Note: This article discusses delays & operational failures in India’s indigenous weapons like HAL LCA Tejas, SAMHO ATGM, Arjun MBT & NETRA AEW&CS.
The Indian defense industry is large, in fact it is the largest in the South Asian region backed by large-scale government-funded projects, promotional activities and promises of “Made in India”. From a financial viewpoint, the Indian defense manufacturing market size has grown a lot to roughly $11.8B and India has claimed it will double in size by 2025. However, despite all this glamour, the products that come out of this industry leave a lot to be desired, by both potential foreign customers and India’s own armed forces. Repeated delays, inability to meet requirements, inflation of development budgets, incessant increases in the price tag and rampant corruption, are just some of the few main reasons most Indian defense products either end up scrapped or are delivered decades after the initial need arises.
One might argue that the Indian defense Industry is new, and that indigenous technological development takes time and money, however they fail to take the Indian bureaucratic culture into the equation which is deeply rooted in Indian society and a leading virus for the symptoms. Officials constantly interfere in defense projects under the influence of 3rd party lobbying and push end-products towards the wrong direction for example with the NETRA AEW&CS project choosing Embraer as the main plane supplier.
The result of all these barriers are underperforming defense products which neither foreign militaries nor the Indian armed forces desire (but is forced to induct anyway due to political pressure). Meanwhile some Indian products that do make it in foreign militaries are often end up grounded, for example the complete operational failure of Indian-made Swathi Weapon Locating Radars (WLR) worth $40M in Armenia during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict of 2020. To further explore the vulnerability of indigenous Indian weapon systems, let’s go through a brief history of some notorious examples, Arjun MBT, SAMHO ATGM, NETRA AWACS and HAL Tejas.
Arjun/Arjun MK2 main battle tank (DRDO)
Planned inauguration of first prototype : 1980
Publicly Revealed : 1985
Prototype Delivered : 1989
Initial Trials : 1993 to 1996
14 units delivered to Army for further testing : 1996
Limited production clearance : 1999
First Batch order MK1 : 2000
Delivery of pre-production model : 2004
Indian Army equipped Arjun MK1 : 2009
Majority Arjun fleet grounded (Nonoperational) : 2013 to 2015
Arjun MKA1 Prototype and testing : 2018
Arjun MKA1 deliveries : 2021-2022
Reasons for nonoperational status of most Arjun tanks and delays in MK2
From the very start in the 1980s delays were observed in the project caused by design issues and Indian inexperience in developing modern main battle tanks. As the first prototype was delivered, the Indian army staff was unimpressed and identified over 70 issues. The majority of the Indian army high command was more interested in procuring modern Russian tanks instead causing disinterest in the Arjun. Under political pressure and the dream of “Make in India” the project continued however and by 2009 two regiments were equipped with Arjun M1. However, only 37% of its components were of indigenous origin causing spare parts issues that had to be imported and were difficult to procure. This caused more than 75% of the fleet t to be grounded. The army further showed reluctance with Arjun causing further delays due to the following issues:
- Engine overheating
- Suboptimal performance of the weapons system
- Lack of accuracy despite rifled gun
- Subpar ammunition
- Low speed on rough terrain
- Armor vulnerabilities
- Over Weight
- Incompatibility with Indian Russian based armor doctrine (Based on German Leopard 2)
- Inflated cost of production (And many more minor issues)
DRDO started making claims of sabotage and distrust by Army officials. Later on, MK1A was introduced which fixed minor issues however many still exist such as weight, difficulty with logistics, rifled guns etc. As a result of this Indian army prefers Russian T-90s deployment on the frontlines while Arjun’s remain operational on a tactical level. The MK2 proposed design comes with its own list of issues such as even more added weight, underpowered engine, etc and hence has not been inducted yet causing more delays in the project (Instead Arjun MK1 was procured).
