The cost of IAC-1 is not far above Modi govt's expenditure on Rajpath's refurbishment. So the question is — what is of greater importance to India, beauty or security?

by Manvendra Singh

National aerospace and maritime security received some positive news in the past few days even as personal anxieties on a Punjab highway dominated India’s talk time. Events on an overbridge on the Bhatinda-Ferozepur highway became the cynosure of national attention since 5 January when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s convoy was halted by a perceived security breach. That, unfortunately, overshadowed a significant milestone far away in the Arabian Sea when the Indigenous Aircraft Carrier – 1 set sail for another complex set of sea trials. There was also some light shed on the Light Combat Aircraft Tejas, and its variants.

To be christened Vikrant upon induction, IAC-1 has now begun its third round of trials at sea. Developed by the outstanding Directorate of Naval Design, the 40,000-ton aircraft carrier is the largest ship built in India and is certain to have a significant impact on national maritime security. But for it to fulfil its fullest potential, IAC-1 will have to be, first, joined by another, larger aircraft carrier, and second, be flying indigenously developed aircraft, fixed-wing and rotary. Both conditions are not beyond the realms of reality, but require greater attention than the episodic concerns for Indian defence.

Threat of China, India’s Cost Concerns

One of the enduring debates in the defence airwaves has been the question of the ‘third’ aircraft carrier, joining INS Vikramaditya, and INS Vikrant, once it is commissioned. Even as the Navy has been asking for the ‘third’ carrier, studies commissioned by specialist on the Indian Ocean region have also highlighted this shortfall. The severity of the problem is highlighted through the extraordinary progress made by Communist China’s naval programme. From a coastal force not long ago, it is on the cusp of becoming a truly oceanic combatant service, now even with a base at Djibouti, on the mouth of the Arabian Sea.

The domestic argument against the ‘third’ carrier is, as always, costs involved. Supposed to be a larger vessel, and with a flat deck rather than a catapult launch system for fixed-wing aircraft, it would obviously cost more than the IAC-1 under development now. And since the cost of IAC-1 is not too far above what India is spending on the refurbishment of New Delhi’s Rajpath and its environs, it really begs the question — what is of greater importance to the country, beauty or security? Given the air-land military imbalance between India and Communist China, it was always assumed the answer would result in greater outlay for maritime capabilities.

There is, however, the simple logic of investing in greater indigenous research and development. Over time such investments bear greater returns as the knowledge base becomes ever larger. This is as true for low-end items as it is for the pinnacle of technologies, as in aerospace capabilities. And progress in the long-awaited Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) TEJAS was recently announced by R Madhavan, the chairman and managing director of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). He declared that delivery of all 10 Final Operational Clearance aircraft will be done in 2022, provided Israel supplies some key components. Supply chain problems obviously have an adverse impact on domestic defence programs.

Greater Dynamism In R&D Needed

Cost and time overruns in defence programmes are common worldwide, but in India’s case they acquire legendary proportions, because almost all of the indigenous research and development (R&D) is under the control of enormous state institutions. And then the perennial problem of extensive supply chains made worse by the Wuhan virus, so delays are obvious. Tesla, the electric vehicle manufacturer, seemed better prepared for all of those challenges than its enormous competitors for fairly simple reasons, and some of those lessons could certainly be useful for domestic Indian defence capabilities. Tesla essentially side-stepped the computer chip shortage that struck global automobile manufacturers by its ‘superior command of technology and its own chain’.

HAL, the aviation monopoly, has a decision-making system that doesn’t allow for flexibility at such critical times. As a result, delays have become ever longer. But the technology is now within sight, and must not be let loose. Integrating all that knowledge to enhance aviation platforms is essential for the IAC-1, and its follow-up carrier if funded, to fulfil their operational capabilities. But for that to happen, greater dynamism is required in defence R&D, and decision making.

Whether it is the TEJAS or IAC-1, greater participation of dynamic domestic partners, with access to ‘superior command of technology’ and their ‘own chain’ can certainly make indigenous defence R&D more efficient, cheaper, and lead to greater speed of productivity. All of which India needs desperately for it to handle the threat posed by Communist China. HAL and the shipyards involved must be encouraged to increase Indian industry’s role in enhancing design and production capabilities. Only when indigenously designed and developed aircraft fly off the decks of Indian aircraft carriers can it truly be said that a breach is unlikely in the country’s security.

Manvendra Singh is a Congress leader and Editor-in-Chief of Defence & Security Alert