How About ‘Guochanhua’ for India?

In mid-1960s, China planned self-sufficiency in defence production by copying the Soviet technology. China started producing weapons and heavy machinery on a massive scale. This reverse engineering project was termed as ‘guochanhua’.

By Admiral (Retd) Arun Prakash

Foreign Affairs
Swathi, the Weapon Locating Radar (WLR) by DRDO

IN their 2010 book “Arming Without Aiming”, authors Stephen Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta have this devastating comment to make: “With the exception of nuclear weapons, the history of Indian defence research and development has been an unhappy one. DRDO is the best-funded research institution in India, but has not produced a single weapon-system that could alter the country’s strategic condition. In fact India probably lags behind Pakistan….”

Statements, such as this, can either be dismissed as ill-informed rhetoric or taken as yet another proof of our own technological inadequacy and used to reinforce the case for continued import of weapon systems from abroad. We must not adopt either approach because the reality, as usual, lies somewhere in-between.

The essentials of India’s Defence Technological and Industrial Base (DTIB) are undoubtedly sound. We are fortunate in having not only a vast pool of world-class scientists but also an extensive network of advanced defence laboratories as well as production facilities for aircraft, ships, tanks, missiles, aero-engines and electronics; with the Indian armed forces as a huge captive market. Given a functionally-oriented organisation, visionary leadership and a user-friendly attitude, there is no reason why this DTIB should not have made our armed forces 75-80 per cent self-sufficient in weapon systems by now. Quite the contrary, India remains the world’s largest arms importer, and our armed forces’ inventories continue to be 75-80 per cent of foreign (mainly Soviet/Russian) origin.

This piece is not so much about the DRDO and the Defence PSUs as about the stark contrast with neighbouring Peoples’ Republic of China, whose flourishing and multi-faceted DTIB is the envy of many in the West. China is not just self-sufficient in most weapon systems, its defence industry exports arms to a very large number of countries in Asia (many in our close neighbourhood), Africa and South America. Inevitable fallout of this arms relationship is the close bilateral bonding that it creates and political leverage it accords.

Business and industry in the USA as well as Europe are said to be somewhat wary of partnering with the Chinese firms, for good reasons. Experience shows that while an unpredictable regulatory environment stimulates clever techniques for intellectual property theft, the local penchant for counterfeiting often makes China a risky place to conduct business in.

(Above) Indian Air Force MiG -21; HAL-built Light Combat Aircraft Tejas

But this is nothing new. Well before the Sino-Soviet doctrinal falling-out of 1960, the Chinese leadership had ordered the purloining of Soviet hardware and technology – weapons know-how, dual-use goods and heavy machinery – on a massive scale. Once the break actually occurred, in mid-1960, the Chinese leadership proclaimed the general policy of “basing on our own forces” and concentrating energies on reproducing the Soviet technology. This was to be a reverse engineering project, termed “guochanhua” in Mandarin, mounted at the national level.

It is now apparent that within two decades China had accomplished the reverse engineering of major weapons and heavy machinery required by its armed forces. By 1983, systems of Soviet origin under serial production in China included, the Dong Feng-5 ICBM, nuclear strategic and attack submarines of the Xia and Han classes, the second generation Ming class diesel submarine, the MiG-21 fighter and the Tupolev-28 bomber (dubbed J-7 and H-6 respectively) and destroyers, frigates and patrol craft for the PLA Navy. The Chinese have not rested on their laurels, and fresh cycles of “guochanhua” have been launched every decade or so with the aim of acquiring newer technologies required by the armed forces from all sources.

An outstanding example of the Chinese dexterity in “guochanhua” is the Shenyang J-15, or Flying Shark, carrier-borne fighter. The Chinese are then said to have acquired a Ukrainian version of the Sukhoi-33 and used it to undertake a reverse-engineering project that has produced this machine. The first J-15 prototype is believed to have performed its maiden flight in mid-2009, powered by Russian-supplied AL-31 turbofan engines. A more powerful Chinese engine is reportedly being fitted to this aircraft.