SAMHO Tank Gun Launched ATGM (ARDE)
First known trails : 2013
Publicly Revealed : 2014
Expected deployment : 2017-2018 (assumption)
First trail : Sep 2020
Second trail : Oct 2020
Third Trail : June 2022
Forth Trail : Aug 2022
Reasons for nonoperational status of SAMHO
According to available open-source information, we can assume SAMHO has been under development since the mid-2000s and is most probably based upon the already Indian-operated Soviet Era 9K111 Fagot ATGM (NATO designation AT-4 Spigot). Despite testing in 2013 it seems the project was frozen in 2014 when the majority of Arjun tank fleet became grounded due to a lack of spare parts. This is due to the fact that SAMHO was primarily designed to be fielded by Arjun and was no longer deemed feasible after the future of its launching platform was brought into question.
The SAMHO project was once again reactivated or rushed when Arjun MK1 was inducted into service, which explains testing in 2020 and 2022. The tests were labeled a success however official orders have still not been made which indicates that either SAMHO needs further development or the future of its platform Arjun is bleak. Online sources also state that it is being modified to be fielded by Indian T-90s which will require considerable adjustments due to the difference in Arjun 120mm rifled barrel and T-90 125mmsmooth bore / Subsystems compatibility.
NETRA AEW&CS (DRDO)
Project idea conceived : 2002
Project study, approval and development : 2003 – 2004
Choose base aircraft and deal with Embraer : 2008
Initial deployment plan : 2013
First Flight : Dec 2011
First Induction : 2017
Section Induction : 2019
Reasons for delays of NETRA AEW&CS
The NETRA AEW&CS on paper is a very important project for the Indian Air force and was supposed to fill in one of the IAF’s biggest shortcomings. However, despite the project starting in 2004, it has been delayed multiple times and faces criticism of corruption & mismanagement to this day. The main source of delays is DRDOs inability to meet IAF requirements (Causing redevelopment), time taken in choosing the base aircraft (Which was a mistake as it caused design constraints), multiple changes in radar antenna configuration, program costs crossing initial budget and corruption allegations.
Overall the Indian Air force officials remained skeptical of NETRA as it continued to not meet stated requirements, resulting in delayed & limited induction. The project in its current form has been delayed indefinably as AWAC program will be restarted & advanced upon a new platform (Airbus A321).
Tejas Light Multi Role Fighter (HAL)
LCA program : 1983
Plans drawn (Project definition) : 1986
First Flight : 2001
Prototype testing : 2003
Certification for release to service : 2011
Induction into air force : 2015
First squadron raised : 2016
Final operational clearance : 2019
Second Squadron raised : 2020
60% fleet grounded : 2021
Reasons for delay status of Tejas
HAL Tejas multirole fighter is the outcome of a decades old LCA project started back in the 1980s. From that time on, it would take until 2001 for the first flight to take place and 2003 for prototype testing to begin. The cause of such a long development time is several delays due to issues relating to the jet’s engine, weapons package, inflated cost, time taken to roll out the prototypes and “casual approach” of those involved as stated by the Indian news site TheEconomicTimes.
The problems do not stop there as even after the rollout of prototypes, the Indian Air force pointed out several issues such as underpowered engine / overweight devices in radar with the publicly famous “Made in India” Tejas. Under political pressure, the Indian Air force finally inducted Tejas in 2015, taking until 2020 to raise 2 squadrons. Meanwhile, the naval variant remains outright rejected due to weight issues.
In 2021 reports started surfacing that 60% of Tejas fleet was grounded due to technical issues and lack of spare parts (As most of Tejas is built upon imported components). Even today the Indian Airforce remains hesitant on future inductions but continues t be forced under political pressure and popular masses’ opinion. At the end of the day, after over 30 years of development, the much celebrated Tejas light multirole fighter remains undesired by its own armed forces and struggles to find export customers. This weapon system is perhaps the best example of Indian program’s delay & failure to operationalize indigenous weapon systems.