In the story of India’s indigenous defence capability, there has been a perennial debate between the self-sufficient swadeshis and the self-reliant pragmatists. The former argue that to fly the national flag, every nut and bolt of a weapon system should be made in India. The latter assert that it is more important for the aircraft to fly, the ship to sail and the tank to move even if it uses some foreign components. The pragmatist’s assertion took flight and was strongly endorsed when India’s light combat aircraft, Tejas, attained its initial operational clearance last fortnight.
Though the world’s smallest multi-role aircraft has an American engine, carries Russian and Israeli missiles, is fitted with a British ejection seat and several other foreign subsystems, there is no contest that it is an Indian-designed and fabricated weapon system. It follows in the tradition of the navy’s highly successful Godavari class frigates and the army’s more troublesome Arjun main battle tank. The progress of these weapon systems will also determine the future prospects of India’s indigenous defence capabilities.
Though the Tejas is still a long way from attaining full operational status and being inducted into active duty with the air force, it already has great potential to benefit India’s security, economy and even foreign policy.
In the area of security and defence, Tejas has gone a long way in building India’s self-reliance momentum, particularly in the field of aviation, which was lost in the long hiatus following the first indigenous fighter aircraft, the HF-24 Marut, built in the 1960s. The experience with Tejas is critical for absorbing the technology likely to come with the impending purchase of advanced foreign fighter aircraft, and might also pave the way for indigenous design and development of the next generation of fighters. It is not inconceivable that when the air force goes shopping for a stealth aircraft, an Indian designed and built aircraft might be among the contenders.
On the economic front, the Tejas experience has the potential to provide defence production a much-needed fillip. Though much has been made of the huge investment of around $3 billion and the 25-year time frame to develop the Tejas, it is comparable to the $2 billion price tag for the development of the Swedish JAS-39 Gripen (the closest rival to the Tejas), which took about 15 years to enter service. This was despite Sweden having consistently designed and built jet aircraft since at least the 1950s. The Tejas, like the Godavari class of ships and Arjun tanks, is also an ideal platform to effectively engage the more efficient private sector and to enhance the limited design, development and production capacity of public sector undertakings.
Perhaps the biggest economic potential of the indigenous weapon systems is their unutilized export prospects. Given the economies of scale, such exports, especially to countries willing to pay for a lucrative production and service package that India might be able to offer, have two advantages. They can subsidize the cost of development for India’s Armed Forces, and also generate investment for design and development of future systems. Here, too, the engagement and expertise of the private sector would be an advantage. This is evident in the way foreign aircraft manufacturers are aggressively pushing even their outdated technology to bid for the huge Indian order of 126 combat aircraft.
Indigenous weapon systems such as the Tejas could also become an important foreign policy tool were they to be used to build the capacity of friendly states and to tie these states closer to India. For instance, India (perhaps in partnership with the US) might consider equipping Afghanistan with the Tejas class of aircraft in the future.
Clearly, Tejas has flown the Indian flag; now it should be kept unfurled.
W Pal Sidhu is senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.
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