It is widely perceived that state-owned Indian defence public sector units (DPSUs) have been deficient in meeting ever-growing demands of the armed and security forces. Indian military-scientific-industrial-complex (MSIC), built and nurtured over long period of time—even pre-dating Independence—has thus far been presented as a story of failure, leading the state to devote substantial resources for military imports. In fact, this has happened to such an extent that India is dubbed as one of the top five importers of arms and, as a corollary, “a weapons merchants’ paradise”. This is not only problematic, but also worrisome for the state and its MSIC stakeholders.
In the world of arms dynamics, perceptions are created and nurtured by a carefully crafted approach as a defining factor, primarily pursued by giant arms merchants and backed by their respective states, to downplay the MSIC scenario of a target recipient country so that the supplier will always have an upper hand in a supplier-recipient relationship. The League of Nations’ scathing report (in 1920) dwelt upon the role of private arms suppliers in fermenting war scenario in target countries through media and related sources, and thus making the war participants to depend on them. That this let them grab a slice of recipients’ arms markets and eventually make huge financial gains is fairly known but rarely realised by states.
Is India a victim of such a perception-led strategy, pursued by suppliers sitting elsewhere? The answer is “probably yes”, with perceptional evidences. It is well known that among the equipment requirements by India, military aerospace stands at the top, primarily because of high technological quality (and thus a higher price tag) rather than quantity, in contrast to land-based or naval systems.
Consider this: more than 400 military aircraft (differently configured fighters for IAF and some for Navy aircraft carriers, transport assets for all services, reconnaissance and surveillance systems across services), nearly 1,200 helicopters (combat, transport, surveillance, etc, with different sizes and configurations like heavy lift, medium lift, lightweight, etc) and related aerospace infrastructure (airfield and related infrastructural and operational necessities) are to be procured at a conservative estimate of `6 lakh crore in the next ten-odd years. It is obvious that the quantitative increase in requirements due to delayed decisions will entail corresponding escalations in financial investments. If evidence for the last ten years of military aerospace acquisition projects is of any indication, there are reasons for the state to worry.
It is in this context that Hindustan Aeronautics Limited’s (HAL) role needs to be evaluated. HAL’s record in manufacturing and delivery of aerospace systems has often times been negatively portrayed. Its indigenous attempts in Tejas, Dhruva and other systems have been questioned time and again. Its larger industrial capacities have been doubted while value for money aspects of its products are questioned as well.
However, some of its positives have been overlooked, often deliberately, which could be a by-product of consistent negative perception building by its detractors and competitors. Consider these: a) HAL’s assembly, manufacturing and delivery of Su-30 MKI or MI series helicopters has been praiseworthy; b) its delivery of Tejas (8 delivered, 8 in the next one year and 4 trainers concurrently) are in the initial operational clearance (IOC) status; c) future delivery of additional 20 Tejas (in the same pattern of 8 plus 8 with 4 trainers) is already scheduled (it is waiting for final operational clearance from the designated agency); d) helicopter delivery record is reasonably good; and last but not the least, e) its nomination for 83 Tejas Mark IA (for which it has already responded to the RFP by the IAF) is on track. What frustrates HAL is inordinate delays in contract approval as well as clearances (both IOC and FOC for Tejas have been delayed, the blame for which lies elsewhere). Second, large assembly lines for fighter manufacturing will enable HAL to double its capacity from 8 to 16 aircraft per year.
In the mean time, HAL’s future order book seems uncertain, unless it gets large orders from the overall basket of IAF requirements. This is likely to impact its share value (HAL got listed in the stock market recently) and investors questioning its market value. At the same time, inter-government agreements like 36 Rafale or future selection of 110 MMRCA fighters or 100-plus helicopter contracts for Navy are unlikely to go to its kitty. Future contracts could be grabbed by foreign suppliers through ‘buy global’/’strategic considerations’ or through JVs with Indian companies like Reliance-Dassault or Adani-SAAB. It may thus be presumed that well-designed perception management by giant arms suppliers could be at work silently over a period of time for such a scenario.
HAL appears to be sandwiched between politics of designers (Aeronautial Development Agency, under DRDO), end-users (IAF, air arms of Army and Navy), decision-makers (Parliament, the Union government and organs like the defence ministry), media, and reality distortion attempts by large arms merchants. The state and engaged citizenry can only act as saviours in this scenario.
The writer is a New Delhi-based strategic affairs analyst.