Strong, deep, reliable foundation in science and technology, keeping long-term interests in mind, is essential to the making of a self-reliant nation. This journey started in earnest with India’s first Five Year Plan, inspired by the ideals and goals of the freedom movement. These strivings meant setting up plants to make steel; special and alloy steel; heavy engineering and machine tools (mother machines); heavy electrical; tractors and farm machinery; oil exploration ashore and offshore; and setting up a chain of laboratories in basic sciences and for developing atomic energy.
A nation’s armed forces — the army, navy and air force — are a mirror of the country’s achievements in science and technology. Military systems and capabilities are closely aligned, with strong, concurrent connections to almost all advanced technology disciplines that form the base to modernise the military and military technologies. It is difficult to name an advance in technology which does not have a close relationship with the military capabilities of a nation.
As leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi laid the foundations for a modern nation to be, and later in 1968 spelt out its military-strategic objectives, Dr Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai and Dr Satish Dhawan led the atomic energy and space establishments to deep cooperation with the corresponding advanced design and research institutes in the Soviet Union — in the Moscow and Leningrad regions as also centres ‘east of Urals’, too many to be named here. It was a deep bonding far beyond the formal agreements signed between the two governments. Members of the USSR Academy of Sciences, directors of institutes, heads of zavods (plants) interacted closely and jointly formulated detailed work plans and helped set up pioneering ventures in India in diverse sectors/ segments.
We later saw the results of this cooperation blossoming under the ‘Privileged Strategic Partnership’ with Russia in 2000, augmented and accelerated when the heads of government met annually to cover new areas in computer sciences, electronics, lasers, hyper-sonic vehicles, space, cyber security, space navigation systems, Artificial Intelligence (AI), energy, nuclear technology, material sciences, robotics and futuristic sensitive areas which are not in the public domain. The story of the actual transfer of seven cryogenic engines and their transfer of technology to India for manufacture with improvements, despite various hurdles is now too well known and its details are not necessary to narrate here. The nuclear submarine Arihant and the BRAHMOS supersonic cruise missiles are also notable examples.
All these synergies have contributed to qualitative accretion of strengths which make for the military potential of our nation.
Before I go to some examples of close cooperation in the defence area, one needs to recall that in December 1971, post the signing of the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace and Friendship, the Soviet Union was giving us near real-time satellite intelligence of all that was relevant and made a difference. Units of the Soviet Navy not only shadowed the USN Enterprise with surface combatants but their nuclear boats were also in the area of operations. All this was known to the Pentagon and likely factored by them in their decision to abandon certain complimentary operations planned earlier for intervention in Bangladesh operations.
Returning to some examples, the decision to acquire MiG-21 supersonic fighters (the first supersonics for India) was an equally significant project. The MiG engines plant at Koraput begun in 1964-65, for major overhauls in the first instance, as Air Commodore Amin, the general manager proudly told the then chief of the naval staff, Admiral A.K. Chatterji in 1968. I was accompanying the Admiral as his Flag Lieutenant. The plant now makes 80 per cent of the engine of the Su-30MKI aircraft. The MiG airframe plant was also then established at Nashik and now turns out Su-30MKI fighters.
According to an interview of Chairman & Managing Director (CMD), Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), T. Suvarna Raju, the Nashik plant is gearing-up to manufacture the fifth generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) and awaiting a decision of the government of India, having shared Design & Development funding of the FGFA project. Raju said, “It would be an opportunity for India to acquire the latest in aviation high technology which has not been offered to us by any other country except Russia”.
Among other notable offers that were made was of the Tu-22M, a long range strategic bomber in 1971, but it was not recommended for acquisition, for reasons that are not fathomable! The MiG-29, a top-of-the-line fighter, was acquired in 1981-82 and a production line for this aircraft was also offered. It is of interest that the CNS took up the transfer of Tu-22M3 strategic bomber for the navy in July 1998 in Moscow and the same was agreed to at the level of Russia’s defence minister. However, for unknown reasons this formidable aircraft acquisition was not pursued after 1999! At this point one has to note that the electronic warfare systems in aircraft like the IL-38, Tu-142 LRMPs and the Kamov series helicopters have not met our expectations. It’s another matter that the US Navy destroyer Donald Cook, faced the effectiveness of Russian airborne Electronic Warfare systems when it was deployed in the Black Sea, off Crimea, about two years ago, when all its surveillance and weapons, fire control radar systems were rendered cold and unserviceable and sent shock waves in the Pentagon.
The ‘Foxtrot’ class series of conventional submarines acquired by the navy had a reputation of their own. Many in India frequently critiqued these boats as being ‘noisy’ and persuaded our decision-makers in the Eighties to go in for a silent submarine type, though this ‘silent’ was really an illusion. One of our Foxtrots was in Hong Kong on its way to Vladivostok for medium repairs. It so happened that Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, the world-famous father of the US Navy’s nuclear submarines, was also in Hong Kong and requested for a visit to the ‘noisy’ Foxtrot, conveying that it was his long-held dream to see this Boat. The Commanding Officer, Commander Bhate, while being bowled over, rang up the CNS’ office in New Delhi and requested instructions. The CNS, Admiral Ram Tahiliani was surprised too but gave his approval, with a knowing smile!
