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How the dragon got teeth
China's stupendous success in defence production owes a lot to big budgets and organisational reforms. While India can’t match the first, it could take some pointers on the second.
Last month, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), a respected Swedish think tank, released its latest report on global weapons sales. Two trends were quickly highlighted by the international media: India once again topped the list as the world's largest importer of weapons, and China broke into the top five on the exporter's list for the first time, nudging out Britain for the first time, many noted, since the Cold War began. For a nation whose Soviet-inspired military-industrial complex was widely dismissed as unwieldy and moribund by most experts even until the mid 1990s, China's rise as a big defence producer has been rather a remarkable turnaround. And in such rapid transformation might lurk a lesson or two that our own struggling defence production sector might do well to heed, say pundits.
"The transformation of China's defence sector over the last fifteen years has indeed been remarkable; there can be no major disagreement there," states Jayadeva Ranade, a China analyst and former Indian intelligence officer, in rather categorical fashion. Most of his peers in the analyst community are likely to agree, even if a few quibble about exactly how 'advanced' many Chinese weapons actually are. But almost everyone agrees on one thing though: this has been a hugely important factor in helping along China's rapid march to quasi-superpower status.
"Perhaps the most significant outcome of the fact that China's now produces almost everything it needs for its military is that the nation has achieved strategic autonomy," points out Srikanth Kondapalli, professor in Chinese Studies at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University. "This is in stark contrast to a rather vulnerable India, which still needs to turn to 'helpful' foreign suppliers and allies in emergencies for vital spares or equipment," he adds.
Strategic analyst Brig (Retd) Gurmeet Kanwal agrees that this autonomy has greatly helped China's current strategic ambitions but emphasises differences between the two nations' approach to such foreign policy goals. "Sure, India could take a pointer here, but when you start such a process a major drag will be time. Are governments in India ready to take such risks? We must ask ourselves if we're willing to sacrifice specific short-term preparations for long-term gains. Such change can only come right from the top, as it did in China," he says.
With its roots in Mao Zedong's many calls to arms in the 1960s -- which saw China set up (with Soviet assistance) dozens of defence plants and whole 'secret cities', often in remote locations -- and Deng Xiaoping's canny realignment of strategic priorities in the late 70s (which included, according to Ranade, Xiaoping's smartly cutting the military leadership to size by making it get a bloody nose in a war with Vietnam, and then leveraging such change to make it more receptive to doctrines and perspectives from outside), China has always been rather clear about its need for self-reliance. Yet the nation apparently lost its way by creating vast labyrinths of bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption that were supposed to be weapons factories but regularly churned out everything from condoms to cars. Change began when the Chinese leadership carefully observed and imbibed lessons from what most now dub a 'Revolution in Military Affairs' brought on by the use of technology and air power by the US and allies in the first Gulf War of 1990-91. Jiang Zemin soon began to drive significant change through a system that had helped many PLA commanders and defence production honchos amass small fortunes by pumping out a host of products for the mass market.
Twenty years - and many purges - later, while some legacy structural problems and such 'civil-military combination' issues still remain (although Kondapalli says this may have actually helped in many cases - by allowing corporations to plough profits from these activities into the massive defence R&D that was later mandated), the restructuring of production and establishing effective oversight mechanisms have been key factors in the Chinese transformation that many defence policy wonks here are ogling. China's defence expenditure, for one (second only to the US's gargantuan defence spends) went up by a whopping 11 per cent last year and crossed $100 billion for the first time. Projections suggest that over $700 billion will be spent over the next five years.
Roger Cliff, a Washington, DC-based researcher on Chinese defence issues and a former RAND Corporation analyst, confirms that the consensus in the West is that much success has indeed been seen in Chinese weapons production over the last decade. Cliff points to a number of factors that are widely held to have helped bring about such a rise in capability. "China's overall defence budget today is about eight times (in real terms) what it was in 1993 and it appears that the portion going specifically to procurement and R&D has increased by a similar amount. As the Soviet Union demonstrated during the Cold War, if you devote enough resources you can achieve impressive results in defence technology, even if your overall economy is not up to developed world levels."
