In the coming decade, the Indian armed forces are planning to acquire more than 500 aircraft and helicopters in different categories to sustain and bolster their capabilities. The aviation assets planned include combat aircraft, wide-bodied aircraft for transportation and surveillance, helicopters in light utility, attack, heavy-lift category and unmanned aerial vehicles, including combat aerial vehicles. The combat aircraft will replace the fleet of MiG 21 and MiG 27 that are being phased out and the current number is pegged at 114 in addition to 83 Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). The Indian Air force (IAF) has sought 56 light transport aircraft, additional AWACS and in-flight refueling aircraft. In the reconnaissance role, there is a case for additional 10 P8I for the Navy. In helicopters, besides already contracted Apache AH64E attack helicopters and heavy-lift helicopters CH47, a large number of light utility helicopters are required to replace the ageing Chetak/Cheetah/Cheetal helicopters in all three wings of the armed forces. A rough estimate of the cost of these aviation assets along with requisite support systems is about $90 billion; this presents an ideal opportunity to kick-start the Indian military aviation industry.

However, our track record has been dismal. India has spent over $48 billion on importing major air warfare assets in the last two decades. India has a lacklustre military aviation industry with indigenous content stuck at around the 15% mark for the last two decades. In comparison, Pakistan has more than doubled its indigenous share to 30%. Even in the basic trainer aircraft category, from indigenous HPT-32 and HJT-16, India has switched to imported PC-7 and Hawks. This is a result of the failure of Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) to provide a suitable alternative to the problem-ridden HPT-32 and ageing HJT-16. A similar story is unfolding in the combat aircraft arena as well, with the LCA dogged by a lengthy development period for the LCA. And now it’s a very low production rate. Import of additional combat aircraft after the delivery of the contracted 36 Rafale jets seems inevitable. In the wide-bodied transport aircraft, Project Saras has made no headway and India has always relied on imports, except for very light transport aircraft Do 228 being manufactured under licence. The narrative in the helicopter fleet seems most encouraging with the success of the ALHs. But here again, with just 12 helicopters produced last year, soon another imported helicopter may be inducted against a requirement of over 300. Once the Indo Russian Helicopter Ltd (IRHL) joint venture takes off, Ka-226 is likely to become the mainstay of the Indian military helicopter fleet. On the air-launched weapons front, the picture is bleaker. Several DRDO systems are still under various stages of development and integration, including the Smart Anti-Airfield Weapon (SAAW) and Astra Missile.

While it is natural for the forces to seek the best combat equipment, they need to be realistic too. The HAL-designed HF24 Marut—the first indigenous combat aircraft in the IAF —was expected to change the complexion of IAF combat aircraft fleet. But the HF24 did not meet the high-performance criteria set by the IAF. As a result, India, with the fourth largest military aviation assets in the world, retains the dubious distinction of operating the largest fleet of foreign-designed aircraft. Although the end-user cannot be held accountable for the failure of the industry to grow, a pragmatic hand-holding approach is necessary owing to very high R&D costs and low probability of success.

In the last 50 years, India has led the pack of arms importers in the world with a 7% share—almost double the second-placed Saudi Arabia. Both policymakers and the policy implementers have failed India in this regard. India’s current geostrategic position has diminished probability of a conventional war in the near future. This allows India to focus on the enhancing capabilities that India needs and not spend money on accumulating military assets through imports. This time-slot is ideal for taking Make in India for defence requirements to a logical conclusion. Successful models like BrahMos need replication for technology infusion and project implementation. Policy decisions to infuse funds and revitalize and redefine the role and accountability of DRDO, Defence Public Sector Undertakings and Ordnance Factory Board need to be taken now so that results start showing by 2022-2024. Expansion of scale with greater visibility can assist the industry to cut production costs and lead to economies of scale. Alongside, providing a level-playing field to the private sector and hand-holding for initial orders will assist in creating an ecosystem that will pay long-term dividend. Practically, it is a make or break period for Make In India in the military aviation sector.

The author is Group Captain (Retd) , VM .

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