Admiral Rickover, after being on board, told the happy Captain that the ‘Foxtrots’ was one of the finest designs of a diesel submarine, often on patrol off the US Coast and he had long admired their design and performance features.
An example of the Indian Army’s tank programme would be in order. From T-55, T72Ms to the ‘Make in India’ of T-90s with a modern fire control system and leading up to the possible acquisition and transfer of technology (ToT) of the latest Armata tank, a sensation in the making at the Awadi Plant near Chennai.
The S-400 Air Defence Missile System is being imported, but in the future, if the past is any guide, this formidable, high probability of kill system, perhaps the best in the design and development, similar to BRAHMOS could be made in India.
Perhaps, the closest and deepest of design, development and ‘Make in India’ projects is exemplified in the Indian Navy. Starting with the Agreement of 1965, the navy not only imbibed and digested Soviet combat design philosophy of very high power-weight ratios, and combat punch to displacement (size) ratios but set about building ambitious major repair (with integral building docks, workshop spaces with reserve capacities and Design Offices) facilities and commissioned the Soviet Project Report for setting up a full-fledged naval dockyard and a later submarine building centre (adjacent) where our first of the class Ballistic Missile Submarines are being launched through a national effort and where Russian assistance has been ‘vital’ as Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh stated during the launch of the first Nuclear Boat, the Arihant. An old navy saying is that ‘a Fleet is as strong as the Dockyard that supports it.’ The transfer of Chakra I in 1987 and Chakra II is unprecedented in maritime cooperation and no other country is likely to part with a military technology of this magnitude in the near future or which demonstrates such trust and mutual confidence, in such a sensitive area. Suffice it to say that, Marshal of the USSR and Chief of General Staff, S.F. Akhromeyev, Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union, S G Gorshkov, Engineer Admiral Kotov, Academician Spaasky of the Leningrad Design Bureau (now the Design Bureau, St Petersburg, SPB) whom the Indian Navy has known as long-time friends, and Admirals S.N. Kohli, Ram Tahiliani and I were fortunate to know, were amongst many others in the design institutes, factories, plants, shipyards who made a difference.
The previous anecdote has a useful lesson for many as the later Kilo Class submarines (1997) were armed with the Klub anti-ship and Land Attack Cruise Missile (LACM) with a maximum effective range and warhead, not offered by any other country and at a price-tag not matched by others.
Briefly recalling the nuclear submarine story (FORCE, December 2017), it was at the intervention of the Prime Minister and defence minister Indira Gandhi that progress having been stalled in 1977, due to a change in government, that Chakra I came to us on lease in 1987, against an offer of a fleet of nuclear submarines, made by defence minister Marshal D.F. Ustinov in 1980. In 1998, both the proposal for Chakra II and earlier the acceleration in 1997 of our indigenous nuclear submarine gathered momentum with Russia playing a major role in the project, which has since fructified with Arihant and now the second of the series, setting in motion a national programme of vital strategic importance.
Regarding the financial aspects, under the 1965 agreement we were facilitated by the Rupee trade where India’s exports paid for our bills. In 1975 our acquisitions were under a 10-year credit line at 2.1 per cent interest. In about 1980 the credit terms were improved in India’s favour with a credit line of 15 years at 1.8 per cent, the first instalment to be paid in June following the year of delivery of the platform. In the Nineties, the payments were in dollars. We are now at a stage when special Rupee-Ruble terms of trade are under discussion.
Any professional in the armed forces would vouch that Russia as the successor state, gives performance figures for its systems which are in fact somewhat understated. They usually outperform the given Tactical Technical Data (TTD).
Russia’s platforms and weapon system have given a performance which is unmatched in the war zone. President Putin himself asserted that their cruise missiles launched from the Caspian Sea, over 2,500 kilometres away, from submarines and corvette-sized small ships, hit their targets in Syria, with a circular error of probability (CEP) of three metres. In comparison, the much-televised attack by 59 Tomahawks launched from the Mediterranean did little damage to the assets at Syrian Khmeimim airbase, the target (the ‘Kaliber’ SLCM, with a range of about 2,500 km, has been retrofitted in the 877 EKM/ Kilo class submarines, also hit targets in Syria terrorist bases with the same accuracy).
The performance of Russian precision guided munitions (PGMs) has been equally applauded the world over. Some of these are in our inventory and for some we have joint projects.
In February 2016, I met Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha in Vishakhapatnam and raised with him the need for the Indian Air Force (IAF) to study the performance of Russian aircraft in Syria, with particular reference to the sortie rates per day, per aircraft type, turnaround times and down times. He agreed that such a detailed study was overdue and he would direct such a study by the air staff. The IAF has a pilot to aircraft ratio in operational squadrons of just 1.2 compared to the Russian Air Force which fields at an average six pilots per aircraft. He agreed that the Russian Air Force operated in Syria with serious handicaps — from unprepared airfields, bare bones technical and logistics support, almost no hangar facilities and all that a full-fledged air base provides, yet their aircraft availability and operations, sortie rates, over nearly two years have been outstanding. We have lessons to learn.
