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A Bridge Too Far


The Indian Navy has asked the domestic industry to build home-made technology, something that appears to be an insurmountable challenge, says Pramod Kumar
PRAMOD KUMAR | Issue Dated: June 5, 2016, New Delhi
Tags : Make in India | Ajanta | Ellora | Jomrand Porpoise | B S Singh | an ex-Vice Admiral |

To fulfil the domestic demands, Indian Navy has a finalized a plan to acquire 100 futuristic defence-related cutting-edge technologies in the next 15 years to build up on the existing naval war fighting capabilities. On its very face value, the approach paper looks very impressive but how realistic will that be is a billion dollar question, and quite literally.

Futuristic technologies will cover naval missiles and guns, propulsion and power generation, surveillance and detection systems, futuristic torpedoes and direct energy weapons, submarines and anti-submarine warfare, naval aviation, network centric warfare and combat management systems segments under the Navy’s new 15 year prospective plan. According to current estimates, by 2017, India needs 200 warships and around 600 aerial assets, beside high range hypersonic and loitering missiles and laser weapons. Currently, India has only 138 warships and submarines, and close to 230 aerial assets.

A top navy official says, “We need to reduce the import content for our sensors and weapons; we actually need high range hypersonic and loitering missiles and laser directed energy weapons.” Future naval technologies will be built domestically under the ‘Make in India’ and ‘indigenisation’ categories.

The Make in India policy will encourage foreign defence companies to gorge collaborations with Indian companies, to set up manufacturing facilities for transfer and absorption of cutting-edge manufacturing-technology. This will also boost jobs and skill development in the country. At least that is what it intends to do.

The indigenisation policy is largely meant for domestic defence companies to develop products that are currently sourced through imports. However, analysts are divided on whether or not this will work.

According to an expert, “It is true that where weapons and sensors and their associated software suites are concerned, there has been sub-optimal indigenisation. However, it is not all a gloom and doom story either — especially where sensor-suites are concerned.” Several electronic warfare suites including Ajanta, Ellora, Jomrand Porpoise, all of which are fitted on the Navy’s latest frontline surface, airborne and subsurface combatants, and which are designed to detect the presence of enemy combatants without disclosing one’s position or identity, are unqualified success stories. Likewise, Indian Navy’s advanced underwater-sensors including Aposh, Humsang and Ushus family of sonars are a huge success.

B S Singh, an ex-Vice Admiral, says, “In the future, high definition radars, sonars, infra-red seeker and electronic warfare suites will be required. There are R&D labs and production agencies, including those in public and private sectors, already supplying present versions of these systems. These can graduate to the newer versions, both through collaborations as well as by indigenous effort.”

“127mm guns and anti-missile guns (Vulcan Phalanx type), extended range and guided munitions would also be required immediately. To start with, these would need to be built under license. The licence agreement should have suitable buyback clauses for components, so as to generate volumes for indigenous production,” he adds.

Singh further argues, “It is equally true that the future cannot be assured by resting upon past laurels. The pathetically small amounts of money that is spent on R&D — whether by government or by private industry.” To build future naval war fighting capabilities, the Navy will eventually need to acquire disruptive technologies including magnetic rail guns and kinetic energy projectiles, laser-directed weapons, weapon-control systems, and communication suites, hypersonic missiles and space planes, blue-green laser for submarine detection, directed-energy weapons, autonomous advanced drones and unmanned combat vehicles that are truly autonomous, and fusion based power sources.

“However aviation-based R&D in India has been particularly poorly funded and overseen. The only way that new naval aviation assets — such as carrier-borne fixed-wing aircraft, ship-borne multi-role rotary-wing aircraft, ship/carrier-launched-and-recovered UAVs and UCAVs can be meaningfully built in India is through the Make in India program,” Singh says.

As regards India's network centric warfare capabilities, the building blocks are in place; data links are produced indigenously, and a naval communication satellite is also in place. The capability can be built upon further. Foreign collaborations may be resorted to for catching up with global standards.

According to another expert, “The Indian Navy will also require directed energy weapons and laser weapon systems. The short-term answer is to exploit the potential of the ‘Make in India’ policy initiative. The long-term answer is to invest very heavily in highly-paying R&D. Even the Navy’s own minimal R&D programmes undertaken through the deputing of bright and technically qualified naval officers to Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) are neither owned nor driven by the war fighting branches of the Navy, but by technical support echelons. As a result, a very great opportunity is being regularly lost.”

“Future submarine technologies of relevance and interest to the Navy would include propulsion-technologies (a judicious mix between nuclear-powered and conventionally-propelled submarines, since the latter are far more useful in littoral operations), Air Independent Propulsion as well as super-activating air-bubble propulsion-enhancement, stealth technologies incorporating high levels of acoustic-silencing, stealthy-communication technologies that exploit long-range VLF capability as well as short-range laser-based and satellite-enabled communication capability, targeting and cooperative engagement technologies, weapon technologies incorporating cruise and ballistic missiles capable of underwater launch, as well as long-range, high-speed torpedoes,” Singh explains. 

The ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has decided in principle that all future sea-based platforms including submarines, and aircraft carriers will be made in India. The priority would be to forge tie-ups with Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) on Government to Government basis involving Indian domestic companies, which will then manufacture the contracted systems in India.

Under the “Make in India” initiative of Modi, it has also been decided in principle that the Indian Navy will not procure aircraft carriers, submarines, destroyers, frigates, corvettes, offshore petrol vessels, petrol vessels, amphibious warfare vessels, large replenishment tankers, minesweeper vessels, survey vessels and training vessels from overseas companies in the future.

However, the Indian Navy will be heavily dependent on critical production technology, weaponry, radars and missiles from overseas or foreign technology partnerships. India will spend over $60 billion in the next 15 years on upgrades and replacement of these assets.Having said that, India has a history of delays and cost overruns in warship building. As of now, while the state-owned shipyards have virtually full order bookings, the private shipyards are starved of orders.

On the other hand, the domestic private sector companies are reluctant to take a big foot forward in setting up the infrastructure in the defence sector and joining hands with the OEMs.

So some critical quarters have started commenting that the “Make in India” campaign is overextended and overhyped, and is slow in showing on the ground. The impression apparently is growing that the “Make in India” policy is technically misleading because currently there is no distinct category in the Defence Procurement Procedures (DPP) for the said “Make in India” category.

From amongst the categories currently specified in DPP, the one which is titled “Make (India)” is meant for weapon projects to be manufactured by only domestic companies from the design to the development and production stage in which the government funds up to 80 percent of the development costs. Projects under this category are reserved for hi-tech systems. So far, not a single project has been executed in this category. The second category is “Buy and Make (India)” category under which tenders are given only to domestic companies who can then tie-up with overseas companies and transfer technology. This category has seen a major jump in terms of floating of “Request for Information (RFI)” and “Request for Proposal” documents, which are sent only to the domestic companies. The reality is that not a single project has been contracted so far.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017