China's defence industry offers lessons to India - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Sunday 17 July 2011

China's defence industry offers lessons to India

Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 18th Jul 2011

In a closed-door discussion here on Thursday, a leading authority on China's military modernisation explained how that country's People's Liberation Army (PLA, the term embraces navy and air force, too) has transformed into a top-rung, largely indigenously equipped force in barely a decade, even as India's military languishes as the world's biggest importer of defence equipment.

Tai Ming Cheung, who spoke to the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, is a professor working with the US Pentagon's Minerva Project, in which academics like him pore over Beijing's Chinese-language releases to track military and technological developments within the PLA.

Tai noted both China and India were "catch-up countries", attempting a technological leapfrog by taking just decades to reach a technology level that Western countries had taken more than a century to achieve. China still trails the US and western European powers, but is catching up fast, powered by an official science & technology (S & T) roadmap that the leadership backs. From a global innovativeness ranking of 24 in 2004, China jumped to six in 2009. It now targets fifth place by 2020, with global leadership in the high-tech arenas of space, nuclear, information technology and biotechnology. By 2040-50, China aims at S & T parity with the US.

"Until the late 1990s, the Chinese approach to defence S & T was in a much worse state than what India is in today. They have been able to deal with a lot of these issues in the last decade alone," says Tai.

The change

India largely plays by established rules — technology denial regimes, and an intellectual property rights (IPR) regime to safeguard technology leads. While, China has benefited from its willingness to defy rules. Beijing's opportunism was evident in the early 1990s, from its large-scale recruitment of out-of-work scientists from the former Soviet Union. Its careful strategising is evident from an innovation plan endorsed and pushed from the highest levels of the political and military leadership.

"Hu Jintao (the Chinese president) always talks about S & T being a key component of the race for comprehensive national strength. China sees S & T as a zero-sum game; they can't afford to depend upon foreign countries for critical technologies. Stealing, reverse engineering and cloning is acceptable," says Tai.

At the start of the 21st century, in its first step towards becoming an innovative military builder, China embarked on a process of 'creative adaptation'. Using its imitative capabilities, its aerospace industry indigenised critical parts of the Russian Sukhoi-27 fighter (an earlier version of India's Su-30MKI), developing it into the "indigenous" J-11B fighter. In this high-end imitation, the basic platform remained Russian but key avionics, including the fire control system, were Chinese.

"It is all about being able to absorb technology from outside," says Tai. "In catch-up countries, it is initially all about absorptive capacity, not about invention. The equipment has already been built elsewhere."

Emboldened by Russia's passive acceptance of the Su-27 IPR violations, China embarked upon its innovation path, the first step of which was 'incremental innovation'. As evident from the J-10A, still China's frontline fighter, this involves developing a basic platform and then incrementally indigenising and improving it, batch by batch. The J-10A initially contained many Russian and Israeli components, which the Chinese gradually indigenised.

From here, China moved to ‘architectural innovation', transforming existing systems by rearranging their architecture. A commercial example is the iPad. Most of its components had been around for a while, but Apple rearranged these into a radical new product. In a similar way, Chinese engineers juggled existing technologies to build a missile that specifically targeted US Navy aircraft carriers, the Dong Feng 21B anti-ship ballistic missile. The DF-21B has surprised US defence planners not just technologically but also operationally, forcing them to cater to a completely new operational threat.

The third level of innovation, with which China is currently struggling, is ‘component innovation'. In this, improved components — microprocessors, precision engineered parts, digital components, etc — are used to improve platform efficiency. But this requires advanced scientific and technological skills, making such innovation difficult for a catch-up country.

"The Chinese have not been able to develop a world-class turbofan engine; their microprocessor capabilities are still relatively poor. So, they don't yet qualify as a component innovator," says Tai.

But on January 11 this year, when the Chinese J-20 stealth fighter made its first flight, there was a global firestorm of speculation that China had conducted a coup in 'disruptive innovation'. This ultimate form of innovation combines architectural with component innovation, assembling improved components into a creative new design. But Tai dismisses such talk: "The J-20 is not really a 'disruptive innovation'. It lacks the component level innovations and is, therefore, merely an architectural innovation."


Nevertheless, China's defence industry has achieved major recent successes, triggered by its restructuring at the end of the 20th century. Earlier, the Chinese defence industry was separated, Soviet style, between research and development (R & D) and manufacturing units. When the R & D developed a product, the defence industrial ministry — called the Commission for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence (Costin) —would assign a factory to build the equipment. But when the factory got the blueprints, there was confusion because they had not been involved in the design.

