipyards went without orders. When the inevitable shortages loomed ahead the government took the easy course of ordering three costly frigates from Russia at Rs 1,500 crores apiece, keeping alive the Russian defence industry. True to Indian tradition, no one was ever held accountable for this costly purchase.

In 1961, the Indian Navy purchased the carrier Vikrant, which no doubt gave the navy good service. It was inevitable that the ship would require to be replaced. With that in mind naval headquarters had taken up the case of constructing a replacement in India in the mid eighties. Experts had identified the Cochin Shipyard as quite suitable for the construction of an air defence ship. French collaboration had resulted in a design. If orders had been placed by 1990 the ship would have been operational by now, giving Indian naval aviation a platform for the next 30 years.

Instead we prevaricated and failed to capitalise on our expertise in naval design and construction. Today we are ready to 'import' a 15-year-old carrier from abroad, a ship not to our requirements or design and which is not suitable for our harbours and infrastructure.

If the Gorshkov deal goes through, India can be sure of maintaining its premier position in the list of arms importers. In most democracies the financial dealings of the government are subject to various checks and balances. In India, unfortunately, there appears to be a total absence of any accountability or check on defence purchases. Except in a scam like Bofors, no Indian defence minister has ever had to defend any of his purchases in Parliament. No amount of public opposition or parliamentary questioning is likely to reduce our penchant for foreign arms purchases in the future. In the meantime DRDO will continue their merry way in developing or rather not developing weapons which nobody wants and which make little difference to our imports.

Admiral (retired) J G Nadkarni

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