by S Raghotham

When Narendra Modi came to power in 2014 and announced the ‘Make in India’ program, India was abuzz with hope that the country’s industrialisation and manufacturing prowess would pick up quickly. Nowhere was this optimism so strong as it was in the private sector defence industry. More than five years later, the ‘Make in India’ program largely remains a failure, with an occasional success here and there.

In contrast, consider what got made in India in the defence, nuclear, missile, aeronautics and space sectors long before Modi, and how it was done and in what circumstances.

Nuclear Power 

India is today one of the world’s leading countries in nuclear research, in the ability to build nuclear power plants, and we are a nuclear weapons power. In 2012, Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US, wrote in Physics Today, “India has the most technically ambitious and innovative nuclear energy program in the world. The extent and functionality of its nuclear experimental facilities are matched only by those in Russia and are far ahead of what is left in the US.” How did this come about?

It happened because Jawaharlal Nehru and Homi Bhabha, the ‘father’ of India’s nuclear program, began planning and working towards establishing it even before independence. The Atomic Energy Department was established, a survey was conducted of the available nuclear materials and, by 1954, they had a plan for how to go about extracting the maximum energy out of India’s limited uranium and abundant thorium reserves. It is called the ‘three-stage nuclear program’, and that was what Hecker was referring to.

Nehru and Bhabha, with their contacts among the top Western scientists and government leaders, struck a series of partnerships – with the UK, Canada, the US, and later France and Russia. Even in those days when India faced a crushing shortage of funds, especially foreign currency, Bhabha would pick the brightest Indian minds and send them abroad to study and come back to contribute to India’s nuclear and science programs. Thus did almost every science leader of post-Independence India rise – from Raja Ramanna, who was later instrumental in making India a nuclear weapons power, to Abdul Kalam, and hundreds in between. India’s first research reactor, Apsara, was built in 1956, its first CANDU-type reactor in 1961, with British and Canadian help respectively. By the 1970s, with the Madras Atomic Power Station at Kalpakkam, India was able to build nuclear power plants on its own.

In 1974, when Indira Gandhi conducted the first atomic bomb test, sanctions were applied on India, all foreign partners withdrew cooperation, and the world’s strictest regimes of technology denial – the NSG and the MTCR – were formed to strangle India’s nuclear program.

France was to help India move to the second stage of the program to build breeder reactors, but it backed out. India did not give up. It took the challenge head-on and built the first research reactor of this generation (FBTR), commissioned it in 1985, and went through a horrendously difficult learning curve until the late 1990s.

Today, the Indian nuclear establishment can justifiably claim to be at forefront of breeder reactor technology. By the time Modi came to power in 2014, a 500-MW Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor had been built and has stood ready to be commissioned since at least 2015. Why does the Modi government seem uninterested in this? 

Missiles And Fighters

In 1983, Indira Gandhi embarked on the guided missile program that has since given India the Prithvi and Agni missiles. The missiles and their command and control systems were all developed from scratch, and amidst India’s poor economy at the time and foreign technology denial. Remember, India could not even obtain an Apple PowerPC or a Sun workstation in those days without bending US rules.

The Light Combat Aircraft was also thought of in 1983. In 1956, Nehru had invited German aircraft designer Kurt Tank to help build an indigenous supersonic fighter.

The HF-24 Marut was built and was in service by 1966, but the program withered away after Nehru’s death. About a 100 Maruts were built and saw service in the 1971 war, but were retired by 1980. In 1983, Indira Gandhi picked up the threads, but by then fighter aircraft had entered the fourth generation of technology. Electronics and software had come to be key to aircraft performance. With advances in computing, the world’s leading powers had moved on to designing aerodynamically unstable aircraft that required computational fluid dynamics (CFD) to keep them flying. India did not have any of the technologies of the modern fighter at the time.

The Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) was founded, and its first head was given a table and a chair to sit in a corner of the National Aeronautical Laboratory and work it all out. By 1998, the CFD software had been developed and India was on its way to developing a technology demonstrator of the LCA. It did so by 2001, Vajpayee christened it Tejas, and the program to develop the combat aircraft began in earnest.

The IAF is now flying the first iteration of the Tejas, and awaits Tejas Mk 2. The Modi government took nearly three years merely to decide whether to proceed with Tejas Mk 2 or not.