Military & Aerospace

Kalam at 92: His Vision of Make in India
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 25 Oct , 2023

Dr APJ Abdul Kalam would have been 92 this month. There are many epithets used for him: Inspirational, People’s President, Sui Generis Manager of People and Programs and the pioneer of Make in India visionary in Military Industry Capability. He headed a Committee with representation from the three services and Defense PSUS to work out the Self Reliance Index (SRI) for India and bring out a road map for improving SRI in a foreseeable timeframe in a realistic and feasible manner. The details of the report are still shrouded in mystery, with a limited number of people like me who were closely associated with the committee, having a copy.

As DRDO Chief he had a very high degree of credibility with a very successful missile program, like Prithvi. But the Services were equally contrite with the slow and tardy progress in Light Combat Aircraft & Main Battle Tank Programs and not allowing them to import even when the DRDO was not in a position to deliver. There was a perception that he promised more than he delivered. During the Kargil war, the Army Chief was very critical that DRDO by not allowing them to import a Gun Locating Radar cost the country dearly.

But his commitment to put India as a self-reliant designer and producer of complex platforms was never in doubt. His SRI report has, therefore, been always taken as a template for implementation. As the report turns thirty and several committees have also reflected on the self-reliance issue and Make in India is the new toast of India’s tryst with Swadeshi it’s time to look at Kalam’s legacy in retrospect. Besides, it’s also time to take stock, how the rhetoric of Atmanirbhar Bharat matches with the harsh realities on ground.

The SRI report worked out India’s SRI as 30%, a situation where 70% of our defense requirement in terms of components, systems and subsystems are imported. It identified critical technologies like Focal Plane Array, AESA radars, Ring Laser Gyros, Stealth, Single Crystal Blades, smart munition and passive seekers where our import dependence was nearly 100%. Basically our nemesis is in the troika; Weapons, Sensors and Propulsion (WSP).

The Committee suggested a slew of measures how to create new facilities, collaborate better with universities, private sector, have Joint Ventures with reputed Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) and Joint Design &Development with globally well-known design houses, instead of reinventing the wheel with considerable uncertainty and exorbitant cost. It was the first report for providing level playing field to the private players before the Kelkar Committee in 2005 made a strong pitch for Public Private Partnership for bolstering India’s ‘military industry capability’ (MIC).

The Committee set a target of 70% self-reliance by 2005. As 2005 dawned, the discerning analysts realized how the target has slipped despite a wave of economic liberalization wafting the country in 1991 and defense manufacturing sector a slew of liberalization, a decade later.

The Dhirendra Singh Committee in 2015 tried to resuscitate the RUR (Rakhya Utpadan Ratna) concept by providing equality to major private sector players like the Tatas, L& T, M & M in forging Strategic Partnership (SP) models with defense PSUs like the HAL, BEL & Mazagon Docks instead of providing protective cover to inefficient and unaccountable defense PSUs and Ordnance factories. The sectors identified were aircrafts, warships and armored vehicles.

This process of glasnost in defense manufacturing started with a major liberalization initiative in 2001, providing full participation to the private sector and allowing 26% FDI for foreign players turned the tide against Nehruvian grandstanding of ‘PSUs as temples of modern India’. The Dhirendra Committee clearly discerned the tardy progress in achieving Kalam committee’s SRI target. Like the FRBM (Fiscal Responsibility & Budget Management Act) where the fiscal deficit target of 3% is eluding the nation by wide margin, the SRI is steadily slipping. The Dhirendra Singh has pitched realizing 70% self-reliance by 2027.

Kalam would be squirming in his grave as the targets his Committee set to be self-reliance in critical technologies in 1993 still eludes us. While DRDO as the focal point of developing swadeshi designs of air to air missiles, FPAs, gas turbine engines must take the major share of this blame, our absence of holistic policy and improper handholding by the stake holders are equally responsible for our unedifying record in bolstering MIC.

The latest report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has brought out how India seriously lags behind in its resolve to improve Self Reliance. India has the dubious reputation of being second largest importer of conventional arms consistently since 2016. It notes with dismay how only 16% of total defence procurement is being sourced from domestic arms company. In contrast China has an edifying record in self reliance in defence production, being a major manufacturing hub.

India in contrast has not been able to improve its share from 16% of GDP to 25% by 2021 as suggested by the National Manufacturing Zone Policy in 2011, chaired by late V Krishnamurthi. The Committee had made a very important recommendation that defence manufacturing policy should be a part of national manufacturing policy as there are several areas like aeronautics, ship building, electronics and surveillance where dual use technology can have a multiplier effect.

Kalam had also demonstrated how laser technology can be used for removing cataract, fiber reinforced plastic used in missile programs can be used for artificial limbs, and special steel wires can be used for stents. When his team successfully developed very cheap stents, the foreign lobby tried to discredit it by calling it ‘stunts’. Kalam was terribly upset with such malicious campaign as he strongly believed that we as a nation, given the opportunity, can substitute a number of imported products being purchased at exorbitant cost.

