The coming of Age for Indian Defense Industry
2013 will mark a watershed year in the history of Indian defense industry.
First the indigenously built nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines Arihant was launched in August for sea trials, its reactor went critical a little later. The locally built aircraft carrier Vikrant, named after the now decommissioned 1971 war hero aircraft carrier, was launched this year. INS Vikramaditya, another refurbished carrier bought from Russia delayed by five years, was finally commissioned last month. And then on the missiles front Agni V propelled India into the big boys club.
The cherry on cake and probably the one with highest significance for Indian defense industry will now happen on 20th December when defense minister A.K Antony will ceremoniously hand over the home grown fighter aircraft Tejas to the IAF. Actually he will be handing over a “Release to Service Document (RSD)”, which specifies the capabilities that the aircraft has and which it has already demonstrated during a decade long flight testing regime. It will also mark the award of Initial Operational-2 clearance to Tejas.
Tejas will replace the Mig 21 supersonic aircraft. While Tejas is not a fighter aircraft comparable to the Sukhoi or other top fighter aircraft in the world it has huge significance for India and Indian defense industry. It is India’s first attempt to build a multirole fighter aircraft after the Marut program in early sixties. The decision to build the aircraft was taken in 1987 though the final go ahead was given at a later point of time. It was an ambitious take for a country which did not have the capability at that point to build even a car engine. And therefore on the way to build Tejas India had to set up a range of industries and research institutes which can contribute to the program. The era in which the program started even the private industry in India was not that strong to have helped the program and later when things did start to pick up India’s nuclear tests invited dozens of sanctions further delaying the programme.
The Light Combat Aircraft as it was known earlier was rechristened as Tejas by none other than India’s former PM A.B Vajpayee. Despite all the delays the program faced successive governments in the center did not let their support for this program die and now we have an aircraft which boasts of some of the most advanced technologies across any fighter aircraft in the world. Some of the technologies worth mentioning in Tejas are compound delta wing design, fly by wire, open architecture for computer avionics, digital cockpit and use of carbon composite materials in building the structure of the aircraft.
Of the critical technologies needed to be mastered for India to be able to design and build a “completely indigenous” fighter, two have been entirely successful: the development and manufacture of advanced carbon-fiber composite (CFC) structures, and a modern cockpit. The biggest failure of the program was however the failure to build the indigenous engine Kaveri for the aircraft. It is however now one of the lessons of the program that a program of such high technical difficulty should have been taken in a step by step fashion identifying which technologies we were capable to build at the start of the program.
Tejas has however given to India a base from where there will be no going back, work on Tejas Mark-2 has already started and a prototype of the same will be ready next year. Now that we have built the required industrial base for such a program coming up with upgraded versions of the aircraft will not take such a huge time as it did earlier. As the Air Force will start flying these machines the feedback on which areas to improve will start going back to the next phase of the program some of which must already be happening now. The biggest impact will however be on the commercial aspects and demonstrating capabilities to mass manufacture the aircraft.
However to achieve this govt will have to show a lot of change in its current attitude where the defense industry is a total public sector baby. Time has come when a greater participation of India’s own private industry to participate in the development and manufacturing of these technologies. Not only will it save huge amount of foreign reserves it also has huge employment generation capability. Setting up of defense SEZ’s, bringing more focus on “Make” rather than “Buy” should be the mantra of the government.
The forces also have to come to terms with providing the necessary support for such programs. I think Indian Navy is showing a huge shift in priorities to build indigenous and now Air Force and Army may also soon join the club. In this regard there is another program which needs mention and that is the indigenous built MBT (main battle tank) the Arjun.
I think there were many things similar in Arjun and Tejas; both got delayed by a huge amount of time. But now both of them have the potential to change India’s defense scene. While Tejas does not still compete with the best aircrafts in the world though systematically it can prove to be upgraded to a world class aircraft in the coming decade Arjun did prove its worth against none other than T-90’s of Russia.
In a battle of survival Arjun Mark 1 was put against the T-90’s, both were given a set of tasks and Arjun performed very well compared to T-90) The army has however still not shown its confidence in the tank due to its heavy weight putting forth operational obstacles in carrying out operations with Arjun. It was however strange that the Arjun were considered as too heavy and too wide. A comparison of the best tanks in the world like Abrams of US will show that they fall in the same weight category as Arjun with almost the same width. A little search on Abrams will tell you that they are carried across the world by Boeing C-17 Globemaster the same aircraft which India acquired this year. The Abrams were used in various wars in Afghanistan where the terrain of the land must have been same as at least on some place in India. T
The army has however thought otherwise. The DRDO has therefore gone back to work and soon sometime in next year we may hear the arrival of Arjun MBT Mark 2. The Arjun Mark II will have a total of 93 upgrades, including 13 major improvements. Arjun tank hull and turret has been modified to achieve the target weight of about 55 tons from 59-64 tons. According to recent reports, the newly modified 55-tonne Arjun Mk2 tanks have put up impressive performances in the final trials that commenced from early August 2013. Owing to the experience while designing and building the first version work on Arjun Mk-II was completed in two years.
Another similarity between the Arjun and Tejas is the lack of locally made engines. Focus should now be on being able to design, develop and manufacture engines for these platforms. An active participation by the private industry is the need of the hour for bringing out Indian defense industry to contribute to the defense and the economy of the country. Time is ripe for Indian defense industry to take its giant leap.