Man behind the Machine
An age-old military dictum says “If you sweat more in peace, you will bleed less in war”. Sweating, in military parlance, is more than the civilian counterparts undertake to do in a gym or public park. There are three components in military ‘sweating’: First, it involves training with state of the art equipment in operational manoeuvres over and over again, so much that use of the equipment becomes second nature to the foot soldier, artilleryman, the cavalry troops, the signaler, the missile weapon system operator, the para commando, and, their counterpart-brethren in White and Blue uniforms. Second, it also involves standardization of modes of application of the technological capabilities of such equipment so that they become force multipliers and enhancers. The third dimension of ‘sweating’ is upgrading or timely replacement of the equipment to continually obtain technological superiority by repeating the first two dimensions.
A common example would suffice to understand this requirement – just recall the first-ever time we bought a smartphone or a desktop. Even if you had had formal training in the software associated with them and mastered their use, every time a new version of the software or hardware was introduced, you felt as though you had to go back to kindergarten to regain proficiency. Just when you gained the proficiency in its use, a fellow worker or ‘opponent’ popped in with a better system and you felt disadvantaged.
That’s why militaries across the world constantly seek to upgrade their hardware, so as to train and re-train to gain proficiency. In the Desert Storm, the Iraqi Republican Guard had deployed 6-700 of their formidable T 72 Battle Tanks, American M1A1 Abrams literally tore through them – advantage technology. Battle of the Medina Ridge stands testimony to superiority in technology and versatility in deployment. While movies like Battleship may provide fodder for discussions claiming the ‘superiority of the man behind the machine’, no Admiral intent on victory will commit his tin boats with BL 6” Mk23 or Gustav V willingly against Mk 45/75/100, Bofors 57 and L ’70s, backed solidly by MRH like MH60 Seahawk or Ka31.
Machine behind the Man
India has a substantially robust military and is rightfully counted as amongst the top five in the world in all three services. Should we choose to commence from WW I, Indian Armed Forces also have the rare distinction of being one of the finest battle-proven armies in the world. That justifies the pride which puffs our chests up. However, a brief look at the machines behind our men is necessary for the discussion in this paper. For the sake of column width, we will look at the IAF with reference to its fighter aircraft.
Even as Galwan was witnessing a fight with clubs and hands, media reported that at least four Rafale fighter jets are finally ‘scheduled to land in Ambala on 27 July, and will be ready for combat earlier than expected as the French has diverted an initial lot of cutting edge missiles meant for its own air force to India’[i]. In the same breath, the government announced that the purchase of an additional 21 MiG 29 fighter jets and 12 Su-30 MKI from Russia is being put on a fast track. ‘This comes amid spiralling tensions between India and China. The new fighter jets will be bought in a government-to-government deal with Russia with the approximate cost estimated to be INR 6,000 crore, news agency ANI said’[ii]. A host of discussions in the media and academia point to the importance of expediting such procurements in order to sharpen the lethal edge of Indian Air Force.
India’s tryst with Tejas and Kaveri
Indian Air Force ‘issued the Air Staff Requirement (ASR) in 1985 with a projected requirement for 220 Light Combat Aircrafts (including 20 trainer aircraft) to be inducted in the early 1990s. As per the ASR, LCA was to be built as a lightweight multi-mission fighter aircraft, having contemporary air combat and offensive air support capabilities with maintaining high manoeuvrability for close air combat (at low and medium altitudes). The purpose of the aircraft was to be able to provide extended Air Defence cover over the tactical battle area and forward bases’[iii]. Had this induction happened by scheduled dates, by end-1990’s, the Air Force would have had an indigenously produced, albeit 3rd generation, fighter aircraft. It would have facilitated the replacement of MiG 21s of the 1960s in a phased manner through the first decade of the 21st century.