"The Chinese leadership saw that this did not help the national interest; it only helped the defence industry. One of the first reforms was to overturn the power of Costin and allow the military a central role in overseeing the defence industry. If you don't have end-users, particularly war fighters and the acquisitions community, playing a central role, then you're not going to have innovation. If you're just going to have industry administrators, then they are going to be looking just at their interests," says Tai.

The result has been surging growth in the innovativeness of Chinese defence industry. In 1998, they filed for 313 patents. In 2008, it had gone up to 11,000 patents. In 2010, 15,000 patents were applied for.

India's defence industry today mirrors its Chinese counterpart in 1998. The R & D element (the DRDO) functions separately from the manufacturing element (the defence PSUs). India's military has little say, and no oversight, in what is researched and manufactured. And the Indian ministry of defence's department of defence production is an accurate mirror image of China's Costin, pushing back the innovative private sector to safeguard the interests of the state-owned enterprises.


  1. Yawnn.. Too much recycled garbage under fanciful names. The chinese have been "reverse engineering" or doing whatever fanciful "innovation" name you gave it since the 1960s when the Soviets cut off further support after the Mig-21 line was established and all plans transferred to China. China could build only modified versions of the Fishbed for so long.. same story with it's bomber and transport fleet.

    This reverse engineered flankers is just history repeating itself. Nothing new here. The only thing new here is your "packaging" it under some new "innovation" bucket and trying to sell it as some hot news! Nice try. But unfortunately old wine in new bottle I am afraid.

  2. Where does the Chinese industry offering lessons to India ? Isn't the Chinese origin US based Professor giving lessons.

  3. India's Technological strength will increase BUT VERY SLOWLY

    THIRTY years from now we would be self reliant Not before that

    It is not possible for India to be exactly like China

    In India all top engineering talent joins
    1.Private Corporate sector by doing MBA
    2. goes to USA
    3. Joins Civil services , Foreign banks

    Remaining talent joins companies like L & T ,Reliance etc

    SO govt R& D setor like DRDO ISRO DAE have to take the bottom half of the talent pool

    Then you have attrition in Govt R&D sector

    So Forget about China In Hindi we say
    " JO HAI SO HAI " it means What is there is there

    We must be happy that Atleast today we have the dollars to IMPORT WEAPONS

  4. Col. Shukla -

    Fantastic article.

    Sadly, no one is paying heed, or thinking of doing anything corrective. We will continue buying, and we will not innovate, unless something really disruptive happens to the deeply embedded thinking and philosophy and practices amongst our bureaucrats and PSU managements.

    China will keep pulling ahead, while we talk bull.

  5. So right, DPSU's need to inverse the ratio of 90% chest beating and 10% results. I also loved the dragons approach of having a true result oriented defense industry, unlike sam's.

    However the dragon is known to make its adversaries complacent by putting out stories following acheivements, that they are still way behind. It would not do India any good if it fell into this trap of how far behind they are compared to the US.

    Your blog has come a long way from the F35 homilies. Your last two stories made enjoyable reading.

  6. Great article! I would just add as a closing comment that the interests of the DPSUs are not necessarily those od the country or its defence needs.

  7. @Ajai sir

    If you remember sometime back i had written in response to one of your articles that

    'India needs to enhance its abilities to reverse engineer weapon systems.'

    to which you said 'first we need to figure out our priorities and enhance our capabilities before trying to reverse engineer weapon systems'

    Now you yourself have published an article how China has taken reverse engineering to new heights.

    In this context I would like to say a few things related to this topic

    1. There have been reports that IAF wants to put a serving officer in charge of HAL, I think it will definately help in enhanced co-ordination and faster target achievement.

    2. India Army is set to give out FICV contract to private sector firms, this will enhance private sector participation in defense sector.

    For example, they can be asked to develop on the lighter FICVs with improvisation like outfitting them with 105 mm IFG that will give the APC heavy firing capability, a big advantage in mountainous areas of Sikkim, Arunachal, Himachal or J&K where Arjun, T-72, T90S/M cant operate properly since the roads or terrain are unsuitable.

    3. DRDO labs can do simple reverse engineering work such as developing the Smerch 12 cell battery into a 8 cell battery on a 24 ton Tata TEL autoloader.

    IAF is looking for Cluster Bombs and Bunker Busters, either we ask for TOT or we can work on them or develop a similar by involving pvt co or engineering colleges.