We must note the depressing statistics that while China’s annual arms exports are about US $ 2-3 billion, India currently imports arms worth 2-3 times that amount each year. The nonchalance with which this country continues to spend such colossal sums in acquiring weapon systems from foreign sources remains a deeply disturbing aspect of our national security policies. There does not seem to be adequate realisation of the fact that every ship, submarine, aircraft, tank or artillery piece that the Indian armed forces acquire from abroad, places them at the mercy of the seller nation for 30-40 years thereafter. This seriously undermines our security as well as independence of action, and all talk of “strategic autonomy” is rendered meaningless.

The denial or even delay in supply of just one tiny component can render modern weapon systems non-operational. A glance at the annual reports tabled by the CAG in Parliament will clearly bring out the dismal serviceability/availability of imported weaponry, much of which forms the cutting edge of our defensive and offensive capability. This is bound to happen when we are so heavily reliant on imported systems and the product support is so whimsical and unreliable. One often wonders if this is the underlying cause of the “strategic restraint” that India displays with such fortitude in the face of repeated provocations.

The fundamental reasons for India’s failure to attain self-reliance in defence are attributable to three glaring lacunae in the current system. First, the main stake-holders in defence research – the three armed forces HQs – are outside the Government’s decision-making loop since they remain subservient to the Department of Defence of the MoD. Secondly, the DRDO having been given complete freedom to spend its budget dedicates it largely to exploration of high technology, which may or may not have a bearing on badly needed defence capabilities. And thirdly, advice on scientific/technical matters with a crucial bearing on national security is delivered directly to the apex level by senior scientists. Therefore no instrumentality exists for a cross-check of overstated scientific claims or failure to deliver weapon systems on time, cost and performance.

(Above) Chinese Shenyeng J-15 Flying Shark on an aircraft carrier Liaoning (Below) Indian Navy’s INS Chakra

As far as the DPSUs are concerned, for far too long, have they claimed “transfer of technology” and “indigenisation” when they have been engaged merely in assembling knocked-down kits imported from abroad using “screwdriver technology”. In any self-respecting country heads would have rolled; but the inefficiency as well as consistent lack of ingenuity, initiative or innovation displayed by our DPSUs has remained shielded by the protective umbrella of the Department of Defence Production & Supply.

While ethical considerations and respect for intellectual property rights may not permit “guochanhua” in India, there still is a great deal that the DRDO and DPSUs could have done during the past six decades to acquire or co-develop technologies that would have provided critically-needed capabilities to India’s armed forces.

Countries bridge technological gaps using every possible means at hand. As the end of WW II approached, there was a desperate race between the Soviets and the Americans to see who could snatch away the cream of German scientists in disciplines such as nuclear weaponry, rocket science and submarine design; and thus gain an advantage. The Manhattan Project as well as NASA’s achievements in space owed much to the German scientists. Many feel that the DRDO missed a golden opportunity, at the disintegration of the Soviet Union, by failing to induct Russian scientists desperately looking for employment, into some of our critical research projects.

With globalisation, the quest for attaining autarchy in every aspect of technology has become an unnecessary and wasteful activity. A conscious and early decision must be taken in every project regarding the technologies we need to develop in-country and those that we can buy or acquire from abroad. Developmental projects undertaken by DRDO must have fairly rigid time-frames, after which they should become candidates for review and abortion. The DRDO practice of in-house “peer reviews” of projects by scientists must be replaced by hard-nosed audits and progress-checks by the end-users, assisted by independent experts.

For all the criticism that is often, justly, heaped on DRDO and the DPSUs, the fact remains that properly restructured, synergised with India’s innovative private sector and made accountable to the armed forces, both these national institutions have the capability to rescue India from the unending arms-dependency trap.

A nation’s claim to major-power status does not rest solely on its ability to produce a few nuclear devices, and such claims will ring hollow unless India can create a capability for designing contemporary missiles, aircraft, tanks, warships and submarines, as well as the industrial wherewithal to undertake their indigenous serial production in large numbers. The unstated but crucial consequence of this will be the assured product-support and unfettered access to spare parts, for the lifetime of the system that the armed forces will have.

Only then can we honestly stake a claim to “strategic autonomy.”

–The author is a retired Navy Chief