In right earnest, it was also realized that an indigenous engine was essential for attaining self-sufficiency in fighter aircraft production. Way back in 1977, Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE) had developed GTX37-14U after-burning turbojet engine, which was the first jet engine to be entirely designed in India. Considering GTRE’s expertise, DRDO entrusted the project for developing Kaveri engines to it in 1989 at an estimated cost of INR 3.8 billion. World over, the average cost was around 2 billion for a similar project. By 2010-11, the project had consumed INR 18.9 billion[iv] (450 percent increase). As of March 2020, Government indicated that the Kaveri project has till now incurred INR 111 billion[v]. Sadly, the engine is nowhere near qualifying the technical standards needed for indigenous induction.
In so far as the indigenization was concerned, in a written reply to Lok Sabha, Minister of State for Defence Subhash Bhamre said that several parts of Tejas are of foreign origin. He said, out of total 344 LRUs (Line Replaceable Units) involved in the system level of LCA, a total of 210 LRUs have been produced indigenously and balance 134 LRUs are being imported from foreign companies. “Indigenous content of the LCA Tejas Aircraft is 59.7% by value and 75.5% by numbers,” the Minister had added[vi].
While Kaveri has eluded the country, the first LCA squadron with IOC standard aircraft was operationalized in July 2016. IAF has so far placed orders for 20 IOC standard aircraft and 20 FOC standard aircraft including eight twin-seater trainers. The trainer variant of LCA has not been handed over to the IAF yet[vii]. The dream of 1985 took nearly three and a half decades to materialize.
The Hidden Challenge
The narrative above brings out many dimensions of the challenge of indigenous development of weapon systems and platforms. Studies by Brookings[viii] summarizes the challenges in these terms, “India’s powerful defence public sector faces conflicts of interest and is resistant to change; the armed services provide unrealistic qualitative requirements; the Ministry of Defense lacks specialization; the Finance Ministry discourages long-term spending, and the political leadership lacks expertise and is reluctant to make decisions due to political perceptions”.
The constraints confronting indigenization in India (therefore self-sufficiency) are not limited to increasing pay-pension liability of defence budget and the proportional decline in the outlay for procurement. It is also linked to another important ingredient – the standard of education. Unless technical education which is primarily job oriented steers itself into R&D oriented, with appropriate funding for projects to institutions for developing systems, any amount of revision of policy towards indigenization is likely to be successful.
Take, for example, there are 10396 AICTE approved engineering colleges in India, with nearly 3 million students enrolled and nearly half of them passing out every year. Reports[ix] indicate that just around 20 percent get jobs in their specialization. If reports are to be believed, more than two-thirds of engineering graduates do not get employed because they are not employable. While the government is trying to introduce Objective-Based Education (OBE), the challenge is in other dimensions too.
Other than the public sector institutions like IITs and DRDO, there are very few R&D institutions in the country. India ranks 76th among 143 economies, as per the Global Innovation Index (GII). Take for example the number of Patents filed rose from 721 to 1085 from 2010-2019[x].
The education sector in India has hidden challenges in the form of preference to identity over merit too. In the process, the quality of teachers remains one of the major hurdles in the field of education and training[xi].
Self-sufficiency in military hardware production is an important dimension of strategic vitality. While this realization is not new, the need is for long term vision that is neither linked to the tenure of military brass, the executive or the political decision-makers. Modernization is a constant process that must rest on homegrown capabilities with appropriate collaboration with friendly foreign powers. As long as the challenges mentioned above are not comprehensively addressed, we would continue to be reactive instead of being pro-active, which may be detrimental to the country’s long-term strategic objectives.
Title Image Courtesy :https://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/
[viii] Dhruva Jaishankar (08 August 2019). The indigenisation of India’s defence industry, https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-indigenisation-of-indias-defence-industry/#:~:text=Moreover%2C%20major%20stakeholders%20confront%20their,Ministry%20discourages%20long%2Dterm%20spending%3B
[xi] https://www.deccanchronicle.com/opinion/op-ed/270617/sorry-state-of-technical-education-today.html; https://www.indiatoday.in/education-today/featurephilia/story/6-ways-to-tackle-with-current-technical-education-system-problems-1281082-2018-07-09
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government of India and Defence Research and Studies