    4. We must stop going to international market to buy small spare parts, and promote companies like IPCL of Bhavnagar which manufactured India’s first Multi Mode Radar for Tejas aircraft and ask them to develop more products indigenously.

    5. We must allow pvt co or even DPSU to source men, materials from around the world (Russian, German, Americans) to develop weapon systems.

    6. Above all we must stop buying steel from foreign countries.

    Adopting these simple steps can help India develop much faster than China because their base is weapons development is copy and steal whereas our base in weapons development is ingenuity.

    awaiting your response


    Joydeep Ghosh

  8. @Anonymous 11:09

    Yawnn indeed! We on earth are you reading anything at all... since you know it all already.

    You are one of those typical unsophisticated boors that can only see equivalences, not the subtle differences that mark changes in approach and policy.

    "Oh, the Chinese have always done reverse engineering"... My friend, that's what the article says! Only, the Chinese professor articulates how this reverse engineering is moving on to different forms of innovation.

    By the way, I'm not packaging anything here. This is a straight news report that describes an analysis of how the Chinese defence industry is moving ahead.

    But let it be... forget it. You simply won't get it. You just know too much already.

  9. @Anonymous 12:21

    You're have serious difficulties with the English language here!

    Mahatma Gandhi offers us an object lesson in how to conduct our lives. And he does it by providing an example... not by standing in front of us and saying, "THIS IS HOW YOU SHOULD BEHAVE".

    The same way, merely by being, the Chinese defence industry offers an example to the Indian defence industry.

    Get it?

  10. QUOTE>>"It is all about being able to absorb technology from outside," says Tai. "In catch-up countries, it is initially all about absorptive capacity, not about invention. The equipment has already been built elsewhere."<<UNQUOTE - A great thought.

    In backward countries the R&D profession, activities and innovations are generally looked down as time consuming and wastage of money. So the things keep on returning back to square one.

    I feel shocked to know that no one in India has so far innovated any light battle tank.

  11. Ajai G, Did I notice something here ? You reply more to negative comments, than the positive ones.. Is that so ? Just a thought !

    btw I wud be happy if India has the capability to reverse engineer stuffs, let alone doing it or not doing it...Hope we develop this secretly, should we do not have one, this should come handy at desperate times....

  12. Sala ek car engine to reverse engineer kiya nahi aaj tak, baki kya khaak karenge ?

  13. Our S&T minister also happens to be the newly elected president of Mumbai Cricket Association. Does S&T offer the glamour of MCA? Are there bollywood divas, wannabes in attendance at dos by Ministry of Science & Technology? Thought not, how do you expect the father of a bollywood actor to take charge of the unglamorous ministry? The chinese should learn from us. The future is entertainment: cricket, movies, magic..that is our soma pill.

  14. Digvijay Singh19 July 2011 at 02:58

    We will not make Indian weapon systems because then the Hindus will learn to make them and RSS will make bomb factories and VHP will become powerful and then nada nada blah blah.

  15. I think its opposite. Indian armed forces need to learn from PLA specially Army and Air force.

    India is the only country in the world where endogenous weapons have to compete with foreign system for Indian armed forces bid. India is the only country where if an indigenous solution is available Indian armed forces still goes for floating global tender for same type of weapons.

  16. Defense procurement is one of the biggest sources of corruption in India. The agents of the MNCs supplying military gears are also indulging in actions to discourage indigenous production of military equipment and systems. Every government at centre since independence has been affected by this corrupt influence. Due to this corrupt syndrome, indigenous manufacturing of military equipment and systems have suffered. It is a glaring case of poor and corrupt governance In India. This is also an important reason for slow eradication of poverty in our country.
    Indigenous production of military hardware will generate technology that can be used for both military as well as civilian purpose. The following steps are urgently required to be taken by the government.
    1. Expand and modernize all defense PSUs and ordinance factories.
    2. Sell ten percent of shares of these PSUs in the market. This action will generate transparency in their operations and improve competitiveness.
    3. Ordinance factories must be grouped and converted into PSUs.
    4. DRDO must sell its technology to both public and private sectors.
    5. Exports of military equipment must become a focus area for India.
    It is time for all including civil societies to review the situation. Also, it is of concern that the image of military officers in the society is deteriorating continuously. Corrective actions are urgently required to remedy this.

  17. Ajai, the last few articles have been a good read. Thanks for continuing to do good journalism. We need many more like you in India.

