Though it is early days yet for the Tata Group’s military forays, Chairman Ratan Tata is doing enough to suggest that he is committed to creating a defence conglomerate, which may one day rival Lockheed Martin or BAE Systems.
Tata’s aggression in the military sector has to be seen in the context of India’s ambition to become a regional power, and its race to upgrade its armed forces. Over the next 5-7 years, India is expected to spend about $45 billion (Rs 1.8 lakh crore) on military ware. The Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) 2006 allows India’s private companies to compete with its public sector for defence orders.
Tata Motors has developed an indigenous light specialist vehicle (LSV) that is currently being tested by the Indian Army, which has evinced interest from a couple of South-East Asian countries, too. The Tata Group is also trying to enter the aerospace area through manufacturing tie-ups for initially low-tech activities — making floor boards for Boeing’s Dreamliner passenger aircraft and cabins for Sikorsky’s S-92 troop transport helicopter.
Though Tata Group companies have been in the defence production business for decades — Tata Motors has been supplying logistics vehicles and Tata Power handles defence electronics — it was in 2006, the year the government decided to allow private Indian companies to become prime contractors in defence projects, that Ratan Tata made the first moves towards the creation of his military industrial complex. Tata Advanced Systems (TAS) was created as a dedicated defence company completely owned by Tata Industries, one of the group’s key holding companies.
The company has signed up with Europe’s EADS to bid for a $1-billion contract to provide tactical communication systems (TCS) to the Indian Army and with America’s Sikorsky Aircraft for making cabins for the S-92 helicopters. It has also signed an agreement with Israel Aerospace Industries for developing, producing and supporting missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and radars and electronic warfare systems. TAS is also talking with Israel’s Urban Aeronautics to first market and then manufacture the latter’s UAVs, which can take off and land vertically.
The strategic electronics division (SED) of Tata Power is manufacturing the Pinaka multi-barrel rocket launchers for the Indian Army, having developed it in collaboration with DRDO. It is also involved in the development of the Akash missile launcher system for the Indian Air Force (IAF) and it is working on a target-locating-and-firing system for 105-mm mounted guns of the army. In February, it signed an agreement with the French defence electronics maker Thales, for supplying optronics — electronic systems for reconnaissance, target identification, detection and weapon-guiding capabilities of an airborne platform — for the existing and the future needs of the Indian Air Force, particularly for the 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA).
Tata Motors is trying to solve the problem of upgrading the Indian Army’s legacy tanks and combat vehicles for greater mobility. the basic hulls of these vehicles still have life, but they lack in power for the current speed required by the Indian Army. For example, the T-72’s power pack — engine and gear box — currently generates only 700 bhp whereas the army wants it perked up to 1,000-1,200 bhp. “Because of our experience in the passenger vehicle business, we have the capability to work out solutions to integrate more powerful power packs into vehicles originally designed for lower power,” says V.S. Noronha, head of defence business at Tata Motors.
Tata Advanced Material (TAM) is another key cog in the Tata Group’s military machine. For both military and civilian uses, the company produces composite materials for making extremely light yet very resilient items, such as bullet-proof vests and launcher tubes for missiles, among other things.
Even as Tata marches ahead with his military business, there is a concern in some quarters over the emergence of a private military industrial complex in India, akin to the one in the US. According to Laxman Kumar Behera, associate fellow with the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis in New Delhi, though the Indian private sector at present neither has the technological capabilities nor the excess capacity for military products, once it grows to a significant size, it could start influencing the country’s policies and priorities to suit its needs.
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