Military, handhold Indian designers

IN PERSPECTIVE

Indian designers have a reputation for ‘frugal engineering’. Sensitive to a low-resource environment, yet oriented towards creating products and solutions uniquely suited to our needs, Indians are finely tuned to create cost-effective solutions to local problems. The world took notice of Indians’ frugal innovation efforts after the development of the Tata Nano, the ultra low-cost car designed and developed by Indian engineers, competent at combining low cost with high value, reassuring the very strong multinational R&D presence in India.

Yet, when it comes to military equipment, why do Indian efforts fall short? Why don’t Indian designers’ efforts throw up significant successes instead of giving India the dubious distinction of being the world’s largest importer of military hardware, importing more than 70% of its defence requirements?

Look at Tejas, the Light Combat Aircraft sanctioned in 1986 to the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO). The prototype took flight in 2003, 17 years later, whereas design and development from basic stage to prototype flight takes 8-10 years the world over. The program management was assigned to the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) which, along with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) and the Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE), was expected to bring out the prototype. The design, weight consideration, mock-up, systems and evaluations, purchase of the avionic and hydraulic systems, conceptualizing the aircraft and configuring it, incorporating the fly-by-wire control systems, use of carbon-fiber composites for the major structures were difficult and time-consuming. A technology demonstration flight in 2001 was followed by the prototype flight test at the National Flight Test Center (NFTC), ultimately leading to the ‘Final Operational Clearance’ and induction into the Air Force in mid-2018.

While all delays get attributed to HAL, the manufacturer, the government had taken its own time to allocate responsibilities between HAL, ADA, ADE and NAL. The delays in development caused major design decisions to become obsolete, the Air Force kept insisting on systems it was familiar with and design changes that required lots of ‘Redo’ work, resulting in cost and time overruns.

Similarly, the design and development of the Main Battle Tank (MBT) Arjun, a multi-laboratory program of DRDO, led by the Combat Vehicles Research & Development Establishment (CVRDE), requiring the development of the transmission, hydro-pneumatic suspension, hull and turret, and the Gun Control System. Though the development of the tank began in 1972, it was only in 1996 that mass-production at the Ordnance Factory’s Avadi facility began. Here too, cost and time overruns and repeated delays resulted in the Army requiring multiple revisits due to advances in technology and changes in the threat environment. The more the tank project dragged on, the more the tank needed to be redesigned to incorporate new technologies, major design decisions became obsolete, with delays causing the Army to order more Russian T–90 tanks, further undermining CVRDE’s developmental efforts.

To the credit of the CVRDE designers, however, the Arjun held its own in the comparative trials held in 2010. On certain key operational parameters, like ammunition loading, tactical manoeuvres and firing, the Arjun was comparable to the T-90. On mobility and manoeuvrability parameters, it was better than the T–90! The firing system was able to achieve a superior accuracy and hit-rate due to the indigenously designed hydro-pneumatic suspension that allows the Arjun to glide over undulating cross-country terrain at full speed keeping the gun stable enough to fire accurately.

CVRDE unveiled a Mark-2 version of the Arjun exhibiting qualities of a genuine world-beater, incorporating changes at the army’s persuasion. Faced with an army long familiar with Russian tanks, logistic problems due to the Arjun’s weight and dimensions were addressed through the Sarvatra system, an indigenously built bridge-layer, while the Indian Railways deployed a bogey called BFAT (Bogey Flat Arjun Type) designed to transport the tank to operational areas.

Both the indigenous Tejas LCA and the Arjun MBT have had protracted development phases, overcoming not just technical challenges in development but criticism from groups believing either in outright purchase or in licensed manufacturing through a technology partner. The indigenous development and production route, being relatively difficult, time-consuming and requiring vast coordination, remained the last choice, with even the government clamouring for the private sector and foreign wares to get “quick results”!

Criticism cannot be a reason to stifle the growth of indigenously built platforms. The armed forces must play a pivotal role in indigenizing defence equipment by handholding the Indian designer. Motivation and encouragement at crucial junctures makes the designer take delight in delivering equipment as per specifications. Remember, we are the same people who used home-grown technologies to send Mangalyaan to Mars successfully on the very first attempt, and at a cost less than the cost of producing a Hollywood movie!

(The writer is a former director on the Board of BEML)

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