    Coming to this article, it was interesting to read what the Chinese have achieved in the last few decades and how, as well as the lessons in it for India. India does have a couple of unique advantages that it needs to press home with - its competitive private sector and the willingness of all major foreign defense corporations to partner with it. If this could be combined with a change in the protective mindset of the Indian govt. defense establishment (and there are signs that this is happening slowly but surely), there would be a revolution.

    At the core of the Indian problem is the insecurity of the Indian political establishment and its refusal to fully trust its military, which then translates into a reluctance to empower and involve the military in critical decision making.

  18. Anon 01:48

    Have you heard about Kaveri Engine. It is afterburner turbofan with 80kN baby we in India can make engine with output of 7272hp. Thus, to make it simpler for your little brain making 90hp is certainly very small undertaking compared to 7272hp engine already developed by us. Also, Arjun MK2 will be engined in India after learning from Kaveri development.Moreover, have you heard of company called Maruti Suzuki they have developed K-series engine, extremely fuel efficient engine in India. So my recommendation if you are writing on this blog, probably you have access to google too...therefore use it before you exposed shallowness of your expertise. Developing engine is one thing but having a commercial venture out of developing new engine is separate.

  19. The blame lies with the DRDO, has it ever been asked to account for its actions ? What has happeened to the Ramarao committee implementation ?
    Can thye not find replacements to the senile idiots running the top programmes ? first they are employed for life through extensions and they through consultancy. Do they need to work on irrelevant areas and spend tax payers money ? have they ever been subject to CAG Audit

  20. How can you expect these people(DPSUs) to make top class defense equipment? They cant even secure a job for repairing air conditioners at Voltas.

  21. We need to learn a lot from China

  22. Yawnn. Oh so sophisticated Ajai Shukla gets needled when some points out that this "innovation" business is only a smokes and mirror show, nothing new.

    The airwaves are abuzz with a new Chinese "innovation". Yes, the Apple Stoer (it is not a misspell)

    This the original woman who broke that story and got picked up by media around the world..

    Now if this is the kind of "innovation" that India should be trying to do (how differrent is a cloned Flanker different from a cloned Apple Store, both being poor rip offs),like the Chinese, you are welcome to it!

  23. This was a good article. A link to the lecture, if available, would be much appreciated.

  24. Many people commenting here seem to think that S&T parity with the west would require waiting for 1 more century. How stupid can people, especially those from the scummy recesses of sites like bharat rakshak and get. China is moving ahead only because something changed there in the year 2000. We are still bogged down my a myriad of scams involving top military brass and people in the defense ministry.

    It is typical Indian habit to question every bit of wisdom no matter how well thought out unless said wisdom doesn't originate from the cynic's own mouth. Most of our middle class also clings to the illusion of a cheap, no good, reverse engineering automatons of China that has been fed to them by the western media. They don't realize that regurgitating the media version without any introspection makes them just what they think the Chinese are.

    The first steps, however, in having a decent defense industry is not simply privatization, but more transparency which removes the bad eggs in our system and increases accountability. As we are seeing in every sector in our country, random privatization without any anti monopoly laws or systems which check corporate misdemeanor, simply does more harm than good.

  25. Col. Shukla,

    why do you need to make a personal attack while disagreeing with a poster's views - for e.g. your replies at 19:06 and 19:13. there is bound to be some criticism - and you are big enough to take it on the chin if justified or ignore it entirely. Meanness is uncalled for.

    PS: I tend to agree with the article though !

  26. Yawn.. More "Chinese Innovation" on the lines you talked about. A "cloned"/"improved" Chinese Bombardier train stalls and a "cloned"/"improved" Kawasaki train rams it from behind and the Chinese bury the mangled wreckage without even bothering to take the dead bodies out of it within 24 hours to "safeguard" , "vital national secrets" . Is that Chinese speak for coverup ? Ah, yes, and we have learned folks saying that there should be "transparency" (like the Chinese?). and oh, the Chinese committee to find the cause of the accident will examine exactly what, now that the wreck has been buried?

  27. Ajay, great reading your comments. Just ignore those who only insist on repeatedly disagreeing with what is said but refuse to make any useful or meaningful suggestions. Getting the user in the defense design-production loop is the most important step which our government somehow does not permit. I had covered many of these issues in my book "China;s Power Projection" published in 2005 by the USI but unfortunately not many thought it worthwhile reading the book. Best of luck and regards, Ramesh Phadke


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