Rajat Pandit, TNN Jan 13, 2014, 01.39AM IST
NEW DELHI: The Tejas light combat aircraft, 30 years in the making, is just 60% indigenous as of now. The story of the indigenous Arjun main battle tank is even worse. First sanctioned in May 1974, 55% of the tank is still made of imported parts. This is the recurring theme across India’s fledgling defence industrial base (DIB), with the government failing to whip DRDO and its sprawling empire of over 50 laboratories as well as the five defence PSUs, four shipyards and 50 ordnance factories into shape.
The defence ministry, with its constant flip-flops, has also failed to spur the domestic private sector into entering the defence production sector in a big way. Neither has it managed to attract foreign direct investment (FDI), notching up a measly $5 million in the last 14 years.
AK Antony may often tom-tom “indigenisation” as one of his guiding mantras, which he feels can curb corruption, but the ground reality has hardly changed in the over seven years he has been at the helm in MoD. India continues to wallow as the world’s largest arms importer, with the armed forces still getting around 65% of their military hardware and software from abroad.
In sharp contrast, China has emerged as the fastest growing arms exporter around the globe after assiduously building a strong DIB. It’s now hawking fighter jets, warships, missiles and smaller arms to countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Bolivia and Zambia.
But a “proper ecosystem” has simply not been erected in India. As if the “high import content” in the so-called indigenous projects was not enough, insiders say even the much-touted transfer of technology (ToT) provision build into large defence contracts with foreign manufacturers is a bit of a sham.
“Indian PSUs focus more on just assembling knocked-down kits from foreign vendors instead of properly absorbing technologies,” said a senior official, pointing to the ongoing “licensed production” of the Russian-origin Sukhoi-30MKI fighters by Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL).
India has inducted almost 200 of the 272 Sukhois contracted for well over $12 billion from Russia, with HAL producing most of the fighters. “As per plans, HAL should have begun making Sukhois completely from raw material two-three years ago. But there has been a big delay,” he said.
“Moreover, the cost of each HAL-manufactured Sukhoi is almost Rs 100 crore more than if the same fighter was directly imported from Russia (the last 42 Sukhois ordered cost over Rs 450 crore each),” he added.
DRDO does have a point that funds allocated for defence R&D are not adequate. “We just get slightly over 5% of the total defence budget. The US defence R&D budget is around 12%, while China has 20%,” said a scientist.
But not many are impressed, pointing to huge time and cost overruns in almost all DRDO projects. While the indigenous development of Tejas, Arjun and other weapon systems is certainly to be cheered, the high import content in them remains another source of worry.
Take Tejas, which finally achieved its initial operational clearance last month. It has an American engine, British ejection seat, Canadian canopy sheath and Israeli radar. “A major chunk of its avionics and weapons are also imported. The series production of the Tejas Mark-II version, which is what IAF actually wants, is unlikely to begin before 2022,” said an officer.
The Army, in turn, has inducted 124 Arjun Mark-I tanks, while trials are currently in progress for the Mark-II version with 89 “upgrades or improvements”. The tank is just about 45% indigenous as of now, with its main laser guided missile being the Israeli LAHAT. “Arjun’s missile firing control system, laser target designator, engine transmission, suspension unit and running gear (track) are all foreign,” said an Army officer.
India has fared relatively better on the naval front, with all the 45 warships currently on order being constructed in Indian shipyards. Officials say India has achieved 80-90% indigenisation in the “float” (warship’s structure, hull etc), 50-60% on the “move” (propulsion) and 30% on the “fight” (weapons and sensors) components.