[Reproduced below is an e-letter, dated Aug 10, 2014, from a highly respected Airman, a former test pilot and AOC-in-C, Operational Command, who wishes to remain anonymous.]
I read your pieces Fire Up Defence Industry & Favour Tejas to Meet IAF Needs with great interest as indeed I do your other writings.
I thought I would take the liberty of sharing with you my personal experiences borne out of having been intimately involved with the IAF Plans Branch and as a test pilot both with DRDO and the Industry.
In ‘Fire Up the Defence Industry’ whilst talking of the HF 24 programme you make the point about a foreign aircraft fixated Air Force and the aircraft being aborted for being underpowered. Also that this has resulted in an endless cycle of licensed manufacture.
Whilst it is true that the HF 24 did not get the uprated Orpheus and hence fell short of level supersonic performance, we had found it to be a first class ground attack platform. I can say with confidence that the squadrons were happy and if HAL had continued to promptly address its technical, maintenance and other design problems, perhaps it would have served the IAF well.
HAL could not introduce design changes to clear the aircraft to fire its four 30mm canons in service and there were in-service fire problems that led to serious accidents and prolonged grounding. In my view having got the HF 24 into service, the HAL design team lost interest in keeping up with in -service design changes (which are essential for any aircraft-I think the Hunter clocked many thousands in service modifications).
Instead they had their eyes on the HF 24 Mk 1R which was the airframe with GTRE modified Orpheus Reheat engines. We had many a lively discussions with the design team and I recollect their complete belief that this should enter service, not with standing the fact that modification of the rear fuselage to accommodate the reheat had increased drag and affected speed performance to below that of the Mk1! Sadly Gp Capt Das’s fatal accident put an end to this futile debate.
The HF Mk 2 was proposed with the Mig 21 (If I remember the R 25 engine). Again this would have involved major aerodynamic changes and we were not sure how this would affect the performance of a Kurt design with an ‘area ruled’ fuselage shape. Ultimately I think the proposal was dropped by HAL itself when they saw that the IAF had reservations. Such a programme even if it were viable would not have achieved fruition in time to prevent seriously depleting the IAF’s strike capability.
(You do mention Raj Mahindra in the context of the HF Mk II and if I recollect he did appreciate our reservations on modifying the HF 24 fuselage for an R 25 engine. I may mention that we worked very closely with him on clearing the HJT 16 for the IAF including the difficult spinning trials. He was truly a hands-on designer who worked so closely with us that we were one team. Perhaps this is one reason the HJT 16 has served the IAF so well for so long)
In the late sixties IAF had identified a requirement of a Fighter-bomber, as we could see that Medium Bombers like the Canberra were becoming vulnerable. After the 1971 operations, some instances of corrosion were reported from both the Hunter and Canberra fleets. This would have had a serious impact on our strike capability. This, along with our ASR for a DPSA resulted in the Jaguar induction, which was cleared by the Morarji government.
In the mid seventies the following areas were drawing our attention in the Plans Branch.
· Reduce multiplicity of types
· Reduce total dependence on Only Soviet source
· Aim for a balanced Force- Mix of High performance/High Cost & Light/low cost. Keep affordability fully in mind
· Ensure that indigenous design and production expertise grows
That is why the Ajeet programme was launched by HAL even as the LCA requirement was being formulated.
Unfortunately, in a way, the Ajeet followed the same trajectory as the HF. As soon as it entered service our industry started to look for the next design project. Not surprisingly the Ajeet, like the HF was prematurely withdrawn from service. Having been part of the HAL team during the Ajeet development I can say that enough was not done by the industry to keep this programme afloat perhaps because they had their eyes on the LCA!
It was the desire for a relatively light, maneuverable and not very high speed and low cost primarily a ground aircraft in our inventory that resulted in our evolving the initial LCA ASR. Unfortunately this was hijacked by the scientific community who wanted to build a world-class light aircraft with multi role capability. What we were promised was an indigenous design with indigenous engine and indigenous multi mode radar in a time frame to replace our ageing Mig 21. Having deliberately kept the IAF out during the Project Definition Phase when many critical decisions were taken (Arun Singh was told that IAF was coming in the way of a fast track project) the IAF was finally asked to comment of the PDP report. I can say with hindsight that every cautionary note that we struck in that report has been more than proven by subsequent events. I have often written that purely as an exercise to learn lessons, an institution like the College of Defence Management should conduct a management study of how this vital project has been mishandled by personalities for egoistic ends.
As if this was not a challenge itself, HAL Design was kept out and instead a Society to oversee ADA was formed to manage the project. So we have ADA as the design authority, HAL as the production agency and one responsible for providing product support to the IAF. ADA will be busy with the next generation design and when in service problems arise, one can visualize passing the buck between HAL and ADA with the IAF facing the consequences! I do not wish to be a pessimist, but my experience cautions me of a repeat of the HF 24 and Ajeet histories. Sadly at great cost to the nation.
Let me also say that the IAF could boast of the finest Plans Branch and planning systems starting from the sixties. Integrated within the system were not just test pilots and engineers but financial planners as well. Our Air Staff Requirements were thoroughly made and then not compromised. Because planning is a long-term activity, people with experience were rotated within the system.
ASRs were what the IAF needed not what others thought we needed. So when the LCA ASR was being discussed and the DRDO wanted these to be moderated, the ASR was not changed. Instead the concession was mentioned against the required performance. In the ASR. Similarly, if for some reason of cost or availability, the MOD wanted concessions to be made, these were recorded as concessions with reasons and not as changes to ASR.
I must say to my regret that from the early nineties IAF leaderships, for whatever reason, failed to maintain the integrity of the Planning Branch. Whether it was external pressures or those from within, it is not for me to say, although I have my serious reservations on some of the leaderships of the time. Committing the IAF to the Su 30 heavy fighter within a year of the Chief saying there was no such requirement (and that too a two cockpit fighter which has a huge impact on pilot demands) is I believe an event that has not been studied enough nor commented upon. The rot was setting in and the recent revelations about the VVIP helicopter Staff Requirements being changed due to extraneous factors merely confirms this and does not surprise me.
I have always believed and advocated that we as a nation have the wherewithal to become a producer of world-class aeroplanes. What is lacking is a strategy and to work as one. When Dr Kalam was President of the Aeronautical Society of India a paper was put up for a National Aeronautics Policy. In 2004 the AeSI revised the proposal and a paper titled ‘National Aeronautics Policy’ August 2004 was put up to the government. As one of the Vice Presidents of the Society at the time I was one of the principal architects of this paper. I understood that the then NSA Mani Dixit was pursuing it, but perhaps because of his untimely demise no follow-up took place.
I do share concern of where IAF plans are leading us. I thought that as a historian and academic you may be interested in some of the more hidden aspects from the other side as it were, aspects which otherwise will die as generations move on, depriving us to draw appropriate lessons.