That it took a pandemic and a downturn to realize relatively inferior home grown weapons projects meet other socio-economic goals of generating employment and building techno-industrial capability, bears the sheer hypocrisy our Fauj, which has ironically long bemoaned a “military illiterate” and “obstructive” bureaucracy. Germany raised a navy in just 15 years flat to bloody the Royal Navy at Jutland in 1916. And the Dragon waited decades to grow his fangs, wings and a fire breath. Are we any different?
Adapting to new economic hardships imposed by the Coronavirus outbreak that has struck global manufacturing and supply chains, coupled with having to reverse a two-year long unprecedented economic slump, the Indian military announced support to domestic industry for their equipment needs. Until then, calls to spur local industry had only found expression in empty appeals to reduce foreign dependence, sans the painstaking efforts, thanks to political myopia and the Indian military’s selfish intolerance with domestic industry.
That it took a pandemic to prioritize relatively inferior home grown weapons for meeting other socio-economic goals of generating employment, earning tax revenue and building the techno-industrial capability for weapons manufacturing, bears the sheer insensitivity our Fauj, which has ironically long bemoaned a “military illiterate” and “obstructive” bureaucracy. (It’s a different matter that colourful tales of red-taping pen pushing bureaucrats within the military itself will give MoD ‘Babus’ a run for their money).
“COVID-19 has taught us a lesson that time has come to be self-reliant. In times of crisis, nations will have to live by themselves. In fact, a country like India, when we are looking at becoming a regional power, we will have to support other nations and not be dependent on others,” said General Bipin Rawat, the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). This had been preceded by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announcing a separate budget to procure from the domestic defence industry and reduce import dependence.
The much (and wrongly) maligned Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) finally joining the IAF in it’s Final Operational Clearance (FOC) configuration with the ‘Flying Bullet’s’ squadron at Sulur coincided with the announcement.
Neither the military, nor the political leadership, is oblivious to the humiliating failure, but it is the methods proposed and adopted by them that has only aggravated the problem, and are in a way ensuring we remained in the situation. After having sold their wares, those western arms makers laughed their way to the bank, having got us hooked to those quick fixes to our military needs.
Our enchantment with everything western (read Colonial) instantly scoffs at anything ‘local’ and the cycle continues.
As we are locked in another stand-off with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Ladakh, while the world marvels at its staggering technological, economic and military transformation, I see lessons there itself – for even an adversary can be great teacher.
What Needs to be Done?
Defence self-reliance is nothing but a nation’s industry’s proficiency with making machines. Just everyday machine brands we see in our day-t0-day lives. The American JCB, CAT, Texas Instruments (construction, computer chips), the French Schneider Electric (engineering equipment), Sagem-Safran (advanced electronics, engineering goods), Finnish Kone (elevators, cranes), the Swiss Schindler (elevators), South Korean Daewoo, Hyundai, KIA (automobiles, elevators, heavy engineering, shipbuilding) or brands from the Mecca for everything to do with contraptions, where engineering is a national subculture – Germany.
Bosch, Siemens, ThyssenKrupp, Schwing Stetter (electronics, industrial systems, heavy engineering, elevators, cranes), without which regular activity is unimaginable.
Germany also gave the world the iconic military aircraft – Messerschmitt Bolkow-Blohm (the Bf 109, Me 262), Junkers (Ju-88 Stuka), Dornier (Do 228), Focke-Wulf (Fw 190) – that flew the skies in WW2 (albeit under a murderous maniac), to the dream machines from Mercedes AG, BMW, Audi, Volkswagen, Porsche and Opel.
The above machines, cars and aircraft are just a conglomeration of smaller components. Should we also manufacture the latter too? Albeit economically unwise, we should try, given these times of interdependent supply chains and their ensuing recessions, might not be a bad idea. A bit of economic nationalism for a country with little to no core manufacturing and ridiculous overreliance on the IT and service industries is no extreme measure.
That companies now, driven by both an anti-China propaganda and genuine supply chain concerns, are looking to move their manufacturing out of China after Coronavirus, is only serendipitous.
