By Vaibhav Agrawal
The government’s inclination to set records in various areas has earned them yet another dubious achievement to add to their growing collection of firsts: they have never procured significant military platforms or notable material (equipment and materials used by a military force) within the mandated deadline for decades.
A group of defence and military experts and security analysts have recently asserted that no regime, including the current administration, which boasts of its efficiency and proactivity, has ever acquired essential defence equipment within the designated timeline. This has been the case for several years, despite the government’s claims of prioritising defence procurement.
Numerous delays in procuring various military equipment cannot be listed comprehensively. These delays include the acquisition of fighter jets, helicopters, manned and unmanned aerial vehicles (armed and unarmed), transport aircraft, submarines, and warships. Additionally, the procurement of main battle tanks, artillery, and various small arms such as assault rifles, carbines, sub-machine guns, and sniper rifles, along with assorted ammunition and missiles, has also been delayed.
The 126 MMRCA Saga
In 2001, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) requested information regarding the procurement of 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA). The MoD then issued a tender, or request for proposal, in 2007. The intention was to licence the manufacture of 108 units of the shortlisted platform, France’s Rafale fighter, locally via a technology transfer. However, the entire project was scrapped in 2015.
Subsequently, in 2016, the MoD purchased 36 Rafales in flyaway condition instead of pursuing the licensed manufacture option.
The Indian Air Force has been exploring the purchase of 114 multi-role fighter aircraft since early 2018. However, the progress on this potential acquisition remains unclear even after five years. This is concerning given that the number of fighter squadrons in the IAF has decreased to around 29, far below the authorised strength of 42 squadrons.
Midget Submarine Project Yet To Dive
Despite setting plans in 2009 to acquire midget submarines, the Indian Navy has remained silent regarding its requirements.
Open sources have reported that the Navy initiated the acquisition of these vessels in 2009 by issuing a Request for Proposal (RFP) to various Indian shipyards, such as Hindustan Shipyards Limited, ABG, and Pipavav shipyards. It has also been suggested in a separate report that the Navy’s original plan was to procure only five of these vessels. However, subsequent updates indicate a possible increase in inductions.
After the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks on November 26, where the perpetrators commandeered an Indian fishing boat, murdered its crew, and then used inflatable dinghies to travel up the city’s coastline to reach Badhwar Park and the Sassoon Docks; located a short distance from the Gateway of India monument, reports surfaced that the Navy had incorporated small vessels into its arsenal to enhance its operational capabilities.
In 2016, Hindustan Shipyard Limited (HSL) was chosen to receive a $400 million contract for constructing two midgets. The official award of the tender was scheduled to take place one month later.
As per unofficial sources, members of the Marine Commando Force (MCF) of the Indian Navy reportedly used small submarines, commonly known as midgets, to transport weapons and equipment from larger vessels to attack targets such as anchored ships and coastal installations. The submarines were also allegedly employed for covert surveillance missions in shallow waters.
It has been reported that a state-owned shipyard plans to launch a global tender seeking consultants to assist in constructing two new midget submarines for the Indian Navy.
Despite the initial statement by the IN regarding the requirement for midget submarines, over a decade has elapsed with no discernible advancement in the matter.
Earlier, Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Limited (MDL), Mumbai, a state-owned company in India, completed the design of a diesel-electric midget submarine. While work on the prototype has commenced, information on its specifications and displacement remains confidential.
In addition, MDL has sought collaboration to create Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (XLUUVs) capable of carrying two small torpedoes to aid in coastal surveillance. To provide cost-effective solutions, there is an increasing demand for XLUUVs that can also deploy mines, transport light torpedoes, and carry payloads for coastal surveillance.
The Ambitious P75I Project
The Indian Navy’s bold plan to build six cutting-edge conventional submarines is still plagued by setbacks. Despite being issued in July 2021 under the Strategic Partnership model of the Make in India initiative, the Request for Proposal for the project has yet to progress significantly. Unfortunately, the project timeline has been extended again, leaving the project in limbo.
Foreign bidders have expressed reservations regarding integrating Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) technology into the six new boats to be produced domestically. Foreign Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) have shown a lack of enthusiasm in responding to the Request for Proposal (RFP), citing the stringent conditions. Consequently, some OEMs have withdrawn from the process. AIP has been one of the key issues OEMs have raised concerns about.
This marks the second time the RFP response deadline has been extended, with the first extension in June. With the new deadline of December 31 fast approaching, the RFP remains an official process to invite responses from potential bidders.
AIP technology has significantly increased the submerged endurance of conventional submarines by allowing them to recharge their batteries without having to surface to access oxygen. Currently, only a handful of nations possess this advanced technology, and India is actively working towards developing it. Although India does not currently operate any submarines equipped with AIP, Pakistan has already acquired two such vessels. It partnered with China to build six additional submarines using AIP technology. Meanwhile, the Indian navy’s submarine fleet is operating below its planned capacity, with only 16 in service.
