The tragic crash of the latest Saras aircraft prototype last week will probably mean that the National Aerospace Laboratories will not see its indigenous air transport plane certified until 2012 at the earliest. The Indian Air Force, the airplane’s main customer, will have to wait a little bit longer. The Saras tragedy provides an opportunity to raise questions about the traditional mindset that continues to underlie most government aerospace and defence projects. Their overriding ideology has been to ensure India does not depend on external sources for crucial bits and pieces of its national security machinery. This made sense given the decades of sanctions and arms embargoes India faced from the 1950s onwards.
But this dogma needs to be reconsidered. First, full indigenisation is an impossibility given the electronic and engineering complexity of modern weaponry. The Dhruv Advanced light helicopter has a foreign-made radar, gearboxes and avionics. The never-ending tale of the Arjun tank is one of increasing, not decreasing, numbers of imported components. The truth is that no one, including the United States, can afford to master all the technologies and pay to make all the parts of today’s arms and airplanes. Second, India’s geopolitical circumstances today make sanctions highly unlikely. The Indo-US nuclear deal has made dual-use technology much more accessible. India carries so much more heft globally and is such an important player in the arms business, that it is now unthinkable that it could be at the receiving end of a sustainable arms embargo. Finally, India’s chances of having a competitive and innovative defence and aerospace industry really lie in a trijuncture of government laboratories, the private sector and foreign players.
At present, only the first leg of this tripod functions. The Indian private sector rightly avoids the Ministry of Defence because its procurement policy is opaque, tortuous and whimsical. The private sector will not invest in research in a sector that has only one uncertain buyer. This is a constraint even in the US, which is why Washington uses its own funds to cover the initial risks of its private defence industries. The lip service paid to the private sector and the suspicion regarding foreign firms will have to be done along with if India is to go beyond its present raft of stuttering indigenous arms and airplane projects.