Contraptions like a precision machine tool that cuts the metal body to within a nanometre of its specification or the robotic arm that precisely fixes the crankshaft and the door of a car on the assembly line are what I learnt in economics are ‘capital goods’, which simply mean ‘goods that make other goods’. (Turns out it also helps in making critical bio-medical equipment like ventilators that India is now hurriedly ramping up since the exporting countries prioritized domestic need after the virus).
So FIRST, build this capability to build capital goods that will prepare us to ramp up weapons and raise our global share of capital goods exports from the measly 0.6%.
It was this Chinese thrust on manufacturing (making it the largest exporter of mechanized goods) and component technology that its government harnessed to build arms. For instance, its government’s ‘Made in China 2025’ plan is a concerted efforts for self-reliance in microprocessors and semi-conductors (that go into every smartphone and computer) especially after the recent trade war driven by the US. It is estimated that China won’t need the American Intel, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments or a Micron – the dominant leaders in the field – to source its chips in the coming decade and that China might produce 70% of the chips it needs by 2025.
Russia too was revealed to have recognized the need to be self-reliant in computer hardware when a military command centre Putin inaugurated in February 2018 was said to exclusively use Russian-made electronics and chips for all its computers to make it CIA hack-proof! The point behind giving this tech jargon is to reiterate the primacy of technological development as the leading goal, which automatically effects defence self-reliance.
The SECOND measure should be to promote our friendly neighbourhood manufacturing and technology SMEs and MSMEs, which besides contributing to more than 60% of the GDP, are also famously observed to have been driving tech innovation. Sensors, actuators or metallurgical alloys that goes into an AESA radar, a rotor assembly, a thrust vectoring nozzle or a super cruise engine are the very devices small companies develop.
Sincere state support with a technology SME/MSME fund that offers real liquidity and not just mere bank guarantees for easy access to credit – at a time when banks are not lending – is one way. They have been the worst hit after the DeMo, GST and the Coronavirus lockdown troika.
THIRDLY, the government should then embark on a massive technical skills development programme by formally educating the Alang ship breaking yard welder or your local car mechanic. I’m sure we’ll find many hidden savants among these promising workforce, with their brimming potential just waiting to break free. With growing MSMEs, once engineering jobs are created, the vast unemployed pool of jobless engineers holding completely unconnected MBA degrees resolve their existential crises and find a purpose. So will the welder and the mechanic.
More jobs mean more taxes to the government. More government revenue means greater budget availability for defence and a skilled manpower that can work on the very defence technology for which we look westwards. (It is this up-skilling of labour in China that supplied cheap everyday commercial and cultural products to the Indian working class for decades. India failed to synergize its labour and manufacturing this way and the need had to be met by someone. Thus we cannot just “ban Chinese” and go “Swadeshi”, unless we want to heap even more indignity and hardship on our working class than we already have).
Coming back to, World War 2: After it ended, the victors poached German scientists for their pioneering technology, which they realized was light years ahead of its time (the first jet Me-262 and the first ballistic missile V2 to name a few). We did it too by producing the beautiful HAL HF-24 Marut with Focke Wulf’s Kurt Tank, but did not build upon it by continuing the skills we had gained.
The then Soviet Union commenced a massive arms transfer to the fraternal People’s Republic of China. But as ideological fissures emerged in the run up to the Sino-Soviet Split and USSR hand-me-downs nearly halted, the far-sighted Beijing leadership had already sanctioned a practice that earned it the distrust for cheating in the technology race – reverse engineering. Simply, ‘stealing’, in general terms and ‘guochanhua’ in Mandarin, the practice includes taking apart a machine, piece by piece, most likely to find why the one you made fares poorly.
No easy task in itself as it is involves decoding the complex engineering blueprints and often guessing the technological ‘know why’ when designs are missing. I’m not saying we steal like the Chinese did but I’m not against it either. Still better than propping up radical Islamic/dictatorial regimes, deposing democratically elected governments to get oil at a cheap rate, all to profit their private arms makers who advertise their wares like FMCGs.
A dignified way is to evolve a R&D policy in a formal white paper, with feedback from the defence/space/atomic scientists, doctors, academia and the industry that is integrated with the manufacturing and education policy, which is solution FOUR. (The only white paper our patriotic ready-to-rumble Olive Greens demand is a formal national security strategy, merely to give an overriding political direction to military goals and procurement).
