Almost a year after the Ministry of Defence (MoD) okayed guidelines for implementing the ‘strategic partnership model’ policy — under which foreign companies can tie up with Indian firms to produce military equipment locally — US military aviation leader Lockheed Martin has said it would make F-21 fighter jets in India. The breakthrough is expected to give a much-needed fillip to ‘Make in India’, the NDA government’s flagship initiative that has flattered to deceive so far in the defence sector. The policy on strategic collaboration had been approved in May 2017 and was made part of the defence procurement procedure, but the MoD took its time finalising the norms. The new Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh, has already directed the top brass of the ministry to seek indigenous solutions as far as possible to meet the armed forces’ requirements.
The opportunity should be grabbed with both hands by the beleaguered Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), a Navratna defence public sector undertaking that has remained in the news mostly for the wrong reasons in recent times. In February this year, a Mirage-2000 jet freshly upgraded and serviced by HAL had crashed during take-off in Bengaluru, claiming the lives of two young test pilots. By its own admission, the Indian Air Force has lost around 20 test pilots and engineers in accidents during flight testing and evaluation of indigenous platforms. The latest incident had dented the reputation of HAL, one of Asia’s biggest aerospace companies, triggering a political slugfest in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections. The Rafale deal, too, became a poll plank for the Opposition, underscoring the dire need for consistency and transparency in defence acquisitions.
The strategic partnership model holds the key to India’s efforts to join the league of nations producing world-class military equipment. Foreign companies that transfer niche technology and provide for higher indigenous content should be given the promised incentives. Red tape should not come in the way of indigenisation and modernisation. It’s high time India’s aerospace industry takes a giant leap with the help of global giants.