Leadership has often been the difference between a successful and failed indigenous armament or weapons development project to which national prestige is committed. After the departure of Dr Kurt Tank from the HF-24 supersonic fighter project and the sidelining of Dr Raj Mahindra when the Mk-II of this aircraft was killed by IAF in order to procure the Anglo-French Jaguar low level strike aircraft, which mission the Marut Mk-II would have done far better. It initiated the process of IAF going over lock and stock and barrel to importing combat aircraft to the detriment of the security of the country and the national interest, a direction a seemingly unconcerned Indian govt actively encouraged — with defence minister Jagjivan Ram in the post-Emergency Janata govt allegedly pocketing rich commissions as the Maneka Gandhi edited magazine’Surya’ then claimed.
For the first time now Tejas will have two tested and proven persons at the wheel, with the Indian govt finally doing the right thing for a change with respect to the LCA. It has appointed Commodore CD Balaji, fresh from his success spearheading the development of the naval variant of Tejas as chief of the Aeronautical Development Agency, Bangalore. It was Balaji who ensured, for instance, that the navalised Tejas is a far more advanced aircraft than its air force sibling. Levcons (leading edge vortex controllers) have been configured into its airframe, making it a far more maneuverable warplane able, for instance, to pull high angles of attack at low speeds. Balaji’s hands-on control, commitment, and ability to eliminate/remove systemic and procedural obstacles are by now the stuff of legend. Senior US Navy officers whom I met in Washington some years back, who were part of the consultancy team Pentagon approved to liaise with the Balaji project, were full of praise for the streamlined manner in which everything worked, something they confessed they did did not expect. The USN consultants were hired to advice on such things as the strengthening of the aircraft’s fuselage, the exact placement of the arrester hook, the choice of an appropriate jet engine with the needed power-rating, etc.
In parallel with Balaji taking over ADA, Commodore Jaydeep Maolankar has assumed command of the National Flight Test Centre, also in Bangalore, replacing Air Commodore Muthanna, who was in place since 2011. NFTC with its team of test pilots is tasked with testing aircraft for their air worthiness and ability to do combat maneuvers they are designed for. Mavlankar, an MS in aerospace engineering from IISc, like Balaji at ADA, is the right fit — the proverbial round peg in a round hole (unlike the history of GOI usually appointing the wrong persons to lead critically significant high-technology projects and then wondering why they veer off into failure) So, the designer agency and testing unit will be in sync and Tejas can now expect to begin rolling fast to cross certification hurdles.
The important thing to note is that both Balaji and Maolankar are senior naval officers, and typify the navy’s quite commendable levels of commitment and eagerness to validate and operate indigenous military hardware, in this case, combat aircraft. It indicates defmin Manohar Parrikar’s recognition about the importance of getting the Tejas inducted into operational squadrons in the navy and air force fast. It is perhaps the first tremendously right and potent set of appointments he has made. It is now for him to ensure Messrs Balaji and Maolankar are not tripped up by the usual villains lurking in the corners — mostly in IAF and not least in his own ministry of defence and its department of defence production. He needs in particular roughly to drag IAF by the ear, if necessary, so to say, to appreciating and prioritising the Tejas in their scheme of things — rather than have this service clamour ceaselessly for Rafale and similar foreign aircraft.
This should also signal to the army that it is wrong to so casually torpedo the Future Main Battle Tank design, as follow-on, to the Arjuna MBT that beat the Russian T-90 hollow in field trials in all respects. And Parrikar should squelch at the earliest any move by army to tilt towards the Russian Armata tank displayed at the recent Red Square parade in Moscow to mark the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany. He should rescind army’s RFPs, and tell the COAS and his cohort that the army will have the DRDO-designed FMBT perhaps with its production shared half-and-half between DPSUs and a private sector combine in a competitive set up, both to judge the effectiveness/efficiency of public and private sector manufacturing skills and processes, and to get the best product out to the army, because it definitely will not have an imported tank. If Parrikar can summon that kind of conviction, MOD/DDP will fall in line, pronto.