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STILL TAKING OFF

Top down way to go

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STILL TAKING OFF: The much-delayed LCA Tejas is one indigenous project that could have benefited from a global tie-up

There's an urgent need to reorganise high-level management in defence production. Little can be achieved without that, even by the private sector. 

India's defence budget for 2013-14 is over Rs 2 lakh crore. Of this, a more than substantial sum of Rs 86, 740 crore would be spent on 'modernisation'. Our national objective is to maximise 'bang-for-the-buck'. With so many foreign imports that is admittedly difficult. This is where the capability to indigenously design, develop and produce becomes vital. But does India have the required capabilities?

Development of new weapon systems calls for massive investment and high class facilities. This is mostly why intellectual property rights are closely guarded by defence majors and not transferred for license production, which is what we mostly tend to undertake in India. Joint ventures face a big challenge too. We must face one hard truth here: presently, Indian technology and skill-sets are not at a level that they may contribute at an equitable level in a JV with an established global Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM). In retrospect, if we look at instances like the indigenous LCA Tejas fighter, or the Dhruv ALH helicopter or the Arjun tank, strong hand-holding from experienced OEMs was indeed necessary - at significant cost. 
Many indigenous projects have been over-ambitious with no effective project management authority to boot. Yet, despite crores being lost and timelines rendered meaningless there have been no inquiries. Clearly, we need change at the planning stage itself. One way is for a dedicated and empowered team that could sort defence requirements on the basis of technology or on a 'do-able' ladder starting from shoelaces upwards to the most advanced combat machines. Such a body - endowed with the right authority and effective accountability - could better help decide which among these could be produced within the country. This authority could, ideally, also look to oversee institutions involved in R&D and production. We often hear leadership here reiterating its commitment to indigenous designs but one tends to find the rhetoric quite vague on the means to achieve that.

There's hope, still. Despite all shortcomings, India, having invested many thousands of crores over the last 50 years, has indeed established a reasonable capability to design and produce operational military systems. Over 120 institutions (all publicly owned) employ nearly 450, 000 people working on research, development, engineering and production of military systems. These consist of 13 defence PSUs (DPSUs), 41 ordnance factories, 48 laboratories of DRDO, 19 centres of ISRO and many among the 41 labs run by CSIR. The majority of operational weapon systems employed in India, while designed and developed overseas, are produced under license in India. But, sadly, we've seen that DPSUs lack firm direction and professional management to build further capability to design and develop. Why can't we look to induct professionals from outside the system to man them? Gujarat has tried this model, by bringing accomplished professionals to manage state PSUs and given them much authority without any interference. Apparently, this brought about considerable change. Couldn't we try this with DPSUs and look to disconnect the bureaucratic control that currently hobbles most?

Many speak of private sector participation as possibly bringing about big change. Yet we must realise that the assets and capabilities of the private sector in India are miniscule in comparison with those of our DPSUs. On its own the sector currently does not have the experience and infrastructure to undertake design and development of front-end operational systems that the forces require. It has taken decades for our automobile sector to come up with viable indigenous designs;only now do we see buds of designs sprouting on the fringes. The private sector here is at the first level of expansion and looks mostly to leverage global trends. The aerospace industry worldwide spends well over $60bn on engineering with India accounting for less than 1 per cent. India's private sector should, as the first step, exploit this opportunity and build the first level of skills and infrastructure while making profits through these opportunities. Currently, private sector JVs with foreign OEMs cannot be the solution to develop weapon systems indigenously, especially when the requirements of our military are considered.

Consider how large companies like EADS, Boeing and Lockheed have become integrators after outsourcing major portions of engineering and production activity globally. Similarly, better managed DPSUs - with accountability clearly defined - could become integrators outsourcing production and designs within India to the private sector, or even overseas in specific areas where such capabilities do not exist. However, strategic direction in this regard must rest at with one single group that is given the authority and responsibility to decide this process, possibly in the manner that 'MITI' exercised control over Japanese industry in the 1950s.

One such attempt was made in 2004 - to form a National Aeronautics Commission and make it the single central group to decide strategy to build capabilities in aerospace design and engineering. A draft cabinet paper was even made, and the Prime Minister was given a presentation on the proposal. The objective of the commission was that it would play a strategic role and help integrate institutions, agencies and labs under one umbrella (which is currently spread across three ministries and managed by four secretaries ). Such a commission, with a fully functional secretariat, would provide clear future policy directions. The chairman was expected to have the status of a minister of state. Most regrettably these initial moves could not be followed up after the sudden demise of then NSA, J N 'Mani' Dixit. It would do us well to re-examine such proposals that seek to bring about substantive change at the top.

I have little doubt that India does indeed posses the potential and ground-level skills to develop rugged modern weapon systems to match current adversaries. But there is a compelling need to integrate institutions, laboratories and academia - while instituting mechanisms for strong user-participation in weapons development - under one umbrella if we are to set out to transform our dreams of indigenous self-reliance to reality. 

The writer, a former experimental test pilot, was the 19th chief of air staff.

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