The armed forces have been demanding new light utility choppers for over 15 years to replace their Cheetah and Chetak fleets

NEW DELHI: None of the major ‘Make in India’ projects in the defence arena, ranging from new-generation stealth submarines, minesweepers and light utility helicopters to infantry combat vehicles, transport aircraft and fighter jets, have actually taken off in the last six years.

These long-pending projects, collectively worth over Rs 3.5 lakh crore, are either stuck or still meandering through different stages, without the final contracts to launch production being inked. The relatively new project to manufacture around 7,50,000 Kalashnikov AK-203 assault rifles in a joint venture with Russia at the Korwa ordnance factory in UP, in fact, is the one poised to kick off first.

TOI in October 2017 had done a stock-taking of six mega Make in India projects to find that bureaucratic bottlenecks, long-winded procedures, commercial and technical wranglings, coupled with lack of requisite political push and follow-through, continued to stymie their launch.

Two years later, the story more or less remains the same for seven major projects (see graphic). India since then has scrapped the massive fifth-generation fighter aircraft project with Russia in favour of the indigenous advanced medium combat aircraft (AMCA) project, as was reported by TOI earlier.

The defence ministry says several measures have been taken to promote indigenous defence production, which include revisions in the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) and FDI policy, simplification of “Make” procedures and offset guidelines, notification of the “strategic partnership (SP)” model and the decision to set up two defence industrial corridors in Tamil Nadu and UP.

“There is a big push to boost indigenous defence production but it will take time to fructify on the ground. Some projects are about to take off. The contract for the AK-203 rifles should be inked by early next year after some delay since the JV with Russia was set up,” said a senior official.

“Similarly, it took a long time to conclude the price negotiations for the TATA-Airbus project to make 56 C-295 aircraft because it was a single-vendor situation but the case will now go to the Cabinet Committee on Security for clearance,” he added.

But much more clearly needs to be done to rid India of the embarrassing and strategically-vulnerable position of being the world’s largest arms importer. Many insiders contend the much-touted SP policy to boost the role of Indian companies in production of new-generation weapon systems in collaboration with global armament majors, in fact, has only added further to the delays in finalising and executing projects.

The armed forces, for instance, have been demanding new light utility choppers for over 15 years to replace their obsolete single-engine Cheetah and Chetak fleets, which have been dogged by a high crash rate and serviceability problems.

Under the SP policy, the first project will be the Navy’s quest for 111 armed, twin-engine utility choppers at a cost of over Rs 21,000 crore. But just as four Indian firms (TATA, Adani, Mahindra Defence and Bharat Forge) and three foreign manufacturers (Airbus, Kamov and Lockheed Martin-Sikorsky) were recently shortlisted, defence PSU Hindustan Aeronautics has sounded the alarm over it not being considered for the helicopter project.

Similarly, the Navy’s case for six new stealth diesel-electric submarines, which was first approved in November 2007 at a cost of over Rs 50,000 crore, is also nowhere near finalisation under the SP model.

Take another project. India and Russia had inked the inter-governmental agreement to manufacture 200 Kamov-226T light-utility helicopters for over $1 billion in December 2015. But it is stuck in the technical evaluation stage over the “low level of indigenisation” being offered by Russia, say sources.

This much-delayed project for the twin-engine light utility helicopters is considered crucial because India’s endeavour to buy 197 such choppers from abroad has been scrapped three times over the last decade due to corruption allegations and technical deviations.