Indo-French Maitri Programme: Don't repeat BrahMos botch-ups

The Indo-French missile programme Maitri, basically a face-saving bailout of the completely botched Trishul (Dr Prahalada was candid about this when he spoke to me at DefExpo this year), is a good idea. It's fully in line with DRDO's new policy of prudent project management, inviting foreign technology where Indian technology -- or time constraints for the armed forces -- is restrictive. This week, a group of Indian journalists visiting Paris were told by MBDA, the French partner to DRDL in the programme, that the two agencies would "co-produce surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) on the lines of the Indo-Russian Brahmos missile". I posted the Maitri news here in May last year.

I'm just a little iffy about this whole comparison with the BrahMos business model. Because, to be fair, no matter how much everyone thinks the BrahMos model embodies all that is robust and prudent about military co-development, it has come to also be a manifestation of manipulation, diplomatic treachery, fundamental oversight and bold arrogance by the Russians. The BrahMos goofs have emboldened Russia in many ways to cock a snook at India in multiple programmes now -- the Gorshkov aircraft carrier , the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) and, as recently reported by Ajai Shukla, the engine NPO-Saturn has built for HAL's intermediate jet trainer (IJT Sitara) as well.

So here's a prescription of sorts, of what the governors of the Maitri programme should ensure so that they don't have to wring their hands five years from now, and bereave stepping into all-too-familiar BrahMos-style landmines, lacunae, fine-print and pitfalls.

For starters, let's not pretend the French are doing us any favours. They've got this juicy pie because Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) is stupendously corrupt, and the government has only begun to recognise that (it's anyone's guess, however, about who's raking it in on the follow on Phalcon deal!). So a testament to this should be confirmation from the French about how many of the Maitri systems they themselves will induct. The Russians were clever to hide -- and the Indians were stupid to miss -- this crucial point out in the BrahMos agreement. As a result, now Russia throws constitutional restrictions against inducting non-Russian equipment in India's face, while BrahMos Aerospace licks its wounds not quite knowing what to do.

Second, get a clear-cut export policy during the programme, so that when the missile is ready, it isn't tangled up in ridiculous red-tape about who we can and cannot export arms to. The BrahMos is still tethered to the ground because the MoD hasn't issued clear directives on who it can or cannot export to.

Third, ensure that unlike the BrahMos programme, the Maitri does not allow the French to shortchange us on technology. India needs the French for seeker and guidance systems, since the Trishul's three-beam guidance system simply could not be perfected. So make sure right from the start that they don't throw up their hands mid-stream. Creating infrastructure for ramjet technology (in the BrahMos) I admit would take a lot of doing -- but India has the infrastructure to absorb electronics and missile software development infrastructure.

The Hindu quotes MBDA CEO Antoine Bouvier, as saying, "The decision to field the MBDL-BDL-DRDO Maitri missile was not easy. We could have responded with products here. But want to give priority to our long-term vision. The intention is to offer systems produced entirely in India rather than those that are partly made.” -- that's sweet, noble, hogwash our DRDO folks shouldn't get sentimental about, as they routinely do.

The short-point. The BrahMos programme was a partial success. We've got to take all the bitter lessons we've learnt from BrahMos, and ensure that Maitri is a true success.

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