27 March 2019 would go down in Indian history as a proud day for all Indians when our scientists demonstrated our indigenous capability to successfully test an Anti-Satellite (ASAT) missile and register itself as a space power. As the PM Narendra Modi said and has been widely reported in the media, this makes India the 4th country in the world, after the US, Russia and China, to possess such a capability.
Without going into the politics of this test, in my opinion, the PM was absolutely right it in announcing this important landmark to the nation while congratulating the scientists as well as the whole nation on this achievement, after keeping everyone in suspense for a few hours after his tweet on an upcoming important announcement. The world over, such events are brought before the nation and the world by heads of state due to the strategic significance and security implications of such developments and achievements.
Closer to home, the nuclear tests of 1998 were also announced by the then PM, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, without the kind of controversy we are witnessing now.
Be that as it may, the strategic implications and the boost in our national security due to this significant capability have already been widely debated by experts on a number of TV channels and I do not intend to repeat these. What I consider equally, if not more, significant in this achievement was the fact that the entire development and test was totally indigenous, as claimed by the Finance Minister, Shri Arun Jaitely, accompanied by the Defence Minister and others in the press conference that very afternoon. To be sure, as we have learned from our nuclear and missile programs over the years, no nation parts with such technology without major strings attached, as in the case of China with Pakistan.
Charting a course of strategic autonomy after non-alignment, we have had to live with sanctions after the nuclear tests of 1998, which denied us even dual-use technology for a long time thus delaying many of the other indigenous programs including the LCA. It is to the credit of the dedicated scientists of this country that, in these spheres where no help from outside was forthcoming and perhaps only many obstructions were being put on the chosen path, they were able to meet the challenge head-on and indigenously develop the requisite technologies and expertise in a cost-effective manner.
In layman terms, the essential technologies involved in the ASAT capability included surveillance and tracking at large distances, missile engine & control systems, mid-course guidance & terminal homing systems integrated with a jam-resistant data communication system to make the ASAT missile work. Having interacted with scientists in these areas in my time in the Air Force, I understand the difficulties in developing such complex technologies indigenously without even a system to study, copy or reverse-engineer.
Having developed such complex technologies, the issue that should bother all Indians is why the same breed of scientists and engineers, working in other departments or PSUs involved in defense production, are unable to produce even a world-class assault rifle, much less other weapon systems, lower in the technological ladder, for our armed forces? Surely, the technologies involved in the ASAT test have been under research and development for some time and not been produced overnight.
It is, therefore, logical to assume that the individual system technologies were developed and tested over the years before integration and trial now and should have been available to other departments in DRDO and defense PSUs for application in other weapon systems that we keep importing at hugely inflated costs.
The ASAT, like nuclear weapons, is a strategic deterrent that, hopefully, would never have to be used. This is in contrast to many other less complex systems that our armed forces regularly need to be able to fight and train for conventional and sub-conventional warfare.
If our scientists are capable of developing an ASAT system, the question that naturally arises is why we cannot develop and produce cost-effective ground-based and airborne radars for surveillance, Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs), Air-to-Air Missiles (AAMs), precision weapons, modern inertial navigation systems and even artillery and small arms apart from basic trainers much less advanced combat aircraft, just to name a few.
The point that clearly emerges is that when denied technology and assistance, we are capable of developing the requisite technology indigenously at very economical costs as exemplified by our space and missile programs. However, when the technology is available to us in the international market, we are quite content to buy or go for a collaborative approach and transfer of technology in acquisitions. Even after such initial transfer of technology, we are unable to progressively improve our technological competence in such areas with new and more advanced systems by adapting or even reverse engineering.
It is also a known fact that the international arms industry would hardly like to see a market like India disappear from their calculations due to indigenous development and self-reliance much less become a competitor and would employ every resource at their disposal, fair or unfair, to ensure this. Despite aspirations of becoming a world power, we continue to remain in this chakravyuh without any of our policy-makers or leaders overhauling the system to find a way out. Dependence on imports does not merely bleed us in costs but also ensures that the best, and sometimes critical, technologies would not be made available to us apart from spares when critically needed.
Some examples may be apt at this time. Our integrated guided missile program started in the 1990s but we are still unable to field a world-class anti-tank or anti-aircraft missile. If we had been so able, we would not have had the need to go in for the LRSAM and MRSAM programs with Israel.
The development of the indigenous Beyond Visual Range (BVR) AAM, called ASTRA, started at the turn of the century but we still extol the virtues of the MICA missile and missed the Meteor missile during the dogfight on 27 February after Balakot. Even during Balakot, we found the expensive SPICE bomb kits to be the most effective and suitable weapon for the strike. Our ships continue to be armed with the BARAK missile system while for air defense, we still need the S-400 system.
Without doubt, something is seriously amiss in our system of research and development in DRDO as well as defense PSUs. If we wish to seriously march towards our goal of self-reliance, at least to a large extent in critical areas, the system needs a complete overhaul. The subject is vast and a lot has already been written on it but not much attention seems to have been paid to these.
In my opinion, in short, the system needs the overhaul starting from the top, which needs to be first freed from its bureaucratic shackles. Once our leadership is committed to the goal of self-reliance, and has the vision as also the authority to act, along with the intrinsic responsibility & accountability, we can surely achieve the desired goal. Also, right leadership will know the problems in the system, and the solutions to these, without having to be told by someone from outside.
Even privatization of the defense industry is not considered to be a panacea to all the existing problems. Private enterprise first looks to the profits to be made, with a large focus on the short-term, and is largely unwilling to invest in research unless it has an assured market and returns. The current approach of partnership with foreign players is unlikely to yield the desired results and may just turn out to be another saga of transfer of screwdriver technology at escalated costs unless there is a strong system of oversight.
We still have long ways to go in our quest for self-reliance in this area.