Leapfrog the Technological Gap

India needs to do a China. Beijing has successfully converted China into a low cost manufacturing hub of the world. Similarly, New Delhi should rapidly transform India into a low cost, high end R&D  centre of the world without neglecting its manufacturing sector. Fairly ideal demographic conditions exist along with favourable geo-political factors whereby international actors are willing to invest, as well as, set up shop in India. A noticeable trend in the recent Defence Exhibitions - in Delhi and the Asian Aerospace in Singapore - was that mostly ageing executives manned the stalls of the Western countries; reflective of the prevalent demographic profile.

To maintain their technological lead under these circumstances, the Western countries find India as a logical destination for their defence industries, both as a potential market and also a base to develop low cost high-end research projects. On the other hand, we need to leapfrog technologically, as reinventing the wheel is not necessarily an answer to the yawning technological gap that exists between the western countries and India. Therefore, there are synergies that should be exploited. Enormous mutual benefits can accrue to both, if New Delhi can develop itself as a world-class R&D centre and manufacturing global hub for sensitive military industry. 

State-of-the-art technologies and equipment cannot be manufactured unless New Delhi develops cutting edge thinking - an ambitious farsighted pragmatic vision, along with the ability to engineer the nuts and bolts at the shop floor. Since independence, there has existed an enormous gap between what New Delhi talks and what it actually delivers. The gap is beginning to be bridged but we must learn to move at a more decisive and a faster pace. We can only do so by jettisoning much of the old thinking and evolving afresh by integrating the emerging favorable geo-political picture into India’s quest for a global role.  

Due to rapid march of technologies and huge costs involved in R&D, no single player is in a position to deliver next generation weapon systems. Whether it is Boeing, Lockheed Martin, DCN, Airbus or HDW- all of them sub-contract different assemblies and sub-systems globally to the most competitive and competent companies. The other interesting trend is the formation of trans-national consortiums of nations and companies to manufacture superior platforms like the Eurofighter or the Eurocopter. The game thus is global as it is not feasible for a single player to manufacture or develop each item. In SU-30 MKI, the major player was IRKUT but without the help of France and Israel, the fighter aircraft could not have developed the decisive technological edge that it displays.

Therefore, India needs to shed its inhibitions, diversify, and form international industrial alliances to leapfrog technological gaps, boost export revenues from its military industrial complex, and leverage this strength as a strategic asset in Asia. Basically we need to emerge from our mental ghetto and think Asia - we are as central to its well-being as China, if not more. To develop next generation weapons, cost of R&D needs to be shared between different compatible partners.  Geo-political factors, low cost of research and production and a positive demographic profile favours India as the stable global hub for production of world-class armaments.

However, despite the favourable international climate, New Delhi will not benefit unless defence R&D and armaments production is thrown open to the Indian private sector under a regulatory mechanism, as is the practice in the Western countries. The PSUs will remain sluggish, non-competitive, and inefficient. Kaveri engine has failed. LCA stands delayed. Engine is the heart of an aircraft. Only five countries in the world are capable of manufacturing technologically advanced engines. India today can be the sixth, if a private player is encouraged to tie-up with a foreign partner. The last statement on MBT Arjun heard from the Army was “we will see how to utilise it once the first five tanks roll out.” If the soldier does not have confidence in what Avadi Factory, DRDO or HAL produces, then half the war is lost before it begins. Our armoured fighting vehicles should have evolved from the Russian T-55s that we imported earlier, but we decided instead to reinvent the wheel in MBT Arjun, wasting colossal amounts of taxpayer’s money. At the same time we indulged in rhetoric of being a poor country that suffered from a cash crunch. The truth is that we are an indolent lot and suffer from myopic vision. Instead of picking up and relocating a complete plant of AK- 47s in India, we indulged in shortening the INSAS rifle barrel and tried to pass it off as a carbine.

In any case, defence technologies become obsolete by the time a country can reinvent the wheel. Therefore, radical shifting of strategic gears to a more advantageous position by opening up the field to private sector will stimulate self-sufficiency. Companies like Tatas or L&T can enter into joint ventures and where necessary import CEO’s and employ foreign scientist to kick start complex projects. In fact, to improve performance of the PSUs there should be competitors making fighter aircraft, missiles, and warships etc. in the corporate world. Given South Korea’s status as a frontline manufacturer of super tankers, there is no reason why India cannot collaborate with it in this field to give a flip to its energy security. India’s large costal area can very well facilitate this joint venture. Such farsighted policy shifts will improve India’s self–sufficiency in the shortest possible time frame. This in turn, will increase the stakes of multinationals in India’s well-being and marginalise sanction regimes. To further enhance the inter-linkages, we must also start investing in shares of foreign defence companies.  

To extract maximum strategic mileage, we must learn to calibrate and leverage every policy shift. For example, instead of limiting the Indian air show by calling it Aero India, it should be renamed as Aerospace Asia and transform it into an Asian show. Similarly the DEFEXPO should be renamed as ‘Asia-Army and Navy’ and shifted to the Goa coast. If possible, combine it with the Naval Milan (Meeting Point). Also, please do not forget to build world-class exhibition grounds, as the present ones are totally inadequate to showcase India.  

The Foreign Office took fifty-eight years to grudgingly acknowledge the criticality of military diplomacy in international affairs. If we can appreciate that a technologically advanced and vibrant defence industry is equally critical for India’s security and its global aspirations, we will not replicate this mistake. Therefore, New Delhi should offer the private sector incentives for investment in the defence industry. Though in policy, some encouragement has been offered, but in the implementation, MoD has tended to thwart all initiatives with the unmistakable message that the status quo will continue. Herein lies the rub where intelligent intervention by the Defence Minister is crucial.


Courtesy: Indian Defence ReviewVol 21(2). The writer is Editor, Indian Defence Review.

©Strategic Security Review Volume 2(2) 2006.