The Narendra Modi-led BJP government has waxed “nationalistic” but almost every step and decision it has taken in the defence industrial sector to-date has not only regressed the possibility of India emerging as a military aviation and aerospace power but pretty much guaranteed India will remain the biggest importer of armaments in the world and an arms dependency.
In its continuing display of complete lack of faith and confidence in indigenous products, talent and capabilities, and wholly disregarding the quite extraordinary and proven operational qualities and world-wide market potential of the home-designed and built Tejas Light Combat Aircraft, the Modi regime has now put out that India is in the market for as many as 300 combat aircraft worth anything up to $13-15 billion — only the up-front cost, as long as all these planes are “made” physically in India. This is seen as being in line with Modi’s “Make in India” policy, but it is actually a simpletonish take on indigenous manufacture.
“Make in India” is different from the more significant “Made in India”, which GOI has not cottoned to, despite the fact that at the heart of the latter concept is the designing aspect. Designing the Tejas is of the greatest significance, not the fact that it has foreign-sourced components. No major aerial weapons platform in Indian use is, by this definition, “Made” in India. But a large number of them fit the category of “Make” in India involving the same old, same old — the Meccano level screwdriver technology of assembling aircraft, Bofors guns, whatever, as per the design blueprint and the SKD (semi knock down) kits and CKD (completely knocked down) kits given by the supplier, that HAL and our Ordnance factories are a cock-a-hoop about. This is the same old scheme of licensed manufacture dressed up in new “Make” in India rhetoric. Except, instead of the Defence Public Sector Units doing the assembling, private sector companies, such Tata, L&T, and Reliance Aerospace, will now also do it, with no more likelihood than in the past of these companies ingesting imported technologies to the point where they are able to innovate the technology. And India will be left marching in place.
In all such license manufacture deals, moreover, the really high value components and assemblies, such as the Fire Control System in the avionics suite, sensors, etc. will come as “black boxes” that the supplier companies will make money out of selling to India, for the duration of the production of the production run of that particular platform, piece of equipment. In fact, the Swedish firm Saab in competition with Lockheed Martin with its F-15 and Boeing’s F-18 to sell the Gripen NG as MiG-21 replacement has been more honest than the American majors in stating publicly that the final negotiated unit price of their aircraft will depend upon how much indigenization India wants, the higher the Indian content, the steeper the price. In other words, if like Rafale India buys the Gripen off the shelf, it’ll be a lower price than if GOI is intent on realizing the fiction of “Make” in India, when the price will go through the roof. Except Saab has promised help with the Tejas-1A, an interim plane preceding Tejas Mk-II. But the trend is that whatever the Tejas model, it will end up outfitting no more than 4-5 token air defence squadrons.
The talk is Modi is going American and buying the F-16, and soon Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar will sign an agreement with LM to produce the F-16 fighter aircraft involving a local partner, likely Tata (Dassault of France hoping the 38 aircraft deal will lead to buying another 90 Rafales, has chosen the politically well-connected Gujarati firm of Reliance Aerospace to advance this aim). LM and Boeing began shaping their offers around the time Modi visited the US and President Barack Obama for the first time in Oct 2014, when the US President is reported to have impressed on Modi the desirability of buying the F-16/F-18. That’s when Modi’s calculation firmed up that buying expensive military hardware would concurrently buy the goodwill of the Western country he was visiting at any time. A few months later in April 2015, he pulled the Rafale rabbit out of his metaphorical hat to the great delight and acclaim of President Francoise Hollande and his entourage in Paris.
Rafale was a phenomenally wasteful buy. The transaction for the F-16 will trump it. The problems attending on the latter are many and the Modi government has a lot of explaining to do to the country. For instance, how come the F-16/F-18, old, very old, combat aircraft dating their initial development to the late 1960s, which were rejected outright by the IAF (in the MMRCA race) because Air HQ had claimed it lacked any potential for “further development”, is now suddenly acceptable to the IAF brass as its bulk aircraft of the future? And is it the considered policy of the Modi government that India pay by beggaring itself for, and be armed with, junk? And, what about IAF’s fears that the Pakistan Air Force being intimately acquainted with the F-16 for over 35 years can, on the turn of a page, devise tactics to counter it?
