The path to strategic autonomy may be complex and expensive, but its potential benefits are inarguable, both from a national security perspective and an economic standpoint
by Aditya Sinha
Countries worldwide are realising the immense importance of investing in critical defence technology. National security, global positioning, and economic vitality are intertwined, and a strategic investment in defence technology serves to strengthen each of these elements.
Consider the case of Israel. Small in size but significant in its strategic positioning, Israel has systematically and consistently invested in its defence technology over the years. The payoff has been remarkable. Israel has not just fortified its own defences, but has emerged as a commanding force in the global defence export arena.
As the philosopher Sun Tzu stated in his timeless work The Art of War, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” This wisdom holds remarkably true in the context of defence technology. A nation’s power today is as much about its military strength as it is about its technological capabilities. Investment in defence technology can serve as a powerful deterrent, preserving peace, and preventing conflicts before they arise. In a rapidly evolving world, countries’ readiness to invest in defence technology can shape their future and determine their standing in the global order.
This resonates with the recent announcement made by India and France to deepen their defence cooperation. Their joint venture to develop advanced aeronautical technologies, including a combat aircraft engine and an engine for the Indian multi-role helicopter, signifies an important step towards self-reliance and technological advancement for India. This partnership not only marks an upturn in Indo-French relations but also sets a blueprint for other countries to follow. The industrial cooperation for the motorization of heavy-lift helicopters will not only strengthen India’s defence capabilities but also catalyse growth in its domestic aerospace industry.
The global jet engine landscape is heavily dominated by General Electric (GE), Rolls Royce, Pratt & Whitney, and CFM-Safran. These leading manufacturers are the major suppliers of aircraft engines worldwide. In a recent development, during the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to the USA, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) took a significant stride forward. On 22 June, HAL penned a memorandum of understanding with GE Aerospace for the production of fighter jet engines—specifically, the renowned F414 engines—for the Indian Air Force.
However, a prominent caveat lies in the reluctance of these manufacturers to fully share their technology. This hesitance particularly emerges when it comes to transferring sensitive technology, such as those managing extreme engine temperatures. Thus, while partnerships are being formed and progress is being made, the issue of comprehensive technology transfer remains a complex challenge in the aerospace industry.
There are three reasons for this reluctance. Firstly, jet engine technology, a linchpin in combat aircraft manufacture, embodies a nation’s technological might and military advantage. Sharing this technology could imperil national security by equipping potential adversaries with superior military capabilities. Secondly, political dynamics are another roadblock. Western nations have demonstrated reservations in transferring engine technologies due to geopolitical concerns. The case of Turkey’s stalled engine acquisition and China’s difficulties in forming defence partnerships underline this fact.
Lastly, the development and manufacturing of jet engines represent a significant investment of resources, requiring years of research, high levels of expertise, and a large monetary investment. As such, these technologies represent significant commercial value. The highly competitive nature of the market, coupled with the need for extensive knowledge and experience, makes this a closely guarded secret for leading manufacturers. Consequently, the reluctance to share such technologies also stems from a desire to protect intellectual and commercial property rights.
However, the recent deal between India and France is a game-changer. This pact marks not just a milestone in the manufacture of engines on Indian soil, but significantly, it heralds the dawn of co-development of jet engines between the two nations through Safran and DRDO.
This paradigm shift signifies a strategic move away from a short-sighted perspective of mere procurement. It represents India gaining access to coveted technology that will empower it to independently manufacture engines for its Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft program. The implications are profound, for it potentially positions India as a significant player in the global aerospace industry in future.
Consequently, the agreement could stimulate domestic capabilities, spur innovation, and foster self-reliance. It also promises to enhance India’s technological prowess in the international arena, boosting its image as a dynamic, technologically-advanced nation. Thus, this pact is a monumental stride towards the future, embodying far-reaching consequences that could reshape India’s aerospace industry.
It will also help India to achieve strategic autonomy, as it will allow India to have its own fighter aircraft engines, whose parts are designed and manufactured within the country, using technology that has been co-developed.
At the same time, India should keep investing in its other indigenous jet engine development programs. An indigenous jet engine program for fighter planes is indispensable for a country like India for numerous reasons. Primarily, it will reinforce India’s military self-reliance by reducing dependence on foreign entities for critical components, thereby improving its strategic autonomy. Take the example of China’s advancements in indigenous aircraft and engine development, which have considerably strengthened its domestic military capabilities. However, the development of indigenous jet engines and aircraft is indeed a complex, costly, and time-consuming process. Yet, countries persistently invest in it, cognizant of its long-term strategic and economic benefits.
In India, the drive to indigenize is already evident. For instance, the country has initiated the development of Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft and Light Combat Aircraft-Tejas, pushing towards homegrown military prowess. Nevertheless, the challenge lies in the lack of indigenous engines, as witnessed in the case of Tejas, where India had to rely on foreign engines due to setbacks with the indigenous Kaveri jet engine program.
Therefore, India’s strides towards indigenization of aero engine manufacturing mark a significant achievement. The long-drawn process of developing indigenous jet engines is a worthwhile investment, not only from a strategic standpoint but also for its potential economic benefits. Successful development of indigenous jet engines can open avenues for India in the global aviation market, similar to the United States and Europe, boosting its economic growth.
India’s steady progression toward defence technology independence signals the dawn of a new era. Stepping beyond mere procurement, India is now forging its path in co-developing jet engines, inevitably marking its territory in the global aerospace industry. The path to strategic autonomy may be complex and expensive, but its potential benefits are inarguable, both from a national security perspective and an economic standpoint. The future beckons, and nations equipped with advanced defence tech will lead the charge.
The writer is Additional Private Secretary (Policy & Research), Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister