The operational flight of the Tejas, the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft, has been met with muted applause. New Delhi flags off the same 'Made in India' piece of defence equipment again and again. Every defence minister has declared the Arjun tank ready for deployment. The Tejas has passed its initial operational clearance and will hope to receive final operational clearance in the next 18 months. Even after that, much of its avionics and electronics will still have to be sorted out. The expectation is that it will be a pillar of the military system only a decade more from now. Another source of cynicism is the fact that chunks of the Tejas, including the engine, are imported.
There are many sound arguments as to why India should be spending billions to develop a Tejas fighter, an Arjun tank and a host of variously named missiles. They are not, however, the ones that are being touted in public. Self-reliance in defence, in the sense of being able to wholly manufacture all the key defence platforms, is a myth. It is simply impossible to master all the components and technologies, let alone pay for the research and development costs, of even a single fighter airplane. Even the US imports bits and pieces of its arsenal. Self-reliance in defence needs to be redefined. What it should mean is the development of homegrown manufacturing and technological abilities that ensure that India can be an essential part of various global defence supply chains. It is important that these capacities should have both civilian and defence spin-offs.
Self-reliance also means to be able to use diplomacy to become embedded in global security arrangements that ensure that no country will be in a position to sanction or deny India essential defence equipment. Both of these are feasible thanks to India's present economic stature. But they can only be accomplished if a mindset that treats foreign firms as a necessary evil and gives lip service to private Indian manufacturers is done away with. This will not be easy — the ministry of defence is seen as among New Delhi's more fossilised bureaucracies. India's defence equipment capability should be measured in terms of the quality of its machine tools industry, its precision engineering capability and its ability to generate the sort of software that lies at the heart of all modern defence equipment. If the best fighters around the world depend on even a single Indian component to perform, the country will have done more to ensure the safety of its arms supplies than any aircraft and tank photo opportunities.