India’s tech blues in making jet engines, stealth submarines : The Tribune India

India’s tech blues in making jet engines, stealth submarines

Funding is the key to tech growth. But India still seems cash-strapped when it comes to research.

India’s tech blues in making jet engines, stealth submarines

TOUGH: India may take at least a decade to become fully self-reliant in the defence sector. Tribune photo

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr

Senior Journalist

INDIGENISATION of defence production is one of the pillars of the Modi government’s dream of making India self-reliant or atmanirbhar. The general perception is that India will make things instead of importing them. In defence production, the definition is slightly tweaked. It is now seen as indigenisation if a foreign product is made in India, with an Indian collaborator.

There are two conspicuous examples of this trend. US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh have reached an understanding that US company General Electric Aerospace will produce jet engines in collaboration with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), a public sector aerospace and defence company, for its Tejas Mark 2 medium-weight fighter (MWF). It is expected that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will sign an agreement in this regard during his state visit to Washington later this month.

The other collaboration which is being finalised is the production of stealth submarines, which run on electricity and diesel, in India. The technology will be provided by a German company, Thyssenkrupp Marine Systems, and the production partner is a public sector enterprise, Mazagon Dock Limited. The expected cost is Rs 42,000 crore.

It seems that there is an admission that India does not have the manufacturing and technological depth to fully indigenise defence production. The alternative seems to be to arrange for production in India on the basis of transfer of technology (ToT) from foreign companies. It has been argued that India has the skilled workforce to carry out the manufacturing processes of advanced technology and this will greatly bring down the costs because of the advantage of relatively lower labour cost in India. This makes good economic sense and there is not much to quarrel over it. It is estimated that India, over a period of time, will be able to absorb the technological advances and will be able to innovate on its own.

What is of interest is whether this policy is as new as it is made out to be or it is the proverbial old wine in a new bottle. Remember the famous song penned by lyricist Shailendra for Shree 420 (1955)? ‘Mera joota hai Japani, ye patloon Englistani, sar pe lal topi Roosi, phir bhi dil hai Hindustani’ (My shoes are Japanese, trousers are English, the red hat is Russian, yet my heart is Indian). It was his light-hearted needling of the Nehru government’s Five-Year Plan, executed with multinational aid.

This was no poetic hyperbole. It worked exactly the same way on the ground. The Bhilai steel plant was set up in 1955 with Russian collaboration and the Rourkela and Durgapur steel plants were set up with German and British help in 1959. Of course, we moved on after these initial foreign collaborations. It is interesting that India’s first steel plant, set up in 1907 by the Tatas in Jamshedpur, was a private sector venture.

The indigenisation of Indian defence production is likely to evolve on the same lines as that of steel production. It may, perhaps, take a decade before India can become fully self-reliant in making its own planes, submarines, tanks and guns. The indigenous fighter plane project has been evolving for 40 years now. So are the attempts to make battle tanks and rifles. But we still import assault rifles and other weapons. The argument is that there is no need to reinvent the wheel and if technology is already in place, buy it off the shelf and use it.

But advanced technology is not easily available and Indian research cannot compete with the best of the lot. The fault is not so much with the researchers, but the lack of funding from government and private sector sources.

China seems to have forged ahead because it has funded research in the past few decades not just adequately but overwhelmingly, and not just in the natural sciences but also social sciences. So, funding is the key. And governments in India still seem cash-strapped when it comes to research.

Due to the changed economic and ideological climate in Europe and North America, there is a willingness to share high technology with India because the West sees India as a partner in the confrontation with China and Russia. India naturally wants to take advantage of the situation and work with the West in becoming the manufacturing hub of western products, be it mobile phones or fighter planes. While foreign mobile phones manufactured in India are to be re-exported, the way is not yet clear for the re-export of western armaments made in India.

The question remains whether the new model of defence production in India with western collaborators will help the country stand on its own legs and not depend on others for its security preparedness. The answer is that this could be of some help and that it is an improved state of affairs than in the recent past. But India has not yet solved its problem of meeting its defence needs from its own financial and technological resources. While the government can make claims that the new policy of indigenisation of defence production is working wonders, the truth is that we are far from the stated goal. There is no harm in accepting the fact that we still need the US and Germany to work with us in the field of advanced technology.

Policymakers are not yet sure of how India can achieve technological parity with global leaders because they want instant success. It does not work that way in technology. And, more importantly, technology does not happen without high science. It was at the 1995 Indian Science Congress in Kolkata that the then Director General of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, RN Mashelkar, declared loud and clear that there was no high technology without high science.

Indian politicians and bureaucrats refuse to accept the truth of Mashelkar’s simple statement. And this is the issue at the heart of indigenisation of defence production in India.

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