As on some of his earlier foreign trips, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised Israel, the host country, rich contracts for military hardware, in this case for joint development of medium range and long range surface-to-air missiles (MRSAMs and LRSAMs), and for off-the-shelf purchase of the Israeli Spyder Quick Reaction SAM (QRSAM) for the army.
Why do these deals stick in the throat? The Modi government approved them earlier this year even though it knew the indigenous QRSAM, for instance, was on track and would be tested soon. Both its first test firing on June 4 and the second, pointedly, on July 3, the day Modi left for Israel, went off without a hitch. A third successful test-firing and this locally made missile would be ready for series production and induction. Acting Defence Minister Arun Jaitley praised DRDO for the successful tests, but didn’t take the next, logical, step — scrapping the contract for the Spyder that would have saved the country in excess of $2-3 billion, and given a fillip to the local armaments design and development efforts at the heart of Modi’s flagship Make in India programme.
There was no need to go to Israel for 500 units each of MRSAMs and LRSAMs either. The Akash short range missile is already operational with the Indian Air Force. True, this missile’s performance is deficient owing to a sub-par Russian radar seeker, but there’s little else wrong with it. So, a sensible solution would have been for the indigenous Akash project to be tasked with developing scaled-up medium and long range versions of the missile within the timeline given to the Israelis. A more narrowly defined deal with Tel Aviv to co-develop a radar-seeker for the Akash missiles could then have been signed at a fraction of the $5-7 billion cost of MRSAM-LRSAM.
The Israeli contracts to win goodwill are like the PM’s announcement in April 2015 in Paris to buy 36 Rafale combat aircraft. These are too few in number to have any sustained impact in war and too costly not to divert scarce funds from the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), which is technologically the same as the 4.5 generation Rafale. But because it is an Indian design, it can spawn a whole bunch of air force and naval variants in the future.
India’s purchase of the Rafale prevented the French company, Dassault Avions, from closing down its combat aircraft development complex, because until then no country had bought this inordinately expensive fighter plane. The Indian contract will fetch France Rs 1,750 crore per Rafale, for a minimum payout by India of Rs 63,000 crore.
Incidentally, this is about the cost of raising 17 Corps, the army’s first large offensive mountain warfare formation which Jaitley, wearing his finance minister’s hat, had earlier rejected as unaffordable. Now the Chinese are acting up in the Doklam area and India, as ever, is bereft of forces to take the fight to the PLA on the Tibetan Plateau.
And while in Washington, Modi promised US President Donald J. Trump consideration of the 1970s vintage F-16 fighter plane for assembly in India. Lockheed Martin will make billions of dollars from shifting the worn out F-16 production line to India. The F-16 has no realistic chance if the IAF has any say in the decision, but the Saab Gripen is likely to get in as the single engine aircraft choice of the IAF, again at the expense of the Tejas LCA.
Modi is not the first prime minister to be profligate with the country’s resources. In 1995-96, the Congress PM, P.V. Narasimha Rao, rescued the Sukhoi Bureau and manufacturing plant in Irkutsk from shuttering with a generous subvention of Rs 6,000 crore. In return, he did not contractually demand Intellectual Property Rights for the Su-30 technologies developed there, or that Sukhoi share the design work load with Indian aircraft designers in the Aeronautical Development Agency in Bangalore, who created the LCA, or that technology be fully transferred, including source codes, to Indian agencies, or anything else remotely to advance India’s defence industrial capability.
Between an imports-fixated Indian military and an Indian government that seems incapable of thinking straight, the country is fated to remain an arms dependency. Karnad is professor for National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, and author most recently of ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)