The Defence Acquisition Procedure (DAP 2020) aims at procuring capital items from domestic sources by preempting global imports of items costing up to Rs 500 crores. Further 18 major defence platforms have been identified for industry led Design & Development in a policy announcement in March 2022. The objective is to bust the monopoly of DRDO in design and development. The FDI limit which was 24% in 2001 has been increased to 74%.

The Make Procedure for encouraging indigenous prototype development has been liberalized. From the earlier priority to Import followed by license production and indigenous production out of indigenous design, the priority has been turned on its head with Make in India as the highest priority for India’s defence acquisition. India also embarked on an Offset Policy (2006), with a view to leverage our Big ticket acquisitions to get critical technology, FDI, outsourcing orders and for bolstering exports. The Small Medium and Micro enterprises (MSMEs) were given preferential treatment in terms of according higher multiplier and share.

The example of Brazil who could build the Embraer aircrafts by getting technology from USA while buying the F16 fighter aircrafts became a potent argument for pursuing the offset policy. India hoped for technology transfers in critical areas like FPA, passive seekers and AESA radars.

The ground reality, despite a slew of initiatives, as alluded to above, for improving self-reliance quotient is rather dismal. There is hardly any FDI inflow in to the defence sector despite increase in the FDI limit, which came much later. The OEMs and Design Houses are still very weary of setting up production bases in India or collaborate with the Indian industry. While the OEMs are better disposed towards the fleet footed private sector enterprises like the Tatas, they are very weary of collaboration with government PSUs.

The perception is that the government is captive of defense PSUSs and has not unleashed sufficient privatization initiatives in building military industry capability. The lack of momentum in PPP in defense industry and elusive SP model further buttress such apprehension. There is yet another concern; the specter of rising tide of protectionism which goes against the basic tenet of globalization, competition, quality and cost. Prof Jagadish Bhagawati who changed the direction of our public policy of import substitution to export promotion in the 80s believe that Mr Modi is putting the clock back on free trade by promoting indigenous production, with considerable detriment to quality and high cost.

Kalam wrote a forward to my pioneering book’ Impact of Defence Offsets on Self Reliance (2011) in which he observed “ The major shifts in policy should be targeting and getting key technology , in both design and manufacturing , for the Indian defence industry based on the projected needs of futuristic systems by the armed forces,. PPP and JV must be made simpler on mutually agreed terms”. The JV with the Russians for the Brahmos Cruise missiles is a shining successful example of Kalam’s vision. Strategic defence electronics for him is a vital cog in technology capability.

There is need for greater participation of public and private player, better synergy between design and development and production agency, and vibrant JV arrangement for manufacturing and Research and Development between foreign OEMs and design houses with Indian players . Prof Paul Romer got Nobel prize in Economics in 2018 for demonstrating how technological innovations lead to long-term exogenous economic growth.

Kalam was ahead of time and supremely proud of this country, without being parochial and inward looking. He was hugely respected by all , and by people who were senior to him. I recall how the most venerated Air Force Officer Marshal of the Air, Arjan Singh at the age of 96 rose from his wheel chair to salute the mortal remains of this great son of India. Kalam used to say : An ignited mind is more powerful than anything over the earth, on the earth and below the earth. When I asked him to explain he said: His dream is for an indigenous Light Combat Aircraft fly in the skies, a Main Battle Tank repulse the enemy on the ground and the nuclear submarine surprise our adversaries from under the seas.

His vision was of a self-reliant India in critical technology where our Self Reliance Index improves from 30% to 70% in a decade’s time. Its indeed heartening that both the LCA and MBT have been inducted in to the services. However , in many areas involving gas turbine engines, passive seekers and AESA radars , where our indigenous capability to design and produce out of a prototype continue to flounder.

When I met him for the last time in 2011, we reminisced about our old association and recalled our trip to South Africa, when Raj Mohan Gandhi was the High Commissioner. Kalam was very keen to visit Tolstoy Farm which was set up by Gandhi in 1910 to experiment on the idea of community life in a land riven by the abominable practice of apartheid. When we reached the place, Kalam spotted the well which Gandhi used as a community well and was delighted that it still sprung fresh, clean water. He told us that the Tolstoy farm was the earliest example of globalization where the land was donated by a German architect Kallenbach and a commune was built by an Indian barrister based on the ideals of simple living by a British economist John Ruskin and Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, who was the stoutest proponent of nonviolence.

Like Rabindranath Tagore he looked at India which is not blighted by ‘narrow domestic walls’ of tariffs and narrow nationalism but India as part of the global order where Joint Ventures in production with OEMs like Brahmos Cruise Missiles and Joint Design & Development with reputed global design houses like MR-SAM catapult India as a major manufacturing hub and epicenter of knowledge. He was an acolyte of Vikram Sarabhai, for whom knowledge like space had no frontiers and India has the wherewithal to venture and land on the moon on its own!

Once while watching the aero show together at Bangalore, while everyone was gloating over the aerial spin of F16, Kalam danced with joy when the indigenously built parachute safely landed. I have not seen prouder Indian with a small step in successful indigenization and a realistic vision of India as a knowledge economy, respected globally, Kalam was a true Viswa Guru.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Prof (Dr) SN Misra

was previously Joint Secretary (Aerospace), Ministry of Defence, Government of India.

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