The Challenge of Obsolescence
We were fortunate that the seeds of a self-reliant blue water Navy were sown by our farsighted predecessors when they embarked on the brave venture of undertaking warship construction in India four decades ago. Since then, our shipyards have done very well to have delivered more than 85 ships and submarines, many of Indian design, to the IN.
While the hull and even the propulsion machinery of a warship is meant to last for 2-3 decades, what naval planners dread most is the onset of obsolescence of weapon systems as soon as the ship is launched. This is a very real challenge because a ship may take anything between 6-8 years to construct (in Indian conditions), and since the imported weapons/sensors when nominated for fitment were already in service, they would be 10-15 years (or more) old by the time the ship becomes operational. Thus when the ship completes just half her life, the on-board systems are already over 25 years old and rapidly losing efficacy against contemporary threats.
The latest warship delivered to the navy, INS Beas, is stated to be 85% indigenous in content and this is indeed heartening news. But we must face the stark reality that the remaining 15% consists of weapons, sensors and combat management systems, which define the fighting potential of the ship. These systems not only constitute the most expensive component of a warship, but are also most susceptible to obsolescence and have so far remained beyond the capability of DRDO as well as the Defence PSUs to design or produce.
It is in a desperate effort to beat obsolescence that the Staff Qualitative Requirements (SQRs) are often pitched at levels considered ‘unrealistic’, and then not frozen till as late as possible. This has been termed as the classic struggle between what is termed the ‘good enough’ and the ‘best’.
Dependent as we have been, to a very large extent, on various constituents of the former USSR, our shipbuilding endeavours have remained hostage to their opaque, unresponsive and sluggish system of negotiations, contract and supply. This reliance introduces an element of grave uncertainty into the construction schedules and is the single most common cause for cascading time and cost overruns that we have faced in our recent shipbuilding programmes. While the MoF may well heap scorn on NHQ and MoD for what it considers ‘poor programme management’, they completely overlook the courageous leap of faith that the navy has taken by shunning the easier import option and going down the thorny road of indigenous warship design and construction.
Alleviation of this problem has been engaging the attention of the navy for a considerable period, and certain measures have been evolved to reduce its impact. For one, a hard decision had to be taken that the SQRs should be made more realistic, so as to accept current systems, which are ‘good enough’ to counter extant threats. As a corollary, on the day a unit (ship, submarine or aircraft) enters service, it would be assigned a date for a mid-life update or MLU a decade or more down the road. This period would permit adequate time for the ‘best’ contemporary systems to be developed and made available for the MLU.
The ultimate and the only acceptable solution is, of course, to become self-reliant and design our own systems, and that constitutes the next challenge.
The Hurdles to Self-reliance
If there is one lesson that the Indian armed forces should have learnt during the past few decades, it is about the hazards and pitfalls of depending on foreign sources for defence hardware (which invariably comes with embedded software). The days of ‘friendship prices’ are now well behind us, and no matter what the source, we are paying top dollar for everything that we buy in the ruthless international arms bazaar. We must remain acutely conscious of the fact that every time we contract a weapon system or platform of foreign origin, we compromise a little bit of our security because:
- We become dependant on a foreign power for yet one more combat system/platform for its complete life cycle.
- The equipment manufacturer will progressively keep hiking the price of spare parts and overhauls without any rationale or explanation.
- The availability of product support (including spares) will keep declining, till it begins to affect our combat readiness.
- Unless adroitly negotiated in advance, the software source codes will be kept out of our reach to hamper in-house repairs.
Apart from all these we have now repeatedly been witness to the disheartening spectacle of overseas defence purchases being used as political boomerangs and bringing the acquisition process to a grinding halt; thereby affecting the combat capability of the armed forces.
The obvious panacea for this serious challenge is to encourage our indigenous R&D as well as industry and to become self-reliant as soon as we can. The navy’s recently established Directorate of Indigenisation has made a good start by focusing on the local production of systems and sub-systems of the Scorpene and the aircraft carrier projects and the response from the industry has been most encouraging. But the path of self-reliance is neither easy nor free of pitfalls, as we have learnt from experience.
Over the years, our DPSUs have been manufacturing many systems under so called ‘technology transfer’ agreements with foreign firms, but these have resulted only in transfer of ‘screwdriver technology’ and the assembly of CKD or SKD kits, with little or no value addition. That is the reason one has rarely heard of a DPSU producing an improved version of a product after paying huge sums for transfer of technology.
At the other end of the spectrum, the DRDO has often struggled for years at great expense to ‘reinvent the wheel’ when technology could have been acquired quickly and more economically from other sources. Time overruns and performance shortfalls in many of our indigenous programmes have led to upsets in our force planning process and created operational voids.
In a recent path-breaking initiative the navy and DRDO have signed a tripartite agreement with Israeli industry for the joint development by Indian and Israeli scientists, and subsequent co-production of a futuristic weapon system for our destroyers of Project-15A. The development cycle of the systems and delivery schedule of the system is planned to coincide so that these front-line ships would be commissioned with a weapon system, which is contemporary, and state-of-the-art worldwide.
An inherent conflict of interest arises from the fact that the DRDO tends to devote much greater resources to technology development and demonstration than to the urgent operational needs of the armed forces. This has often resulted in a mismatch between our critical needs and the priorities of DRDO; driving us towards the import option. There is obviously a need for much better alignment between the aims and objectives of DRDO and the operational missions of the armed forces. In 2004, the navy had drawn up, mainly for the benefit of DRDO, a 20-year Roadmap attempting to forecast the technology requirements that its operational commitments would demand in all three dimensions of maritime warfare. It would be appropriate for the DRDO to take such requirements into account and plan its budget outlay in consultation with the Service HQs.
While the media has recently had a field day lambasting the DRDO (using an equal mix of hyperbole and facts), the navy has traditionally maintained a symbiotic relationship with this organization through the three dedicated ‘Naval’ laboratories to immense mutual benefit. The fact that today the navy deploys DRDO designed sonars, radars, torpedoes, mines, ESM, ECM and communication systems, is ample proof of this. We are also funding and supporting the development of the LCA (Navy). However, we have only scratched the surface of the problem and have considerable ground to cover in the arena of self-reliance.
In this context we need to clearly understand that India’s claim to being a great power or an industrialized nation one day, will ring hollow unless we can acquire the competence to design and build our own ships, submarines, fighters, tanks, missiles and satellites etc. We also need to accept the likelihood that the first attempt at each of these undertakings may be flawed or even a failure. But had we never attempted to produce a fourth generation fly-by-wire fighter, an advanced light helicopter, a main battle tank or an intermediate range ballistic missile (or had we abandoned the projects half-way) it is unlikely that we could have bridged the huge resulting technology gap ever thereafter.
Therefore, a sensible and pragmatic option for the Service HQs today may be to accept the Tejas, Dhruv, Arjun and Agni in their present versions (with certain shortcomings) and dub them ‘Mark I’. Then the Services should demand that the DRDO produces “Mark II” versions of each of these systems and insist that those meet or exceed the SQRs in every respect.