It was recently reported that a guided-missile frigate of the Indian Navy had tipped over while undocking at the Cruiser Graving Dock of the Naval Dockyard in Mumbai. Two persons lost their lives in the accident. As an Indian Navy spokesperson put it, ‘At about 1.50 pm today, INS Betwa, a frigate of the Indian Navy, was in the process of undocking in Naval Dockyard (Mumbai) when she slipped from her dock blocks and tilted. Immediate action was taken to get all personnel to safety. Two sailors however, succumbed to injuries post the incident.’
This is the third accident involving a major Indian naval asset. The INS Vindhyagiri sank in Mumbai in January 2011 after colliding with a merchant ship. While on that occasion there was no loss of life, eighteen submariners were killed in August 2013 when a Russian-designed submarine, the INS Sindurakshak, was crippled as torpedoes were being loaded onto it.
The Betwa incident could well be a metaphor for the setbacks involving India’s military platforms.
Much before Prime Minister Modi’s “Make In India” venture was developed, India initiated a programme of self-sufficiency, according to which it would source most, if not all, of its requirements domestically. If skills that did not exist were required, those would be acquired through initial foreign input. This reasoning (and the programme itself), did not quite meet its stated goals, falling well-short of their expected results.
A classic case in point is the design and manufacture of the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft. The idea of designing and constructing an indigenous fighter aircraft was developed in the 1980s. It is only recently that the Indian Air Force, after considerable pressure was put on it to purchase these under-powered aircraft, purchased a squadron. The entire squadron was promptly stationed in South India, far from any potential need to employ them in a fight against Pakistani F-16s or China’s J-17s. It is interesting, however, that Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had no qualms in stating that, ‘This is a plane which is completely indigenously manufactured and can compete with any other fighter plane in the world. It is as capable as the [French-designed and manufactured] Rafale. [The] Only [difference is that] this is a light combat aircraft.’
Indigenously manufactured though it may be, the Tejas, as Junior Defence Minister Subhash Bhamre confirmed in Parliament on 18 November, consists of around 25 per cent of imported components. Again, while that may appear at first sight to be a fairly low figure, those systems comprise the core of the aircraft’s systems, including its US-sourced engine, Israeli radar, Russian cannon, British ejection seat and so on. Regarding the shortcomings of the aircraft, Mr Parrikar, perhaps slightly optimistically said, ‘I told them that all shortcomings should be fulfilled and the plane should be ready in a year.’ Despite his optimism, however, the Indian Navy has made it clear that it does not want these aircraft on its carriers. Undaunted, Mr Parrikar has stated that ‘The government proposes to export the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas to other countries. In this connection preliminary discussions have been held with a few friendly countries.’
The amalgamation of systems sourced from various countries in the Tejas aircraft extends to the Indian Air Force itself, which currently operates Russian, British, French, US and, now, indigenous aircraft. This, as is obvious, creates several problems in terms of maintenance, inter-operability, training, etc. Given the need to replace its all-but-obsolete MiG-21 aircraft, the government of India has initiated a search to acquire modern fighter aircraft to replace those. It will be interesting, therefore, to see if the optimism shown by Sweden’s Saab in this regard is realised and if India will add Swedish aircraft (which are potentially interoperable with the British, French and American platforms) to the mix.
India’s problems with technology and platforms do not end with the Tejas, however. The Indian-designed and manufactured Insas rifle is riddled with problems. During the Kargil Conflict of 1999, which was the combat debut of the rifle, Indian troops found that the rifles jammed easily, the plastic magazines cracked and the intended three-round bursts did not happen: the rifle would fire an entire magazine like a full automatic. If that was not enough, the rifle would spray oil into the soldiers’ faces. Worse was to come, however. Nepal, which had acquired the rifles, found that when a ten-hour Maoist attack was launched against an army camp, the rifles over-heated and stopped working altogether. Forty-three Nepali soldiers were killed in the fighting. Unsurprisingly, the Central Reserve Police has stated that it would prefer to have the more reliable Kalashnikov rifles than the Insas, which is manufactured by the state-owned Ordnance Factories Board.
It would be a good thing if India could indeed design and manufacture its military hardware indigenously. To do so, however, it requires a technically-skilled, accomplished and experienced research and development base. That would require, in turn, a superior, merit-based educational system and, if necessary, initial training by foreign personnel in foreign locations. Until drastic measures are taken to fill this gap, however, India will continue to face a compromised R&D effort.