Biggest ever indigenous defence procurement programme in India creates ground for exports to IOR countries.
“India cannot be dependent on others for its defence.”
With those golden words, Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh announced the biggest Make-in-India defence contract last week, awarding $65 billion to the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautical Limited (HAL) Tejas MK1A for investment and integration in a native light fighter into the Indian Air Force.
As part of the deal, the government will procure 83 Tejas light combat aircraft from HAL – deemed as the biggest ever indigenous defence procurement programme in India.
“The decision by the Modi government … was long overdue. Although 50 percent of the Tejas MK1A’s components, including most prominently its American built General Electric engine, Israeli Elta Radar and British Avionics are imported, nevertheless the basic design, the composite materials used for the aircraft, mathematical proficiency and metallurgy undergirding the design of the aircraft are the product of native effort,” said Kartik Bommakanti, Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation.
Seen as a bold statement of the government’s commitment to a native defence capability, the Tejas order placed to coincide with the Aero India Show also successfully showcases Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Atma-Nirbhar Bharat initiative and the intent and effort towards building a strong defence base that can supply top of the line weapons platforms for the Indian armed services.
The Indian Defence Ministry anticipates delivery of all 83 aircraft in eight years. It is the first “Buy (Indian-Indigenously Designed Developed and Manufactured)” category procurement of combat aircraft with an indigenous content of 50% which will progressively reach 60% by the end of the programme and about 250 out of 344 systems fitted in the aircraft will be indigenous, according to the ministry.
“The procurement of the HTT-40 trainer aircraft will help establish India’s indigenous manufacturing capability as over 60% of the aircraft is planned to be built with indigenous material,” said Venkatesh Kandlikar, defence analyst at GlobalData. “The RFP also indicates the Indian MoD’s assurance to the domestic aerospace manufacturing companies that the MoD is willing to pay even double the rates to build up indigenous capabilities in strategic defence equipment,” he said.
While the HTT-40 programme has had a rather rocky start, the Indian Air Force (IAF) welcomed the indigenous trainer after HAL showcased the prototype in 2016, and decided to support the project. The huge numbers in the order book are expected to boost the domestic production capability and bring India closer to its vision of producing an aircraft under the ‘Make in India’ initiative.
“With the Indian MoD’s push towards indigenous manufacturing, we expect further domestic companies to start exploring the space and increase competition. It is also expected that the government will incentivize activity here after in the domestic aerospace and defense market by encouraging facilities that provide end-to-end aerospace solutions for private industry,” Kandlikar said.
But a key part of the Aero India show was also about New Delhi displaying its indigenous defence capability, with an eye on Africa and the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) for the export of fighter jets, helicopters and missiles. Apart from global aviation giants such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Dassault and Airbus, the show also saw the participation of top global defence companies involved in the aviation sector, such as Thales, BAE Systems and missile manufacturer MBDA. In addition, India hosted the defence ministers of about 28 IOR countries, including Iran. India sees the IOR as a natural extension of its sphere of influence and has gone from calling itself the next “security provider” in the region to the “preferred security partner”.
“The Tejas going to HAL signals a greater resolve on the part of the Indian state to augment sovereign military strength and for this reason the Modi government deserves its due in making good on paving the way for a firmer indigenisation in the conventional weapons domain,” said Bommakanti of ORF. “Weapons acquisitions from overseas is one area where the Indian state is acutely vulnerable. It is for this reason that New Delhi ought not to take for granted the support of any country from where it imports military equipment including Russia, Israel and France and not just the USA,” he said.