In line with the ‘Make in India’ campaign, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has taken a significant step by releasing a Request for Proposal (RFP) for the first acquisition program under the Strategic Partnership Model. The project, named Project 75(India) [P-75(I)], aims to construct six AIP-fitted Conventional Submarines for the Indian Navy. The RFP was issued to the two shortlisted Strategic Partners (SPs) or Indian Applicant Companies, Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Limited (MDL) and Larsen & Toubro (L&T), on July 20, 2021. The total project cost is estimated to be over `40,000 crores.
The P-75I project has experienced significant delays and setbacks, causing it to be put on hold for some time. A senior official of India’s largest submarine builder revealed that due to various unforeseen circumstances, the bid submission deadline had to be postponed from November 2021 to June 2022. A vast majority of overseas participating companies were unable to meet the original deadline. Should the bid submission occur in June, the government will require an additional two years to consider it before placing orders by the end of 2024.
Why have foreign contenders withdrawn?
Several foreign contenders have withdrawn from the P-75I project. ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS) of Germany, considered the project’s leading contender, expressed concerns just a month after the RFP was issued. TKMS highlighted that meeting the stipulations set out in the RFP, such as the high proportion of indigenous content and the unlimited liability of the foreign technology partner, could prove impossible. Additionally, a Swedish company also withdrew from the project. Insiders stated that the company’s engineers and management deemed the terms too difficult to meet.
The French company, Naval Group, has announced that it cannot participate in the P-75I project due to certain conditions outlined in the request for proposal (RFP) concerning the air-independent propulsion (AIP) system. This news may be disheartening, especially considering that Naval Group had previously transferred technology to India for manufacturing the Scorpene-class submarines at the Mazgaon Dockyard Limited.
The Oversung IJT Project
Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), the leading state aeronautical manufacturer in India, has gained significant recognition recently, particularly for its Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas and export opportunities. Several serious systemic issues plague the organisation and the Indian Air Force (IAF).
The bulk of our military services’ aircraft, helicopters, engines, and ancillary components are manufactured, repaired, and serviced by various divisions of HAL, making the efficiency and expansion of this aerospace giant critical not only to our military’s combat readiness but also for the future of the aerospace sector in India.
Even so, HAL still needs to meet its obligations and adhere to its established timelines. The most pressing concern is the quality control issues that plague the products produced by HAL. As reported by retired Air Force officers in sections of the media, the products fail to meet the standards required by the defence aviation sector.
According to many analysts, HAL must eliminate its bureaucratic obstacles, simplify its procedures, and take decisive steps towards becoming a results-oriented professional organisation. Additionally, they must stop the ongoing turf war against the private sector and escape their isolation. Although HAL has grown in size, it has yet to acquire expertise, technology, or capability. Their delays have plagued various programmes, such as the Indian Air Force’s Tejas and Mirage 2000/Jaguar upgrade programmes. It’s high time for HAL to revamp their approach and enhance its performance.
The Indian Air Force relies on HAL’s indigenous HJT 16 Kiran trainer aircraft to train pilots during the intermediate stage, also known as Stage II. Kiran was introduced as a trainer for the IAF back in 1968. Five decades have passed since its introduction, but HAL has yet to replace it.
HAL has attempted to replace the intermediate trainer aircraft with the HAL HJT 36 Sitara. The Sitara trainer has developed since 1997, but the program has been plagued with technical problems. Most recently, an issue with conducting a six-turn spin flight took six years to resolve. This was a critical step towards commissioning the trainer as pilots needed to enter and recover from stalls or spins during their training. The Sitara can only be considered by the IAF if it can recover safely and consistently.
Over the past 25 years of HJT 36 Sitara’s development, the IAF has naturally evolved its requirements. HAL must now provide a complete simulation-based training solution that matches the current infrastructure of the IAF’s PC 7 and Hawk Mk132 trainers. In addition, the IAF has mandated that all new procurements include a range of training simulators, including Fixed Base Full Mission Simulators (FBS), Cockpit Procedure Trainers (CPT), Avionics Part Task Trainers (APTT), Flight Training Devices (FTD), and computer-aided learning systems. However, meeting these requirements could prove to be a challenging endeavour for HAL.
The HJT 36 Sitara program has been plagued with various issues, including changes to the engine used for the trainer. A French engine was originally selected, but it was later replaced with the Russian AL-55I engine, specifically designed for trainer aircraft. Unfortunately, delays in the development and delivery of the AL-55I engine by the Russian side have caused further setbacks for the program.
Unfortunately, both prototypes produced by HAL met with unfortunate accidents. During a practice sortie, PT 1 went off the runway due to a canopy locking system failure, significantly damaging the wings, empennage, and landing gear. PT 2 also suffered a landing gear failure during a practice sortie, further adding to the setback of the program.