The nurturing and grooming of human capital goes hand in hand with modernisation and induction/absorption of hi-tech. Deep specialisation, stable and long tenures and retention incentives in many areas like nuclear submarines, reactor engineering and design bureaus are must to optimise returns in some disciplines. Design engineers are difficult to find and retain. No one parts with diamonds! Admirals Rickover and Kotov did not retire. Academician Igor Spassky and his likes just carry on designing! In our case, the director, Aircraft Development Agency retired on 30 April 2017 on reaching the age of 60 years or his age of incompetence! This way we cannot reach for the stars.
An example of the Chinese scientists would be in order here. The Chinese students at the Dubna Institute of Nuclear Physics in the late Fifties were placed in the top three positions in successive years and the Soviet professors wondered what they would do in the years ahead. Well, they are retained, as in all China’s mega projects, the C-919 passenger jet, the high speed rail networks, the three gorges dam, the Hong Kong-Macao-Zhuhai Bridge, Quantum Communications Project, the Deep Dive Research Submarine, the nuclear submarine programme and so on.
Since the long years of our cooperation has everything gone smoothly, as planned, as per agreed time frames? The answer is no. While the political leaderships of the two countries, at their level fully endorse the letter and spirit of the agreements — and the political leadership at the apex level reviews the ‘Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership’, in particular of year 2000, at their annual meetings, the fact is that at the bureaucratic, ground level one faces manmade obstructions from time to time. One may recall the words of defence minister YB Chavan during a discussion on the subject, at his residence in Race Course Road, and who played a major role in laying the foundations of the Military Technical Cooperation in the Sixties. He said to me, “At the political level there was great understanding but sometimes at the bureaucratic level there was obstruction which made it difficult to meet agreed time-frames for project implementation and support.”
At times, words and phrases in contract are subject to different interpretations. Price negotiations take place when the teams know the price to the nearest rouble or rupee but do not sufficiently appreciate its real value or that there is no other source for the same.
In more recent times, things have changed for the better in some areas. One can communicate to the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). There is also a feedback channel on defects and materials, for example with the United Aircraft Corporation. Specialist payments are being better negotiated, across projects, to give a better return on investment, and on time, as delays cost not only money but operational availability of frontline assets. Factory to factory communication channels appear to have improved, though they are not entirely free of glitches, requiring high level of intervention, at times, at the political level.
During the 17th India-Russia annual Summit on 15 October 2016, ‘the leaders reviewed the special and privileged strategic partnership between India and Russia. They noted that it is rooted in the long history of mutual trust characterised by unmatched reciprocal support to each other’s core interests and unique people to people affinities. They pledged to pursue new opportunities to take the economic ties to unprecedented heights, achieve sustainable development, and promote peace and security at home and around the world’.
Acknowledging Russia’s crucial contribution to India’s industrial and technological development including defence needs since the second half of the last century, Prime Minister Modi reiterated that ‘Russia will remain India’s major defence and strategic partner… the enduring partnership between them is an anchor of peace and stability in a changing World Order.’ President Putin reaffirmed Russia’s continued commitment to the ‘Privileged Strategic Partnership with India and noted the commonality of positions of both countries on such issues as war and terrorism’.
Post the joint statement at the Indo-Russia Summit of October 2016 there is a need for the defence services leadership to take a cue and depute many high calibre, top-of-the-line talent in their service for attachment at the specialised institutes in subjects like aerodynamics, aircraft design bureaus, hydrodynamics and ship/ submarine design bureaus, nuclear reactor engineering, armoured vehicle design, hypersonic vehicles, cybernetics, AI to name only a few, for adequately long periods of time.
This cooperation should thereafter be enhanced and/or expanded to collaboration with the institutes and design bureaus and to set up corresponding ones in India, where necessary, in new areas and over the horizon systems for design and development, keeping live communications and exchanges on a continuing basis for us to derive the benefits fully in areas of advanced and advancing technology, of which cooperation in advanced military technology is an integral part. In order to realise the full potential of such cooperation on an enduring basis it is essential to systematise such institutional relationships.
At appropriate intervals of time, the army, navy, air staffs, singly and jointly, need to consider ‘Reviews’ of their ‘Force-Mix’ and ‘Force Architecture’, to enhance their war-fighting potential, factoring in the military-effectiveness and cost-benefit of newly inducted hi-tech systems so as to achieve more balanced fighting formations in the field. Russia has achieved this and its defence budget to neutralise the ‘Big-Budget’ forces, threatening it, in fact, is expected to reduce from about USD50 billion two years ago to USD42 billion in 2018, as stated by President Putin recently in his end-of-the-year ‘Message’ to the Russian nation.
We need to remember that hi-tech, home-grown or jointly developed with our long-time strategic partner, is not an end in itself. People are central to the resolve to defend national independence and sovereignty by determined mobilisation to defend our right to an autonomous path to all-round, inclusive development.
(The writer is a former chief of naval staff)