Still a long way to self-reliance

Ajay Banerjee in New Delhi

Unheralded and unnoticed outside the close circle of ‘strategic community’, India’s efforts, in both private and public sectors, in the indigenous defence equipment-making sector are now evident. The pace is slow but steady. It has started generating jobs, creating opportunities for Indian companies to be suppliers to global biggies. Importantly, in the long term, local production can provide strategic autonomy to India. And yes, it’s moving beyond familiar missile projects like Agni, BrahMos, Akash or Prithvi of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) or the ISRO-aided launch of dedicated military satellites like Rukmini. Engineering giant Larsen and Toubro literally set the ball rolling in 2009 when it made the hull of the nuclear submarine INS Arihant, designed by the DRDO. It is now making the hulls of follow-on vessels to the Arihant. Mumbai-based Walchandnagar Industries designed and manufactured propulsion system and key equipment needed for its nuclear propulsion plant, which was itself made by the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) with help from the Russians. Tata Power did the control system of the vessel that was declared fully operational on November 5. By the time third of the Arihant class rolls out, it will be 100 per cent locally made. 

In March this year, the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), owned by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), outsourced key work of the LCA Tejas fighter jet to the Indian private sector. L&T, Alpha Tecol, Vem Technologies and DTL will produce various parts of the plane, including its main fuselage and wings, which the HAL will then integrate at its Bengaluru plant. This is the first step towards having a western style production model where various companies make sections of the plane before one agency integrates these. Another success is the Dhruv Advance Light Helicopters, some 200 are flying. The next version, which will be armed, is based on the same platform. The supersonic BrahMos missile has some parts made by Godrej, the Akash air defence missile again has private sector contribution. New artillery guns, the ATAGS, designed by the DRDO with Tata Power SED and Bharat Forge, have been a success. Similarly, Dhanush artillery gun made by the OFB have been a success. The Army is going to order both. The Vajra K9 artillery gun, made in collaboration between L&T and Hanwha Techwin, was inducted recently.  Air Commodore Prashant Dikshit (retd) says, “The indigenous aircraft industry is faltering largely because of inadequacy of technological prowess”.

The Navy leads the way

From having a design bureau that was set up in the 1950s, the Navy is now leading key Make-in-India projects like aircraft carrier Vikrant (scheduled for commission in 2020) that match countries like the US, the UK, Russia, China and France. Vice-Admiral Sekhar Sinha (retd) says, “The latest Kamorta-class anti-submarine warfare corvettes have 90 per cent local content.... Ten years from now, aviation wing (fighters and copters) will also be Indian”.

On August 23, the Navy invited its former officer Commodore A Joseph Paulraj (retd), who is a global icon in technology and presently professor emeritus at Stanford University, to discuss ‘self-reliance of Indian defence in critical advanced technologies’. 

Expanding the footprint 

US giant Boeing and Tata have a joint venture to manufacture fuselage (body) of the AH 64 Apache attack helicopters. US company General Electric (GE) and Tata Group is collaborating to focus on aero-engine components. GE currently provides jet engines and marine gas turbines for Tejas and Shivalik class warships. European major Airbus has proposed multiple projects to kickstart a defence-focused industrial ecosystem in the country, including an offer to build the C295W military transport aircraft and has a partnership with Mahindra Defence to locally manufacture military helicopters. The HAL-Kamov helicopter is coming up at a new plant at Tumkur near Bengaluru. This will make 200 of the Russian Kamov 226-T and also the 187 Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) being made by HAL. The entire helicopter is to be made here.

GE-TATA will manufacture, assemble, integrate and test aircraft engines in India, creating highly skilled jobs. The Airbus engineering facility in Bengaluru employs around 400 engineers who focus on core engineering in areas such as avionics software design and testing, system simulation and digital mock-ups and system installation. Airbus works with more than 45 Indian suppliers, who employ more than 6,000 persons in its projects. These suppliers provide engineering & IT services, aero-structures, materials and cabins for several of Airbus platforms. Boeing currently employs 1,200 persons in India, and more than 7,000 persons work with its 160 Indian suppliers.  Boeing is expanding its India footprint and leveraging manufacturing capability, talent, innovation and productivity to deliver a cost-efficient supply chain from India.

Meanwhile, the MoD has finalised a strategic partnership model under which select private firms will collaborate to build military platforms like submarines, fighter jets and choppers in India in partnership with foreign entities. The policy envisages the establishment of long-term strategic partnerships with Indian defence majors through a transparent and competitive process wherein they would tie up with global original equipment manufacturers to seek technology transfers for setting up domestic manufacturing infrastructure and supply chains.