Strategic Partnerships in Indian Defence Industry: The Quest for a Single Engine Aircraft
Quoting from an Indian Ministry of Defence report of the Committee of Experts, “The overarching responsibility of the political executive and consequently the decisive voice in the field of foreign and Defence Policy is axiomatic in democratic politics. The Indian Armed Forces understand and respect this position. So in spite of their concerns in some areas which they perceive as vulnerable, including a policy that scholars have termed as ‘strategic restraint’, in the wider national interest, they adjust their war fighting doctrines to such limitations. And herein lies the rub. There is a justifiable criticism that India lacks coherent strategic thought. Although the number of strategic thinkers has grown they are unable to influence policy. The political executive of various shades has also not built up cadres of strategic thinkers to provide continuity. Internal social divisions and the structure of the Indian polity is such that there are continuous internal confrontations and only in time of crisis and war that everyone comes together, unfortunately to relapse into business as usual once the crisis abates. Unless a national consensus develops, and an institutional framework put in place adequate military power will not be generated.
Whereas primacy has to be accorded to policy makers in strategic planning taking into account domestic compulsions (including resource allocations), and international relations, sometimes translating into greater reliance on diplomatic efforts and defensive postures, the balance of advantage however needs to shift to the Armed Forces in the matter of the choice of the characteristics of defence systems and equipment based on user preference and tactical and operational doctrines. Modernisation is not merely induction of new types of equipment, but a mix of strategy and security perceptions and optimum use of hardware to achieve stated national objectives. Services should lead the initiative for modernisation.
Now or Never. Transformation in national thinking, with national interest, for national progress are manifest in the progressive policies adopted by the government. Is this enough or will this dream fade away only to awaken us to reality with a wee bit of help from our geographical neighbors, who are even willing to contribute to our national unity.
A well-conceived, widely debated, extensively deliberated policy on Strategic Partnerships, by the MoD, is on the verge of being allowed to gather dust for the excessive caution the bureaucracy may impose. That China threatens to reinforce Doklam and maintain a sizable force is already in public domain. Do we need threats to act or do we need a jolt to be awakened? Cannot we act before it is too late. Of the identified disciplines, the most promising one, Single Engine Aircrafts, is at large.
IAF has highlighted the criticality of depleting squadrons of fighter aircrafts; the current inventory of 11 squadrons of MiG-21 & MiG-27, already on an extended life shall be going out of service by 2022. With the widening gap, IAF has acknowledged the need for co-existence of LCA, single-engine and twin-engine fighter aircrafts to have a balanced fleet with different applications and budgets.
MMRCA pursued between 2005 and 2015 resulted in Dassault Rafale being selected in the twin-engine multi role category, with 36 fighter crafts being acquired by the country in a fly away condition. With the first deliveries expected in 2019, the final deliveries span across 15 years for India.
LCA program has been pursued by IAF in collaboration with HAL. Of the 40 LCAs ordered in 2005, HAL has delivered the first five. Delays and technical specifications notwithstanding, LCA is a matter of pride for India and HAL shall ensure its successful induction in the IAF. However, given IAF’s current strength of 32 squadrons, there is significant gap requiring a single engine program with global OEMs, under Make in India.
The vintage MiGs are only growing older by the day to make the IAF more vulnerable and the requirement to replace these has been engaging the attention of the nation for more than a decade and a half. With the increasing disturbances at our borders and the increasing chances of a major conflict, delay in acquisition of new aircraft may jeopardize the nation’s preparedness. Looking at this exigency, probably the Government in May-2014 announced the direct acquisition of 36 Rafale aircrafts. This was supposed to be followed by the acquisition of 13-14 squadrons of single engine fighter crafts including the indigenously developed Tejas LCA.
Acquisition process for Single Engine Fighter crafts should have been the first to go to market, given the criticality of depleting number of serviceable squadrons in service with the IAF as well as the complete knowledge gained by the nation in the run up to the MMRCA competition. The single engine fighter aircraft program aimed induction by 2023 with final deliveries by 2030.
If there was one lesson from the MMRCA experience it was not to repeat the MMRCA experience and therefore, “it would be prudent for the IAF to resist demands from bureaucratic establishment to reinvent the wheel and go generic once again”. The non-stake holders will try their best, the stake holders have to persist. The preamble to the DPP 2016 as well as the Strategic Partnership policy, spells out the spirit of procurements, as a means to capability building. It is time to weed out the noise from non-stake holders to create generic requirements as well as from state owned enterprises engaged in protecting their turf and go ahead with national requirement of creating capabilities, building eco-system and host facilities in the complete value chain. Fear, if any of the state-owned HAL, is mitigated by the intent of the IAF for procuring 123 Tejas LCA aircrafts. Given India’s current strength of 35 squadrons, there shall still be a gap of six - seven squadrons even (if and when) after HAL delivers the current order. Notably HAL has delivered five Tejas aircrafts till date out of initial 40 ordered in 2005. Over and above the LCA program, HAL has the responsibility to deliver the next generation aircraft i.e., AMCA for the IAF, resumption of talks on the FGFA not-withstanding.
Two global OEM’s have opened their cards on the Single Engine Program. Saab has reinforced their commitment to full transfer of technology in respect of Gripen NG, and Lockheed Martin has offered shifting their entire F-16 production line to India. Saab has further offered its services to partner in the development of AMCA & LCA Mk-II in line with the requirements of the MoD. The two foreign OEMs have also announced their partners in India – Saab with Adani Group & Lockheed Martin with Tata Advanced Systems and inked relevant MoUs. The two companies have also started taking the first steps towards indigenization by engaging with the local ecosystem. After all, partnerships are not created in a day! They need intimate understanding of each other’s attitude, aptitude, best practices, value proposition, nurturing and would be a result of sustained interactions. Pre-positioning is mandatory for any meaningful response, since both sides would be adequately prepared. The acquisition process has a queer pitch; the response time for the participating industries, from the issue of EOI/RFI, is something like a six months or less(during which time they are expected to create all possible relationships and be prepared for a detailed response); while the process thereafter can be indefinite.
Notwithstanding any technical differences between the two aircrafts, these are the best offers with committed government support than in any of the past acquisition cases. Delayed decision making would push the nation to once again accept terms and conditions imposed by overseas sellers. Do we want to change the destiny of Indian industry from creating and sustaining an eco system to one of waiting over the wings for some offsets related work?
It is imperative that the Strategic Partnership Policy is implemented in letter and spirit and the acquisition process on all four platforms is started at the earliest. In this case, with established relationships, the process can be further speeded up by just going straight to the partnerships afore. A limited tender competition has the resilience to transform itself into a strategic partnership with all the capabilities sought in terms of technologies and an enabled ecosystem.
We can do it this time. The nation will not fail its Armed Forces, at least this time.