China's involvement in the global manufacturing system, particularly in areas such as aviation and electronics, has been another factor, Cliff adds. "This not only gives China's defence industries access to sophisticated components (like, say, field-programmable microprocessors) and tools (e.g., multi-axis numerically-controlled machine tools) that can be used in the production of weapon systems, but also exposure to modern manufacturing methods," he states.
In addition, espionage, says Cliff, has also been a big factor. He points to the KJ-2000, China's ambitious AWACS attempt, as one example, while others speak of everything from the much-vaunted fifth-generation fighter aircraft that China's developing, to key parts of its missile programme owing much to technology and plans nicked from servers and laptops in the West by China's informal army of cyber-warriors.
There's also direct military assistance, mostly from Russia and Israel. In addition to technology transfers, training of engineers has also been a big part of the deal. Kondapalli mentions speaking to Russian officials in charge of defence laboratories, factories and defence institutes, who unfailingly mention that Chinese technicians often make the most hard-working students when sent over for training.
Yet the biggest factor is an old one - the Chinese genius for what boffins call 'reverse engineering'. "They made a virtue of a necessity. This was the only option they had for long. They just had to develop this ability after the Soviets pulled out all assistance after their ties soured in the 60s" says Kondapalli. China is now famous, or infamous if you will, for producing clones - of varying quality - of a whole host of weapons systems originally developed in Russia or even in the West. For instance, China's principal strike aircraft is the J-11, a reverse-engineered Russian Su-27 (a more potent variant of which, the Su-30 MKI, serves in the Indian Air Force). It's much the same story with maritime power projection, where China, say many, is poised to achieve naval 'blue water' status by leveraging its stunning climb to the top of the shipbuilding world to good effect.
But there still remain significant gaps in China's manufacturing capabilities that reverse engineering cannot plug and miffed Russians will not likely help close. Many complex defence technologies are often not so easy to master for an emerging power. Cliff and Kondapalli list big problems that Chinese industry has had with developing key technology in vital areas such as turbofan engines for fighter aircraft, gas turbine engines for ships, and quieting for submarines. Huge investments over the next decade are expected in most though, especially in jet engine technology.
Besides lessons about what path to take in replicating some weapons systems, a key outtake in all this for India, say analysts, is the power of organisational reforms. China, they point out, couldn't have achieved so much if it hadn't set up the General Armaments Department (GAD) within the PLA (the People's Liberation Army, which also encompasses other forces). "This gave the PLA greater independence in its procurement decisions. These decisions were earlier made by a body consisting of representatives of both the PLA and the defence industries," says Cliff. Such powers granted to end-users (the military) and their involvement from the planning and design stages itself, points out Kondapalli, was crucial to transforming the industry. "We regularly lose years in India to the armed forces convincing themselves that they must use indigenous systems simply handed them by defence units here," he laments.
Ranade points to just how this GAD-driven charge will only gather speed with China's new president, Xi Jinping, appointing Gen Zhang Youxia, a capable and very technology-focused war veteran, to head the body. Kanwal contrasts this with what happens in Delhi, where he says only lip service is paid to indigenisation by the political leadership. "This is a good illustration of how serious they are about change. Only such resolute pursuit of stated policy can help India go down the path of greater indigenisation," he stresses. "End-user participation in development is not just necessary but vital. We must make that shift here too".
Others, however, disagree. Intriguingly, some experts feel replicating the Chinese experience may actually prove counterproductive for India. Cliff, echoing a few other prominent American and European analysts, suggests that a different roadmap be followed by India.
"Trying to reproduce the Chinese experience in India should be avoided. China has far more resources to devote to defence than India does right now. Moreover, India doesn't need to rely on domestic defence industries the way China does. Only Russia and other former Soviet states sell to China. India, on the other hand, is able to buy systems from Russia, the US, Europe, and Israel. With that range of potential suppliers, there is no need to have fully indigenous defence production capability," he argues.
"India should allow its defence industries to develop in the natural course of the overall development of its economy and technology, not try to leap-frog into the ranks of the world-class defence manufacturers based solely on domestic resources and R&D efforts."
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