Despite being established before its Chinese counterpart, HAL needs to catch up in performance and needs to overcome its sluggishness. However, the government has yet to appoint a full-time director for several months, hindering HAL’s progress. To address this issue, the Indian government should adopt a paradigm shift and seek out the most qualified individuals for leadership positions rather than relying on a pool of “generalist” bureaucrats and PSU cadres.
This extended “gene pool” should include industry and business leaders, but priority should be given to individuals with technical competence, managerial abilities, and leadership talent within the military forces. By selecting competent leaders, HAL can better compete with its counterparts and achieve greater success in the future.
HAL’s track record is marred with a series of unsuccessful or abandoned aircraft projects, and the IAF’s MiG-21 fleet and other HAL products have faced failures leading to fatalities, indicating a lack of adequate aircraft and engine design and production skills. Despite these concerning developments, both the Ministry of Defence and the aviation regulatory bodies in India have failed to hold HAL accountable for the errors that led to these accidents, which is surprising.
The Indian military, being the largest customer and revenue provider for HAL, heavily relies on this PSU for product maintenance. However, HAL’s unionised staff have exhibited a sluggish attitude, leading to low production rates and late deliveries. Inadequate manufacturing and engineering standards can cause maintenance issues and hinder fleet standardisation, while poor quality control practices can result in component failures and accidents. Additionally, HAL’s ineffective product support has harmed its customers, causing dissatisfaction and impeding its operations.
ASAT Test: An Incomplete Series
On March 27, 2019, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a national address confirming the successful completion of an anti-satellite (ASAT) test earlier that day. The test involved using a Prithvi Delivery Vehicle Mark-II (PDV MK-II) developed by India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) to intercept and destroy an Indian Microsat-R satellite. The flight lasted for just over half a minute and marked a significant achievement in India’s defence capabilities.
The Indian government’s ASAT test, which was named Mission Shakti, was conducted with careful planning and precision. In a nationally televised address on March 27, 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the successful destruction of an Indian Microsat-R satellite by the Prithvi Delivery Vehicle Mark-II (PDV MK-II), an anti-satellite ballistic missile defence interceptor developed by the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO).
The satellite had been intentionally launched into a sun-synchronous orbit at a low altitude of 282 kilometres on January 24, 2019, a few weeks before the test. Despite being relatively small compared to other Indian communication satellites, with a surface area of just two square meters, the PDV MK-II’s downward trajectory allowed it to intercept the target at a closing velocity of 9.8 kilometres per second. These details indicate that the Indian government intentionally limited the orbital debris created by the hit-and-kill intercept.
Despite being a carefully planned test, the Indian ASAT test has raised concerns among the international community due to the potential for further future debris-causing tests by other states. Many fear that the argument that generating debris under 300 km is acceptable is dangerous, as there is no way to predict where the fragments produced by a kinetic collision in low earth orbit will ultimately end up.
While India joins China, the United States, and Russia in demonstrating the capability to conduct ASAT tests, the number of countries able to undertake such intercepts is much larger. Additional testing could make space an inhospitable environment for various commercial and civilian endeavours.
The Indian ASAT test may have accomplished its political goals, but an important question still looms: can the Mission Shakti intercept truly counter China’s growing threat to India’s space program? While some Indian analysts believe so, the answer is an unequivocal no.
Although India’s ASAT test was deemed necessary, it cannot solely safeguard India’s space assets in the event of a major conflict with China. This is largely due to China’s evolving counter-space strategy, which has shifted towards non-destructive means of space denial since its 2007 ASAT test.
Therefore, it is unlikely that China will resort to kinetic debris-producing attacks on its competitors’ space systems in the future, except under dire circumstances. China is reportedly exploring multiple alternatives, all of which significantly threaten India’s ability to use space for civilian or military purposes during wartime or crises. As such, while India’s ASAT test achieved its political objectives, it alone cannot neutralise China’s emerging threat to India’s space program.
The idea that India’s ASAT demonstration has effectively neutralised China’s counter-space capabilities and restored space deterrence overlooks a crucial reality: India’s kinetic ASAT system is primarily useful in extreme scenarios, such as preventing destructive Chinese physical attacks on Indian satellites through direct ascent or co-orbital attack weapons. Even threatening to use kinetic attacks that create debris against Chinese space assets may only effectively punish orbital deformation or physical damage to critical Indian spacecraft by Chinese co-orbital service satellites. However, such threats may not be viewed as credible by China and are unlikely to contribute to successful deterrence.
Moreover, the range of Chinese counter-space capabilities, as illustrated in Table 1, shows that India’s kinetic ASAT system has limited value. While it can deter kinetic strikes on India’s space systems, this is the least likely scenario because China is already investing in suppressing India’s (and other nations’) space systems through less destructive but equally effective means. Therefore, while India’s ASAT test may have been necessary, it does not sufficiently protect India’s space assets in the event of a major conflict with China.