Defence self-reliance Modi-style: Born in America, assembled in India
On June 19, a day before Prime Minister Narendra Modi left for his visit to the United States, an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, with its distinctive orange and grey markings, trundled out from the taxiway to the three-kilometer-long runway in Challekere in Karnataka’s Chitradurga, an Aeronautical Development Establishment test site.
As the Ground Control System, GCS, with its primary and secondary surveillance radars, the range control centre, with the mission video distribution and its display systems monitoring it, the operators guided the Medium Altitude Long Endurance Drone, Tapas, down the runway and it took off. Once it reached the proving area, the controls were handed over to the INS Subadhra, a patrol vessel in the deep seas off the Naval base in Karwar.
Journey of Tapas
Tapas was now in the hands of the Indian Navy, its naval version being tested for mission parameters. For 40 minutes, the naval personnel aboard put the Tapas through its paces, and once the mission parameters had been successfully established, handed it back to the GCS at Challakere which guided it to land (Tapas is reported to have auto-land capabilities).
It had been a long journey from 2011 when the DRDO was given the specifications of the UAV (taken largely from the American Predator) and ADE (Aeronautical Development Establishment) was tasked to produce it in co-operation with other DRDO establishments and Indian industries. It was a matter of time before it would be inducted.
Fewer than a week later, India, on June 23, had placed an order with America for 31 Reaper drones, the MQ-9B variant, from General Atomics. According to the joint statement, “The MQ-9Bs, which will be assembled in India, will enhance the ISR (intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) capabilities of India’s Amed Forces across domains. As part of this plan, General Atomics will also establish a Comprehensive Global MRO (Maintenance, Repair, Overhaul) facility in India to support India’s long-term goals to boost indigenous defense capabilities.”
According to an unidentified but “top defence ministry official”, media reports say, 15 would be for the Navy, and 8 each for the Army and Air Force. Further, the Indian facility set up under this arrangement would “help cater to other countries such as Australia and Japan as well”.
It can be duly noted that both these countries, along with the US and India, form the Quad, a strategic alignment to counter China. This cute bit of signalling aside, the more important question for Indian defence industry is the future of Tapas and exactly what kind of a hit this will take. This off-the-shelf, bulk buying could well have a deleterious effect on the indigenisation effort underway of the Tactical Aerial Advanced Surveillance – Beyond the Horizon – vehicle now for over a decade. Has the Tapas baby been thrown out along with the bath water?
It has happened before. Nishant, a tactical UAV specifically designed for the Indian Army with the ability to provide targets for artillery in the battle area, was being developed by the DRDO. This was when Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, who in 1992 established full diplomatic ties with Israel, breaking with tradition, reached out to Israel, and the Searcher 1 UAV, developed by the Israel Aerospace Industry during the 90s, sprung into view. The DRDO put up a stiff fight. In 1995, DRDO lost.
To placate the DRDO, the Army placed a small order for 12 Nishant systems. That was that. The initially projected requirement for the Army alone, given in 1991, was over 100 systems. Then more and more Israeli systems began arriving. DRDO was given a project with an even more ambitious goal – to indigenously develop – you guessed it – Tapas. The key word here is indigenous.
The idea of atmanirbharta, or self-reliance has evolved curiously. The best inside view comes from the DRDO. Even going by DRDO’s appreciation. Endeavours in Self Reliance, Defence Reseach 1983-2018, Principle Editor KG Narayanan, who headed the ADE and oversaw many of its projects, tracks the metamorphosis of the meretricious phrase.
Here is PM Jawaharlal Nehru in the Third Five-Year Plan: “The only viable meaning of self-reliance in an increasingly interdependent world is that we should be able to pay our way in our international transactions through our exports and normal inflow of capital, that we should do away with reliance on official aid which is never free of strings.”
The pertinent question for Tapas is: Can Tapas be exported, without meeting our own needs? Answer: It is a bit of a poppycock.
