A few months ago, the government of India put out its long-awaited “Strategic Partnership" policy for defence production. This policy is aimed at spurring private sector participation in defence manufacturing in India. In the initial phase, the government will identify one Indian private entity as a strategic partner to manufacture one major system: single-engine fighter aircraft, helicopters, submarines, and armoured vehicles. The chosen companies, in turn, can set up joint ventures with foreign companies to produce these systems.
Strategic partnerships with select Indian firms have long been regarded as essential to enabling significant private sector participation in defence manufacturing. A committee led by Vijay Kelkar had proposed this over a decade ago. The idea reflects the failures of the public sector—the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs)—to create a defence industrial base that can cater to the needs of the Indian Armed Forces. Breaking the stranglehold of these organizations on defence development and production is long overdue, but is that sufficient to spur military technological innovation in India?
A book published earlier this year throws interesting light on this question. My Ships Sailed The Seas But I Stayed Ashore is the memoir of Captain (retd) N.S. Mohan Ram—a distinguished naval architect who designed the INS Godavari frigates for the Indian Navy. The book is a timely reminder of the importance of in-house capability for design and development in the services to ensure successful execution of projects aimed at indigenous production of major weapon systems.
In the aftermath of the 1971 war, the navy decided to develop a new class of frigates with enhanced anti-submarine warfare capabilities and advanced missiles and radars provided by the Soviet Union. The initial naval staff requirements for the frigates were drawn up in 1974. Nine years later, the INS Godavari was commissioned—delivered on schedule and in line with the Navy’s requirements by the Mazagon Docks. To put this in perspective, it is worth recalling that the army and the air force also embarked on two major efforts at indigenous development during the period 1972-82. However, the Main Battle Tank (MBT) and the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) took over three decades and still fell short of the requirements of the army and the air force.
A key factor accounting for these widely different outcomes was the presence in the navy of a small team of designers. As Mohan Ram recalls in his book, the human and technical resources available to them were limited and challenges of designing the ship were many. The most critical of these was the power plant needed to obtain a higher speed in a bigger ship. The navy’s existing frigates used steam propulsion, though gas propulsion was emerging as the cutting-edge technology. The Directorate of Naval Design (DND) advocated continuing with steam to ensure that the design challenges were kept manageable and came up with a brilliant solution to ensure that the top speed of the ship remained the same even if fuel consumption was higher. The navy’s engineering branch, however, pushed for a shift to gas propulsion. Following an intense debate, the naval staff decided to go with the DND’s plan. Thereafter the DND worked closely with the Mazagon Docks (the DPSU in charge of production) to ensure timely delivery of the frigates.
The successful completion of this project underscored the importance of the navy’s organic capability for design. This capability had been built systematically from 1951 onwards. In 1957, the navy began to recruit naval architects from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur and sending them to Britain for a two-year “Long Naval Architecture Course". These officers became the nucleus of the DND.
By contrast the army and the air force did not build up a cadre of in-house design specialists. From the outset, the army relied on the ordnance factories and later the DRDO to perform these functions. The air force had some rudimentary capability in the early years, but gave up its designers to the DPSUs. The consequences were evident in the MBT and LCA projects. For one thing, while the navy adopted an approach of gradualism in developing the Godavari-class frigates, the army and air force sought to leapfrog to the frontiers of military technology with the MBT and LCA. If these services went along with the DRDO’s ambitious plans, it was because they had no institutional capacity to understand the technological challenges involved.
For another, the lack of such capacity directly contributed to the inordinate delay in both these projects. In the absence of a design interface between the users and developers, it proved exceedingly difficult to reconcile their competing views and imperatives of the users and the designers. Indeed, in both projects the absence of design capability within the services meant that they were seriously involved in the projects only after the prototypes had been rolled out by the DRDO and DPSUs. Thereafter too their ability to translate their operational requirements into design hobbled the projects.
To be sure, the DRDO and the DPSUs have to take the bulk of the blame for being over-ambitious in conception and extraordinarily tardy in delivery. But the army and air force contributed to these. The government can supplant the DRDO and DPSUs by bringing in private entities, but unless it consciously attempts to build organic capability for design and development within the services, the problems that plagued the MBT and LCA might persist.
Srinath Raghavan is senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.