Wings Of Fire

In the early 60s, he successfully developed a hovercraft in the early 60s called Nandi, which moved on an air cushion of about 40 mm with a load of 550 kg. Kalam notes ruefully that India continues to import hovercrafts even today.

Thanks to President Abdul Kalam’s immense popularity, a book of non-fiction has found a place in several Indian homes. His autobiography Wings Of Fire is a bestseller for years. I got to reading it only now.

The book has an anecdote about Werner von Braun.* von Braun visited in India and Kalam had the opportunity to meet him. von Braun was impressed with the efforts of the Indian scientists in developing indigenous technology and the enormouse challenges they faced in the process. At that time, Indian efforts in the fields of space and nuclear science were looked with suspicion by developed countries and few came forward to help the country. von Braun told Kalam:

America is a country of great possibilities but they look upon everything un-American with suspicion and contempt. They suffer from a deep-rooted NIH (Not Invented Here) complex and look down on alien technologies. If you want to do anything in rocketry, do it yourself… SLV-3 is a genuine design and you may be having your own troubles. But, you should always remember that we don’t just build on success; we also build on failures.

Events that followed proved that von Braun was right. After the successful flight of the Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV-3), the world reacted with shock. Kalam says:

Gary Milholin, a so-called specialist in missiles and warhead technologies, had made a claim in The Wall Street Journal that India had made Agni with the help of West Germany. I had a hearty laugh reading that German Aerospace Research Establishment (DLR) had developed Agni’s guidance system, the first stage rocket, and a composite nose cone, and that the aerodynamic model of Agni was tested in the DLR wind tunnel. An immediate denial came from the DLR, who in turn speculated that France had supplied the Agni guidance electronics. American Senator Jeff Bingaman even went to the extent of suggesting that I picked up everything needed for Agni during my four-month stay at Wallop’s Island in 1962. The fact that at that time the technology was not in existence was not mentioned.

In May 1998, India conducted a series of nuclear tests in Pokhran. The biggest surprise was that the tests were conducted in total secrecy. A missile test was scheduled on the same day in Chandipur (Orissa) and American spy satellites were busy observing the missile test and missed the action in the Rajastan desert. But, the Newsweek magazine claimed that American intelligence had indeed spotted the activity. They suggested the spooks were on their way to inform their President but by then the Indian government had already made the announcement to the world. Contrary to this, the U.S. News & World Report quoted an unnamed intelligence official who claimed that spies in the US government had betrayed the locations of American spy satellites to the Indian government. Of course, when it came to doubting the Indian government’s claims on the yeilds from the nuclear tests, the American media spoke in one voice. There were even doubts that a thermonuclear test was even conducted! That fact that India had been engaged nuclear research since the 50s, had already tested a nuclear device in 1975 and had been reprocessing fissile material for several decades had no meaning to them. Foreign media crews however roamed the streets to cover protests but were treated to wild celebrations of joy. The irrepressible BBC later made a documentary that showed an unidentified Bishnoi villager (his face was not shown) who claimed that he actually saw a big mushroom cloud after the tests! Again, the fact that it was an underground test escaped them.

Kalam also mentions Tipu Sultan who pioneered the use of rockets in India. After Tipu Sultan was killed in 1799, the British captured 700 rockets and subsystems of 900 rockets. These were then taken to England for reverse engineering. Despite his humble beginnings, Tipu Sultan was way ahead of his time. It is no wonder that he was much maligned by British Company historians.

Abdul Kalam did have his detractors. In the early 60s, he successfully developed a hovercraft in the early 60s called Nandi, which moved on an air cushion of about 40 mm with a load of 550 kg. The project’s principal backer was Krishna Menon, the defence minister in Nehru’s cabinet. After Menon’s resignation, the hovercraft development stopped. Kalam notes ruefully that India continues to import hovercrafts even today.

This kind of waste is not limited to hovercrafts. We keep buying all kinds of weapons from Western countries when they could have been developed in India. Why do we do this? A proper answer to this question can be found if one has read the transcripts from the Tehelka scandal. Buying from Russia or from Indian makers such as HAL offers no thrills to the babus in the Ministry of Defence and to the officers in the military. There are no middlemen involved. There is no party, no kickbacks and no fun. This is also the reason why Indian defence projects like the Arjun Main Battle Tank (MBT) and Advanced Technology Vessel¤ (nuclear-powered submarine) fail to take off.

