Any move to reconsider the air forces Avro replacement decision will damage the private sectors chances of participating in defence manufacture.
Energising an indigenous private defence industry requires three fundamental steps. Tae Ming Cheung,an authority on the rise of the Chinese aviation industry,has characterised them as creative adaptation followed by innovation of three types: incremental,architectural and,finally,disruptive. The Chinese are almost at the last stage with their J-20 fighter while we,despite seven decades of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL),are barely at the first. To force a change,the Indian bureaucracy,both civil and military,and the political hierarchy gathered the will to break from the past and use the chance offered by the planned replacement of the Avro,the workhorse of the IAFs aircraft transport fleet.
The Defence Procurement Procedure mandates that in the event of a Buy (from abroad) and Make (in India) categorisation of equipment,the Department of Defence Production (DDP) would nominate the Indian production agency (IPA) to take on the transfer-of-technology (ToT). Theoretically,the IPA can be a private player but a dispensation has always been made in favour of a Defence PSU (DPSU),with a tail clear attitude to avoid the three Cs the CAG,CBI and CVC. The result,which is no state secret,is that
DPSUs and ordnance factories have orders pending for 10 years,if not for two decades ahead.
HAL is a lead runner among these laggards,and to get away from its clutches (the word used in government circles),all stakeholders the IAF,the ministry of defence,MoD (Finance),DRDO and even the DDP that oversees HAL agreed,after almost two years of discussion,that to galvanise the private aeronautical industry,the Avro replacement project was a godsend. Having already selected the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA),C-17,C-130,Apache,the Mi-17V5 and Chinook helicopters,there was going to be no new induction for the next two decades. So why miss the last chance to energise the private industry through the Avro replacement route? In any case,if HAL were made the IPA,given its track record,the project would be doomed.
This writer,as part of the tri-service acquisition process,saw how progressive the Indian bureaucracy can be when it wants to. A well-thought-out decision was taken that the Avro would be replaced through the process of asking a foreign manufacturer to choose an Indian partner,based on criteria laid down by the government. The rationale was that technology would get transferred to a vibrant Indian private entity whose foundation in making transport aircraft would then be laid. Before confirming the decision,the Defence Acquisition Council formed two high level committees the first to check the correctness of the proposed novel route (headed by the DRDO chief) and the other (headed by an additional secretary) to check the criteria for selecting the IPA. There was no disagreement; in fact,there permeated a feeling of the tide being turned in favour of India. The request for proposal was floated to eight foreign vendors. Predictably,the DPSU lobby has struck back,as evident from the request of the heavy industries minister,Praful Patel,to the defence minister,requesting a re-look at the proposed pathbreaking route.
The request is the proverbial spanner in the works and an ill-advised attempt at not letting what the prime minister called the Indian animal spirit unleash itself. On one hand,the defence minister had warned DPSUs two months ago to perform or perish. On the other,he has agreed to reconsider a decision that would be a gamechanger and kickstart the process of making private industry a partner in Indias aviation manufacturing sector. Given their organisational culture,DPSUs will not perform and given their trade unions clout,they will not perish what would continue to whither would be Indias strategic autonomy in the absence of a truly Indian defence industrial base.
Ever wondered why a giant India has bought the Bofors gun from a small Sweden,the Pilatus PC-7 basic trainer aircraft from an even smaller Switzerland,and is going to buy the humble rifle for the jawan from abroad? The reason can be found in history and in the absolute control exercised by the rulers of the day in armament manufacture. In the Mughal era,as Paul Kennedy wrote in his The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,Indian rulers …had less incentive to improve such weapons (cannons) once their authority had been established. But Europe continued its free enterprise model and its private armament industry innovated and flourished,selling its wares to whoever could pay more.
The Avro proposal,as envisaged in the collective wisdom of government and private experts,is a chance begging to be grabbed. If we opt out now,our private industry,vibrant in other fields,will never take root in the defence sector.
The writer,a retired air vice marshal,is a distinguished fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies,Delhi. Views are personal.