The government must thoroughly examine the private sector’s capability before taking its aid in armament production to boost India’s military arsenal
The government's privatisation bid in defence equipment production is most welcome. Considering the country's total annual hi-tech armament requirement, India needs at least half a dozen strong defence manufacturing companies which can initially work as partners of original equipment suppliers. Hi-tech defence manufacturing is not easy. The operational performance of the country's biggest defence manufacturing company, public sector Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), over the years, maybe a good example. HAL has been rapped for inordinate delays in the delivery of Tejas and Sukhoi aircraft to the Indian Air Force (IAF). Also, the cancellation of the $20-billion MMRCA (medium multi-role combat aircraft) project to acquire 126 fighters from Rafale was blamed by the political masters on HAL's incapability to handle such a project. Since the government is the sole client of defence gears, the domestic private manufacturers should work together with the government as well as foreign partners. India is the world's largest defence weapons importer. The foreign suppliers are largely private companies. For decades, India did not allow its private sector's entry into armament manufacturing on security grounds. Although, India had no problem in regularly importing arms, ammunition and security devices from foreign private manufacturers. The country distrusted its private sector as an unsafe source for modern defence gadgets. The logic is difficult to digest.
However, while selecting private sector partners in armament production, the government must thoroughly examine their financial and technical capabilities to ensure that supplies keep a quality standard and delivery schedule. As a sole buyer in an armament procurement deal with a foreign supplier, it must have a say in the selection of a domestic part-manufacturing partner of the overseas defence supplier. Unfortunately, by its own official admission, this principle was lately overlooked by the government in the Rafale deal for unknown reasons. It is difficult to understand how did the government accept Dassault Aviation's choice of a local cash-strapped defence manufacturing novice — Anil Ambani group-led Reliance Defence — as the private Indian offset partner in the Rafale deal. Going by the Indian government's version, Reliance Defence was chosen by the French suppliers. It may have been an ignorant act on the part of the French manufacturer-suppliers, but how could the government accept such a questionable choice, especially given the group's poor financial condition and market reputation, in one of its major warplane purchase contracts in decades?
The Rafale warplane purchase deal was negotiated and clicked between the two governments. In case the Indian government was not too comfortable with Reliance Defence's participation in the supply contract of such a high-profile lethal defence equipment supply deal, it could have at least raised the issue with the French government. After having signed an $8.7-billion deal for two Rafale squadrons (36 planes) in September 2016 as an emergency purchase to arrest the worrying slide in the IAF's strike capabilities, the Indian government's oblivious attitude towards the status of Dassault's Indian private partner is inexplicable. The 36 fighter planes are supposed to be with the Indian Air Force by September 2022.
As it stands now, IAF would appear to be the weakest in terms of strike capability among the country's three defence forces. It would be a small but very important acquisition by IAF. Over a decade ago, India floated a global tender for 126 multi-purpose strike places that failed to materialise.
Poor attention and low annual budget provision by successive governments have landed IAF in a critical situation in terms of firepower. Over the years, its operational squadron strength got depleted to 34 from 39. The government's approved strength of IAF's squadrons is 42. In recent decades, more than 50 per cent of India's MiGs has crashed. Defence experts say due to its reliance on a fleet of ageing Russian-made MiG and French Mirage fighters, India is vulnerable in the skies. Almost half of India's fighters are due to retire in 10 years — from the start of 2015 until 2024. The 36 Rafales from France and 32 Su-30 MKIs from Russia are expected to partly cover the depleted strength of IAF. The country's air force wing should have at least another 70-80 strike planes to keep its 42 squadrons humming with activity. It is important that all major arms import contracts should have local manufacturing and technology transfer provisions. And, to ensure that such deals become successful, India's private sector aspirants looking forward to partner with foreign manufacturer-suppliers should be seen as financially and technically dependable for such collaborative efforts. The government may invite some of India's top hi-tech enterprises such as the Tata group, Larsen & Toubro, BHEL, Mahindra and Mahindra and Kirloskar's to chalk out a roadmap for private participation in high-end defence manufacturing.
It is not India's strategic interest to remain forever import-dependent on defence equipment. The growing military strength of neighbouring China and Pakistan pose a major challenge to India's defence forces. India shares 3,323 km of its land border with Pakistan. This border runs along the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir. The Indo-Pakistan border has varied terrain and distinct geographical features. The land border with China is 4,056-km long. It traverses five Indian states: Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. The rising strategic relationship between Pakistan and China adds to pressure on India's defence preparedness. China is flying locally built fourth-generation J-10 fighters and testing two fifth-generation stealth fighter jets. Meanwhile, Pakistan is upgrading its Lockheed Martin (LMT.N) F-16 fighter planes and also using JF-17 warplanes that were developed with China. Some of India's private sector engineering firms are of global standard. The earlier the government induces them to hi-tech defence manufacturing the better it is for the country.
(The views expressed strictly personal)