A paltry 0.7% of our GDP on scientific R&D should make your head sway in embarrassing disapproval. Bond those traitorous green-card “Amreeka”-visa hungry IITians into a minimum five-year research position at science institutions or ask them to reimburse the government for the subsidized education if they fail to comply.
FIVE, promote scientific innovation and end that demoralizing and soul-destroying scientist-technician casteism at DRDO. Once that MSME/SME, garage mechanic turned technician/engineer or the reawakened ex-MBA aspirant engineer, invent something ground breaking with their tinkering, fund that project from a national R&D fund. If it has military application, go hush-hush and do what needs to be done.
Instantly share civilian spin offs of the technology without the patent restrictions. The weapon can already be exported to friendly countries and earn us enough. Don’t look for money everywhere. Will earn us a lot of goodwill from the millions of underprivileged.
Our services often act like the school teacher’s pet, revelling in the pedestal the government and public mount it on and deride the unfairly blamed and thankless DRDO/OFB for all their weapons woes. Dear servicemen, jet engines are highly protected technologies that are an intricate amalgamation of electrical, electronic, metallurgical, mechanical and chemical sciences, each of which the ‘big five’ have mastered painstakingly over the years – by first lapping up the tech left behind by German scientists and then employing the above policies.
General Electric, Pratt & Whitney, Rolls Royce, Sagem-Safran, NPO-Saturn or Honeywell are not going to share why their engines can develop the required thrust for a fighter. In other words, Kaveri is not a failure and make a jet fly – just not at the speed it should.
For a country that was denied these technologies for not signing the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), we have beaten the west at quite the few places. Understand the financial, administrative and technological difficulties in developing new technologies by working alongside those DRDO scientists and not passing judgements while sitting on a high horse and changing the Staff Qualitative Requirements (SQRs) to your whims.
One really can’t expect organizations like the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and the Ordnance Factory Boards (OFB) to perform when the IAF owes the former dues worth Rs 80,000 crore while the former is understaffed by around 8,000 vacant posts.
This is solution SIX by the way. Have greater service representation in government arms manufacturing and research companies, with either retired or temporary deputed serving personnel. Case in point, the Indian Navy: it has truly achieved indigenization aims and builds nearly all it’s requirements is because all government shipyards are staffed by former navy men.
Pakistan admits through a former PAF Air Vice-Marshal about the JF-17’s inferiority to the LCA. But they put up a united front and do not openly mock their Military Industrial Complex (MIC). Likewise, China’s first nuclear submarine, the Type 091 was a sitting target and a ticking disaster with excessive noisiness and poor radiation shielding. Certainly the PLAN Admirals must have been disappointed, but expressed it only privately, waiting for their industry to catch up.
And catch up it did, with their current inventory giving our navy men the jitters. You want the government/political leadership/public to be ‘military educated’? Well you start becoming government and political educated.
Suffer Now to Celebrate Later
Doesn’t the military itself throw around the wisdom “the more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war?” The above measure is exactly that classic long-term approach, which rather causes only hardship in the short run. But when you just wait it out, ride out the storm, it pays off with a bang! China’s People’s Liberation Army took a conscious backseat to economic development in the first decades of Deng Xiaoping’s phased liberalisation. It wasn’t all for nothing, as the results speak for themselves.
The economic downturn preceding the COVID-19 spread was characterized by unprecedented unemployment, industrial production and a tanking demand. These are precisely the areas that would have shone had our military had the sensitivity and our governments the vision to embark on the long yet arduous road to technological and industrial development – and thereby defence indigenization.
Germany did not have a navy until the 1890s and practically raised one from scratch in 22 years, holding its own against the invincible Royal Navy at Jutland in mid-1916. And the Dragon waited until it grew its fangs, wings, talons and the fire breath that makes us quiver in our shoes. Are we any different?
Parth Satam is a Principal Correspondent with Fauji India magazine. With his tenure in The Asian Age and Mid-Day, he has covered India's security and military establishment for a decade. He maintains an keen interest in defence, aerospace and foreign affairs
(This is an updated version of the article that first appeared in the April 2018 issue of the Fauji India magazine. Views expressed are the author’s personal. He can be reached on Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)