Indian moods

India's space programme takes off.

If anyone wonders why India adamantly pursues expensive indigenous defence projects, Anil Ananthaswamy’s excellent article about the country’s space programme in our sister magazine New Scientist offers some insights.

In 1998, the USA and other western countries imposed economic and technological sanctions on India after it tested a nuclear device. That pushed its scientists to develop indigenous machines, wean themselves off their dependence on the West, and assert their independence. That drive has now born fruit, Ananthaswamy writes.

“Suddenly, everything from personal computers to high-end electronics was unavailable. The last straw was when the US blocked the sale of Russian cryogenic engines needed to build the new geosynchronous satellite launch vehicle (GSLV),” he points out. “ISRO [Indian Space Research Organisation] was forced to go it alone and has since succeeded in building its own engines without help from other nations. The fully home-grown GSLV should be ready to fly in 2009.”

India’s pride in its indigenous space programme is evident, never mind the cost to a country that still faces pressing social problems like acute poverty. Their newspapers and magazines talk about shaking off the country’s dependence on the West and becoming self-sufficient in key industries such as defence.

Self-sufficiency may seem like a quaint goal harking back to socialist programmes in the 1960s and 1970s, especially in this age of globalisation and international partnerships. But it is at the heart of projects like the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft and Kaveri military engine, and the stringent technology transfer requirements that India attaches to major international military tenders.

New Delhi has spent around $1.5 billion since the Tejas programme began in 1983, and is likely to pour in another $1 billion to bring it to fruition around 2011. The Kaveri has cost around $300 million, and that could reach $500 million. Despite the numerous delays and setbacks, the Indians keep plugging on.

Many laugh at India’s attempts to develop its indigenous products, others shake their heads at the amount of money that is involved, and some may even question the viability of it all. But senior Indian officials say that they want to be able to arm themselves even if nobody else helps them. And so India continues to pursue programmes like the Light Combat Helicopter and Medium Combat Aircraft.

Similarly, a major factor in deciding the winner of the ongoing 124-fighter Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft competition will be the level of access to technology that the Indians are given. Bidders like Boeing, Lockheed Martin and the Eurofighter consortium may not like the stringent offset rules, but the Indians are adamant about getting what they want. The fear that fresh sanctions could lower their defence capability lies at the heart of these requirements.

“These countries and companies want our business and we have the market, but it won’t work unless we get a high level of access to technology and our companies learn as much as they can through license-production,” says a senior Indian defence ministry official says: “We want to be equal partners with the Americans, the Russians and the Europeans, but sometimes it appears as though they want to treat us like a client state. They must realise that circumstances have changed and the world has evolved.”

The lessons of 1998 are at the heart of India’s attempts to develop its own fighter and engine, and its aim of extracting as much technology as possible from the companies that want a stake in its growing defence market. Those involved in the country’s defence market would do well to learn from that too.

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One Response to Indian moods

  1. U. Goehl 22 November, 2008 at 11:52 am #

    Now if only India would deploy it’s team of star-scientists to design new HF radios . . . to replace the scratchy, noisy, World War II-era ones used for air traffic control in the Oceanic airspace that India is responsible for. That would be one great leap for mankind.

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