The Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft, worth some $11 billion, is currently the biggest military deal on the block. There are two prongs to the deal: providing the Indian Air Force with a so-called “4.5 generation” multi-mission aircraft and securing transfer of technology (ToT) to beef up the indigenous capability to design and develop sophisticated fighter planes. ToT comprises a substantial part of the payout. Except Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has lacked the wherewithal but, more importantly, the will to absorb and evolve transferred technologies. It has progressed not much beyond licensed production, which amounts to putting together planes from crated parts.
If HAL leadership had any vision and self-respect, it would long ago have chosen the more challenging path of nursing the requisite technology innovation skills to produce in-date warplanes, instead of remaining a mere serial assembler of aircraft – MiG-21, Jaguar, MiG-27, MiG-29, Su-30 MKI, and, in the future, the MMRCA and the Russian Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) – Sukhoi-PakFA (T-50). Foreign suppliers have happily adjusted to this Indian milieu where, notwithstanding the self-reliance rhetoric, top dollar is paid for supposedly total ToT without India insisting on the transfer of the “flight control laws” that reveal why the particular plane is built the way it is, and the “source codes” – millions of lines of software — that disclose just how the various aspects of the plane are constructed. Minus these laws and the codes, it is impossible to achieve core competence in combat aircraft design and development. Indeed, foreign suppliers these days take the money but refuse to part with even lesser technologies contracted for, pleading that strictures in their domestic laws prevent such transmission! An instance of this is France denying India inertial navigation-related angular and linear accelerometer (motion sensor) technology it had bought. So much for benefits accruing from transfer of technology!
The truth is that the present acquisitions system maximally facilitates corruption, however much Defence Minister AK Antony (aka “Saint Antony”) would have it otherwise. Thus, HAL is reduced to a bit player in part because the Department of Defence Production and the IAF favour importing high-value military aircraft. This is so because other than the political class habituated to direct augmentation of offshore accounts, bureaucrats, armed services officers, HAL staffers, et al, also have their snouts in the trough, gaining from generous bribes and payments in kind, such as immigrant visas and “scholarships” for their progeny to attend fine universities in the West. In earlier, simpler, times, a bottle of Scotch sufficed! With money to spend and more aircraft suppliers than buyers, an Indian government can compel supplier countries, including Russia, to onpass even the ultra secret flight control laws and source codes. It hasn’t done so for the obvious reason that it would choke off a rich source of black money and other goodies.
The more fundamental question is why’s IAF turning an already horrendous servicing and maintenance situation it’s saddled with – given its inventory boasting some 27 different types of planes — into an absolute logistics nightmare, by going in for yet another variety of aircraft and that too an MMRCA when it already has, and could acquire more of, the Su-30MKI, which fits the bill and, according to reputable international aviation experts, is the most powerful and versatile fighter-bomber aircraft flying bar the American F-22 Raptor? Certainly, none of the planes in the fray – the F-16IN, F-18 Super Hornet, Rafale, MiG-35, Typhoon, and Gripen, surpasses it in performance. The IAF, however, feels the need to “diversify” in order, it claims, to minimize the effects of the Russian spares stranglehold on Indian airpower. In that case, how to explain the $34 billion FGFA contract, which’ll perpetuate reliance on Moscow? The real problem with inducting the MMRCA and FFGA is that these aircraft are already almost obsolete. They are extremely vulnerable to advanced air defence systems and even their missions can be more effectively carried out by ballistic and cruise missiles in the strike role and the variable range drones for surveillance, ground attack and other tasks. If sophisticated pilotless aerial vehicles are the future then, as an interim solution it’d be more pragmatic to buy the whole lot of 126 new MMRCA off the shelf at enormously reduced unit cost and lifetime worth of spares at cut-rate prices, rather than throw good money into the farcical “ToT”. All of this’d be available for less than half the currently estimated price-tag. The large savings could be channelled into a high-tech drones programme.
In this regard, there have been some very questionable decisions. First, the Congress Party regime of PV Narasimha Rao in the mid-Nineties failed to insist on a quid pro quo of jointly-held Intellectual Property Rights for all Su-30MKI technologies and complete ToT inclusive of the “laws” and “codes” in exchange for the infusion of Rs 6,000 crores, which prevented the Su-30 programme from going under. Next, the IAF after failing in its bid to secure additional Mirage 2000 aircraft conjured up the MMRCA rather than consolidate its fighter strength by augmenting its Su-30 fleet. And lately, the IAF and the Manmohan Singh government passed up the opportunity for kick-starting an indigenous modern combat aircraft design and development effort by turning down an independent proposal by the Mikoyan Bureau. The progenitor of MiG fighter planes had suggested that India fund the development of its new “1.44” fighter it has designed to equal, even exceed, F-22 performance parameters. In return, India was to jointly own all its technologies and the rights to further develop this platform, and produce it for IAF use and world-wide sales. The excuse for Delhi’s nyet was that the Russian government, which backed the Sukhoi Bureau and had vested interest in promoting its sales, warned that India would be making all the financial investments and bearing all the risks. Given the solid track record of the MiG Bureau, this was a no-brainer. But when have the risk-averse and strategically short-sighted Indian government and IAF acted sensibly?
[Published as "Whiskey Charlie" in 'The Asian Age'& 'The Deccan Chronicle', May 3, 2011 at www.asianage.com/columnists/whiskey-charlie-915 ]