India has the licence to produce a limited number of Sukhoi-30 aircraft in India. The Russian MAPO-MiG company has also offered to sell top-class fighters to India at prices that are a fraction of similar Western aircraft. Would India buy them? No, they want the American F-16, at least 126 of them. Even the American air force is not buying these outdated aircraft anymore. Several former service chiefs have written to the government protesting the planned purchase. The way United States has behaved in the past should have offered little comfort to the planners. Remember that the U.S. prevented India from acquiring Cray supercomputers. (It is of course a different story that the guys at C-DAC Pune took this as a challenge built more powerful machines.) The United States had also prevented the Russian space agency Glavkosmos from transfering cyrogenic rocket engine technology. The sanctions on Glavkosmos are still in place.

The case with Britain is not much different. British-built Sea King helicopters were grounded because of a lack of spares, which were covered by US sanctions. Yet, India had signed a contract to buy 66 British Aerospace Hawk Advance Jet Trainers. As in the case of F-16s, the Royal Air Force has refused to buy these planes.

Also, when Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister, he bought several helicopters from Britain in a deal that was pushed by Margaret Thatcher. The helicopters had numerous safety problems and the entire fleet was grounded. The uselesss hardware started rusting away in a military depot. When the Indian Air Force tried to sell it off as scrap, it made a few embarrassing headlines. Britain put a lot of pressure on the government to stop the sale.

One can never be really sure if weapons bought from these countries will be working for our benefit or for someone else. When India received an aircraft carrier from the Soviet Union, long-range maritime surveillance aircraft from several NATO countries followed the warship, as it sailed from Russian shores to India. Besides this vessel, India had a British-built aircraft carrier. Was the NATO anxiousness about it? No, they always knew exactly where the warship was and did not care much.

When Narasimha Rao was Prime Minister, India installed a civilian radar system in the capital built by the American defence major Lockheed Martin. All aircraft flying in and out of the capital would be visible on the radar, giving the US unprecedented access to real-time military data. During the previous BJP regime, George Fernades fitted several Indian warships with Israeli Barak missiles. Worse still, India is planning to buy their AWACS system, an airborn radar that can track enemy and friendly aircraft. Now, they will know what we do see and what we don’t see. In a war, the U.S. can pass on this information to Pakistan if it wants to. Talks are also on with the U.S. to buy Patriot anti-missile complexes, which if deployed will be tracking targets in our airspace.

Already, stringers in the media are passing off salesmen literature as stragic affairs reading. Quoted below is a The Economic Times piece titled Strategic Paradigm Shift by “security expert” K. Subrahmanyam. Content inside brackets are mine.

we have the ability today to translate defence equipment purchases into a larger technology relationship that would cover high-end outsourcing. As a result, even in a short time span, we can foster a reverse dependency by the US…
[American arms industry could really become dependent on India! Hurray!]

No US president can give an assurance that Congress would not interrupt sales in the future…
[Not so much of a problem with the Russians or even the French]

if our purchases and collaborations turn substantial, the stakes for the US companies and legislators dependent on them would be too high to invoke sanctions lightly…
[In other words, India should greatly increase its weapons import bill with the U.S.]

The growing trade gap with the US is likely to lead to pressures on outsourcing…
[Are the Americans really talking about their TRADE GAP with India? Wow!]

The debate over data privacy could easily assume a protectionist colouring.
[Americans are stupid. You can get away with huge arms purchases alone. New Indian laws on data protection? Nah, they are not needed.]

Sometime in the 90s, a gadget maker in Britain released a mobile phone that did not feature a receive-call button or a ring tone. The phone automatically picks up the call when its is dialled. Who would buy such phones? Jealous spouses, for example. Suppose a guy suspects his wife is having an affair and entertaining him in the house. The husband could buy this phone and hide it in the bedroom. From his office, the husband can dial the phone, listen to the sounds in the phone’s vicinity and thereby keep tabs on his wife. Now, the question is what if the United States uses this technology with the military hardware that they are planning to sell us? Worse, what if the United States is using this technology with the military hardware that have been already sold to us?

* – von Bruan was the famous German rocket scientist who made the infamous V-2 missiles. Thousands of these rockets were manufactured by the Nazis and caused a great deal of damage in London during the Second World War. After Germany’s defeat, like many of her scientists, von Braun was taken to the United States. In the States, von Braun was given the top position in the rocketry programme by the NASA. Working for the US Army, von Braun developed the Jupiter missile, the first IRBM (Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile) with a range of 3000 km. In short, there was none bigger than von Braun in the field of rocket science at that time.

† – Kalam went to the US to get trained on sounding rockets. These rockets do not have the capacity to escape into space. They are primarily used for measuring atmospheric phenomenon.

‡ – Breaking all rules of defence research, Kalam employed scientists and researchers from civilian institutions like the IISc and CSIR. For example, it was a team of students who developed computer-based modelling programs for the Agni.

¤ – Officially, Indian government denies the existence of the project. But, a military scientist and Dr. Raja Ramanna clashed openly in a series of articles about the project in the Open Page of The Hindu.