American commentators make the case that India could become the sole supplier in the world of Block 70 F-16s enhanced possibly to ‘Viper’ 5th-gen aircraft configuration with the Northrup Grumman SABAR (scalable agile beam radar)AESA radar, spares and services. But any F-16 cannot be advanced more than 4.5 gen w/o radical structural changes, which are not on. They also contend that India can extract the condition of sales stoppage to PAF. This would be small consolation considering Russia will most definitely and happily sell to PAF the Su-30s, which can run circles around most extant aircraft and certainly the F-16/F-18. So, PAF will be in the enviable position of working both the F-16 and the Su-30 to India’s aerial disadvantage. The strategic genius of the Modi govt and IAF never ceases to amaze. This will happen because Moscow will calculate it has nothing to lose with India increasingly imposing stiff new conditions on ongoing deals as an excuse to buying Western stuff. It was a belief that no doubt got a fillip by Parrikar telling the Russian defence minister Sergei Shoygu over the weekend that he needed Moscow to commit to 50% of R&D of the 5th generation fighter to be done in India when the aircraft is already in service with the Russian air force and there’s no more R&D to do! The fact that the Russians have incorporated three changes demanded by IAF — a more powerful engine derived from the 117 power plant as interim power plant before the new Saturn Izdeliye engine can be put in it, a 360 degree radar, and 2 IRSTs (Infra-Red Search and Track) systems, has apparently not impressed the Indian side.
Not that the spendthrift Modi regime cares, but let’s compare the costs involved. The aged and worn out F-16 assembly line from Fort Worth, Texas, will be moved to India. Factoring in the costs of setting up this antique production facility here and a maintenance infrastructure in India, will mean F-16 per plane cost of around $280 million, without weapons. This for an almost fifty year old aircraft! By the time, you factor the weapon cost, a “Make” in India F-16 unit cost will be upwards of $350 million — the price of the cost-prohibitive Rafale! Boeing, trying to be clever, has promised establishing an entirely new and more modern production line, except India will pay lots more for it. The unit cost of the F-18, in the event , is anyone’s guess. F-18’s selling point is it is also a carrier aircraft, yes, but requiring gigantic boats of 90,000+ tonnes of displacement, which can be blown out of the water by supersonic and the even more deadly hypersonic cruise missiles (homing in, broadsides, at seven times the speed of sound). But we Indians believe in afterlife and the Indian carrier hosting F-18s will have one too!
Modi is throwing around tens of billions of dollars of the country’s monies as if it were confetti — $20 billion for the Rafale (if only 36 are procured) and $35-40 billion for the upgraded (but without major architectural changes) and at most 4.5 generation F-16/F-18. Imagine what investing such amounts of money would do for the Tejas, a 4.5 generation fighter. Meanwhile, China has just flown its wholly, fully, completely indigenous 5th gen J-20 stealth fighter at the Zhuhai Air Show.
That such a great home grown aircraft as Tejas is thus being slowly, and with great deliberation, strangled by the Indian govt and IAF, just as these two entities had in the 1970s killed the other Indian MADE and extraordinary supersonic combat aircraft the Marut HF-24 Mk-II (also known as the HF-73), reveals just how devoid of strategic vision and will, of confidence and faith in India’s capabilities and in self-respect, the Modi govt is. That the imports-happy IAF never felt even a twinge of self-doubt when flying foreign aircraft when desi aircraft were there for its nurturing, is by now an old story. $30 billion in the Tejas programme would result in a 4.5-gen combat aircraft (more than equal of the ’70s vintage F-16] that would wipe the floor with the competition in the global market, especially in Africa and Latin America. But that would mean NO repeated pleasure trips to the IAF brass and MOD officials to the US and to oola la! – Paris, etc., no Green cards, no offshore accounts, no palatial residences for CASs after retirement, no, etc. etc.