Here is Manmohan Singh, in 1997, introducing the nuance: “Self-reliance must remain the cardinal principle of our economic and social policies. But it has to be interpreted in a dynamic world” and suggested that “we can pursue greater self-reliance by creating inter-relationships and inter-dependence that enhance our bargaining power.”
Finally, as the book puts it: The inspirational goal of “Atmanirbhar Bharat” established by Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi in 2020 spells out the major goals for the defence sector-FDI limit in defence manufacturing to be increased, Make in India initiative to be promoted.
Modi left it all delightfully vague and undefined. He never answered the question: What if it is part manufactured or assembled in India? Does it make it self-reliant? At last, we have an answer in the joint statement with an entire American drone manufacturing unit about to be set up, but, hey, it’s made in India! No amount of producing, say, Tesla, in India, will make it any less American than it is, will it?
Here is Modi on atmanirbharta, wearing his heart on his sleeve, as it were, on November 4, 2021:
There is no clear indication of what kind of munitions the MQ-9B will deploy when it is finally born and what kind ‘bastardisation’ is on the cards. There is an Indian word for it, jugaad, not a bad thing per se. Necessity, the mother of invention. But it is safe to say that the biggies in the private sector must be lining up behind the scenes to pick up the MRO projects. All this, of course, shuts out indigenous development.
Matter of costs
There is also the matter of costs. All the figures in the media do not give a true picture. The MQ-9B comes with a very fancy price tag. The Ministry of Defence has thrown a protective umbrella over the process, stating that the price of $3072 million is only an estimate; therefore, speculative. Back in 2012, Time magazine estimated the actual unit cost of 120.8 million to be an underestimation but did not explain exactly how. Defence costs tend to be a shrouded affair.
One unit is four flying machines. Divide it and adjust for inflation and opportunity costs. Cost and time overruns are not peculiar to Indian defence labs alone. It is kind of universal. It is time to furnish the equation between estimates and ultimate unit costs: while defence acquisition estimates grow linearly, the unit costs grow exponentially. Defence, as we all know, whether it pertains to Bofors or Rafael, is serious business. If you ask DRDO insiders, they will say the ballpark figures for totally indigenous Tapas may well be about 35 percent cheaper than the Born-in-America, Assembled-in-India one. What is 35 percent of $3072 million? Go on, it is only speculation.
This is where we enter Alice in Wonderland kind of situation. The Indian Navy obviously is well aware of the Tapas developments. In February this year, at the Bangalore Air show, the Tapas provided live ground and air coverage. This it did from a slanted horizon angle from seven km away. It gave allround coverage both on scenes unfolding on the ground as well as the air.
Considering that was a technology demonstrator, it could be a loaded statement. I’m no expert but that could mean the Tapas’ on-board cameras could probably pick out Lashkar e Taiyaba’s Hafiz Sayeed or Jaish e Mohammed’s Masood Azhar from a crowd, say in Muzaffarabad or getting out of a car in Muridke, near Lahore, and count, for instance, the number of worry wrinkles on either of their foreheads, just as efficiently as the MQ-9B would. Poof! The DRDO even tweeted a brief clip. Prime Minister noted it and responded on Twitter with the expression, “Very Interesting.” That means he knew what was going on the Tapas front and the Indian Navy. Surely, even he needs a briefing now and then?
Yet, the Defence Acquisition Council, on June 15, four days before the Tapas – Indian Navy flight, on June 19, chaired by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh accorded the Acceptance Of Necessity for the 31 MQ-9Bs. This brings us to the ubiquitous Rafael kind of question when the Ministry of Defence famously is reported to have questioned the Prime Minister’s Office for conducting “parallel negotiations” on the French plane.
In the case of Tapas it could be Parallel Universe.
(V Sudarshan, a journalist, writes on foreign/strategic affairs and is the author most recently of Tuticorin: Adventures in Tamil Nadu’s Crime Capital, and Dead End: The Minister, the CBI and the Murder that Wasn’t.)
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