The armed forces have virtually overruled to the proposed advanced versions of the indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft and Arjun main-battle tank (MBT) by strongly pitching for mega acquisitions of foreign single-engine fighters and futuristic armoured fighting vehicles through the ‘Make in India’ route under the ‘strategic partnership’ (SP) policy.
The Army recently issued request for information (RFI) to global armament giants for an initial 1,770 futuristic tanks called the future ready combat vehicles (FRCVs) geared for “rapid dominance in an expanded battle space”, while the IAF is getting set to do the same for 114 single-engine fighters soon.
This comes in the backdrop of the defence ministry finalising the SP policy in May to boost the country’s fledgling defence production sector, which envisages Indian private sector companies producing cutting-edge weapon systems in collaboration with global arms majors through joint ventures and technology transfers.
The going will, however, not be easy for IAF and Army. For one, the annual defence budgets now have very little money for new projects with the bulk of the capital outlay being used for “committed liabilities” or installments of deals inked earlier. IAF’s single-engine fighter project, which will be a direct dogfight between the Gripen-E (Sweden) and F-16 (US) jets, for instance, will alone cost an estimated Rs 1.15 lakh crore.
Also, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) PSU lobby is putting up stiff resistance, leading the government to question the need for the single-engine fighter project. “Questions have also been raised whether such a major project should be given to the private sector. Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), in turn, says it can deliver a much better single-engine Tejas”.
The DRDO contends the forces continue to cold-shoulder indigenous platforms in their hunger to acquire sophisticated foreign ones. Instead of ordering say around 500 Arjun tanks, which would have stabilised production lines, achieved economies of scale and paved the way for development of a futuristic main battle tank (FMBT), the Army has inducted only 124 Arjun Mark-1 tanks till now.
The Army is not willing to order 118 Arjun Mark-II tanks, costing over Rs 6,600 crore, till they clear field trials. “The FRCV project, if it takes off, will kill the indigenous FMBT project,” said a scientist.
But all this cuts little ice with the forces, which say the DRDO-defence PSU lobby “over-promises and then under-delivers” with huge time and cost overruns. “Can operational military readiness be sacrificed at the altar of indigenisation?” ask experts.
Bureaucratic bottlenecks, long-winded procedures, commercial and technical wrangling, coupled with the lack of requisite political push and follow-through, have ensured that no major “Make in India” project in defence has actually kicked off in the last three years.
Stock-taking of half-a-dozen mega projects, collectively worth over Rs 3.5 lakh crore, shows they remain stuck at different stages without the final contracts being inked. They range from future infantry combat vehicles (FICVs), light utility helicopters and Naval multi-role choppers to new-generation stealth submarines, mine counter-measure vessels (MCMVs) and fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA). The initial RFI for another major ‘Make in India’ project, to manufacture 114 single-engine fighters in a second production line after indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft, of course, is also about to be issued.
But though the Gripen-E (Sweden) and F-16 (US) jets are already in a dogfight to bag the estimated Rs 1 lakh crore contracts, it’ll take years for indigenous production to take off. Defence ministry (MoD) officials contend minister Nirmala Sitharaman is holding meetings of the defence acquisitions council every fortnight, as also reviewing projects on a case-to-case basis, in a bid to break the bureaucratic logjams.
“These are big complex projects for a country which cannot even manufacture specialised ammunition. They will take some time,” said a senior official. Some steps have indeed been taken to boost the private sector’s role in defence production through “strategic partnership” and other policies, besides according top priority to “indigenous design, development and manufacturing (IDDM))” category in the Defence Procurement Procedure. Recommended By Colombia
But India is still far away from reducing its strategically vulnerable dependence on foreign military hardware and software. PM Modi’s talk of defence as the cornerstone of his “Make in India” thrust is also yet to translate into concrete reality.
The Rs 60,000 crore FICV project, first approved in October 2009, for instance, remains deadlocked over whether two or all the five Indian private firms in the fray, apart from the Ordnance Factories Board, be asked to design and build prototypes.
The FGFA project with Russia to co-develop and coproduce an Indian variant of its Sukhoi T-50 fighter, in turn, has taken a steep nose-dive after the IAF raised doubts about its stealth capabilities, engine performance, high cost and delivery time-frame. Under a 2010 pact, India and Russia conducted preliminary design work worth $295 million, but the final R&D and production contract has been hanging fire since then. It will take around $25 billion to make 127 such single-seat jets in India. “It will have to be a top political decision whether to go in for the FGFA project or junk it,” said a source.
Another project with Russia, the Rs 6,500 crore plan to manufacture 200 Kamov-226T light utility helicopters, is also in the doldrums despite an inter-governmental agreement in 2015. “The joint venture has been set up. But the request for proposal is yet to be issued to the JV to submit its techno-commercial offer,” said the source.
Because in purchasing local there is no chance of expensive free holidays, free entertainment and massive kickbacks. Let us be clear Bofor, Augusta (by Airforce chief) are no exceptions but ruleIAF, for instance, says Tejas is yet to become combat-ready or achieve “final operational clearance” after being in the making for over three decades. “Moreover, with its limited range and weapon carrying capacity, the Tejas simply does not give IAF the punch and cost-effectiveness it needs. Tejas, which has just about 50% of the capabilities of an F-16 or Gripen in terms of endurance, payload etc, will have to fly under the protection of other fighters during conflicts,” said IAF experts.
Grappling with just 33 fighter squadrons when 42 are needed to take care of the “collusive threat” from China and Pakistan, the IAF feels the single-engine fighter project is necessary to maintain adequate force-levels till an entirely new Tejas Mark-2 becomes a reality.
Indian army’s foot soldiers are still nowhere close to getting basic modern infantry weapons, ranging from assault rifles and sniper guns to light machine guns and close-quarter battle carbines, after a decade of acquisition projects from abroad being repeatedly scrapped as well as failure of indigenous options to pass muster till now.
Though plans are now on track to plug major operational gaps in artillery guns, air defence missiles and helicopters, “small arms” remain a big worry. As per overall plans, the 12-lakh strong Army needs 8,18,500 new-generation assault rifles, 4,18,300 close quarter battle (CQB) carbines, 43,700 light machine guns and 5,679 sniper rifles. All these figures also include some weapons for the much-smaller IAF and Navy.
But all these induction plans, which are supposed to include direct purchase of an initial number of weapons from a foreign vendor followed by large-scale indigenous production with technology transfer, have failed to materialise so far.
India has to make all out efforts to modernise its armed forces with the latest weapons better than its adversaries to safeguard the sovereignty and integrity of the country.