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A REALITY TOO GRIM TO BE FACED

While going through the 1,024 pages of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, 2014-2015, one is compelled to state the obvious without being a rocket scientist — that no aspiring nation like India can ever expect to be counted upon in the international arena with a 100 per cent imported aerial assets for its air force, and its hopeless and helpless dependence on foreign-manufactured artillery guns and main battle tanks, amongst its vast array of inventory. The only redeeming feature, however, appears to be the growing indigenous combat-ship design and ship-building capability owing to the foresight and vision of senior naval officers of the early days of independent India and the political establishment’s understanding thereof.

To put the subject in the light of the reported penchant of the new prime minister of India for a “solution and constructive action plan for timely implementation”, the following points are hereby furnished. The ministry of defence should be divided into two separate compartments. The first could be the conventional defence ministry under a full-time cabinet minister who could be asked to look after everything except the Defence Research and Development Organization, defence production and all connected paraphernalia. Thus, a full-time minister of state for defence could be assigned the responsibility of the DRDO, along with defence production, reporting directly to the prime minister.

Second, since the most expensive of all military hardware arguably is aviation, it would be imperative for the nation to focus on it urgently. The entire contemporary fleet of the Indian air force is the reflection of the industrial marvel, manufacture and marketing management of Russia, Britain, France, the United States, Brazil and Switzerland. India pays a higher price for its aviation assets to the foreign suppliers as compared to other users. This has resulted in a disproportionate outflow of public money from the exchequer. Hence, the urgent need for a parsimonious pacifist to look into industrial as well as institutional development under strict political supervision. Otherwise, India will be heading for a lopsided and avoidable extravagant expenditure affecting a balanced growth of defence capability essential for a secure future. What excessive money has done to one-day and Twenty20 cricket at the expense of other sporting activities in India, endless imported aviation assets is likely to do to the other wings of the Indian defence system.

Third, there should be a drastic reduction in decision-making time. For example, the air force wanted to have medium multi-role combat aircraft to replace MiG-21s and MiG-27s. Requests for proposals were floated. Six types of aircraft — Eurofighter (Germany, Italy, Spain and UK), Gripen (Sweden), Mig-35 (Russia), F-16 and Super Hornet F-18 (US) and Dassault Rafale (France) — competed, for close to a decade, for 126 aircraft for the air force. Rafale of France was rejected in April 2009, but the decision was reversed and selection announced on January 31, 2012, “subject to satisfactory contract negotiations”, which, unfortunately, has not been finalized yet. And the air force is crying since obsolescence, along with a high attrition rate, has put its operational preparedness at rock bottom.

The reality is too grim to be faced at the moment. Foreign suppliers are on queue to get fat, lucrative orders. It is profit at the time of a global financial downturn. Hence, it also constitutes an opportunity for the consumer, the Indian air force. Yes, orders will be placed. Make an investment, give us the latest and the best, do not try to cheat us (notwithstanding the existence of a few Trojan horse within the system), go straight away for joint production with an Indian partner (government or private), create employment opportunities in India too as it cannot be a one-way traffic to eternity with the ‘foreign-seller and Indian-buyer’ syndrome; a repeat of the East India Company of yesteryears. Also, establish research and development laboratories here. You are welcome to make profit and plough them back to your homeland. But business has to be on an equal footing. India is a ‘market’ of 1.2 billion heads for the foreign investors as well as the Indian capitalists and entrepreneurs.

An important, though not unknown, lesson today needs to be learnt again from the horrendous paralysis of the decision-making in the Indian establishment in the recent past. Thus, any time escalation, whether owing to the delayed decision of the buyer, delay in development by the producer, payment dispute between the contracting parties, or delay in delivery by the vendor is bound to result in a cost or price push factor, the classic example of which is the case of a scandalous time and cost overrun with the aircraft carrier Gorshkov, now operating as INS Vikramaditya.

There is another adverse effect — technological obsolescence. India’s long-drawn defence-related decision-making process, pertaining to the medium multi-role combat aircraft again, could be referred to as a classic case study of defence mismanagement and the potential financial loss to the nation as a result. Thus, the French Rafale, which appears to have reached the final stage of Indo-French contract, was conceived in June, 1982. It took 19 long years for it to “enter service” in May, 2001, with the French air force. It is mid-2014 now; and it will take at least four more years for the first Rafale to be inducted into the Indian air force in 2018. What would or could be the technological and financial scenario? It is anybody’s guess.

Again, when the Americans were pushing to bid for their Lockheed Martin F-16 to the 21-st century IAF, it would have been a fighter aircraft, which began its “request for proposals” in January, 1972, thereby making it a more than 40-year-old “design and development” machine with the unit cost reported to be in the region of $ 50-55 million. Multiply this figure with that of the required 126 aircraft, and one gets to have a reasonably fair idea as to what it takes to be a helpless dependent on foreign manufacturers owing to a collective inability to indigenize military aviation.

Finally, there has to be aviation-minded civil servants for the highly technical subject of aviation in the ministry of defence. It is time to put ideas into effect. The government’s defence management in the 21st century cannot afford to be seen basking in the self-glorification of early-20th-century civil servants’ attitude and the actions of the colonial rulers. As there are several engineering and technical institutions spread across the country, is it that difficult to identify talent and innovative thinking in the existing, vast human resources in India? Also, if only the 20 top Indian minds in aviation could be found and recruited from anywhere across the globe, things will be better than what they are today in the nation’s most high-tech and expensive arena of defence preparedness.