Single-engined ruse

AeroIndia 2017 opens in Bangalore Feb 14-18. It is restricted, apparently by design, to fighter aircraft that are only single-engined with special exception being made for the  two-engined Boeing F-18.  This order is  hard to make sense of except as a ruse to keep the Russian combat aircraft out of the fray altogether possibly for fear that the Su-35 or the MiG-35 even would outshine the Western jets over Yerlenka AFB. Sure, other than the Su-30MKIs doing their flights, Russian planes will not be present, not even on static display at the premier Indian air show. So, we will see the ‘Super Hawk’ supposedly jointly developed by HAL and British Aerospace, the French Rafale, the Swedish Grippen E, and the American items —  the less stealthy Lockheed Martin F-16 C variant without the conformal fuel tanks (in the variant E/SE sold to Qatar) being peddled to India, and the F-18.

The Bharatiya Janata Party government of Narendra Modi has decided on a decisive military turn Westward, finally and formally reducing its flagship ‘Make in India’ policy to the same old manufacture-under-license (MUL) of totally  foreign imported combat aircraft. It is an outcome the Indian Air Force seemingly desperately desired, fearing that the combine of Modi and defence minister Manohar Parrikar would impose a future force inventory of the indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft backed by the Russian staples — Su-30, MiG-29, and the upgraded Jaguars and Mirage 2000s. To keep Moscow from being miffed,  the fifth generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) Sukhoi T-50 entering Russian service by next year, is in the reckoning but just. Considering the desultory pace of negotiations and the tilt away from equipoise, there’s good chance this FGFA may not enter IAF after all.

While the Swedes are hopeful, the Americans confident that in the final analysis a Trumpian twist of Modi’s arm would fetch it a fortune for an assembly line that Lockheed Martin would otherwise have to tear up and throw away as the space  in the Fort Worth, Texas, plant is needed for putting in place modern, up to-date production wherewithal for the F-35, and the French are delirious with the possibility not only of adding to the number of Rafales India has generously bought from Dassault that will keep that aerospace major from sinking, by selling 200 more off the same aircraft, off the shelf, if at all possible but, and this is a new avenue that’s suddenly opened up with the Indian Navy appallingly joining the IAF in ditching the navalized variant of the LCA under development — of fobbing off to India its ‘novi avion’ (naval) version as well.

The Modi regime’s somewhat skewed reason for opting for the MUL route for its Make in India programme is the belief that producing any of these aircraft — from the fairly new (Gripen) to the really old (F-16/F-18) in India, will turn this country into a global hub for sales and service worldwide for this warplane. It is a line all the suppliers have succeeded in selling to the GOI. The surprise is New Delhi has swallowed it hook, line, and sinker without so  much as a show of discomfort!  Then again, the armed services and MOD are habituated to decades of milking the armaments imports cow for the collateral gains, personalized goodies — long good time in Paris, Stockholm, …(fill in the blanks), personal “fund augmentation” and similar considerations that keeps everyone up and down the decision loop happy and lubricating and hurrahing the final deal along.

But, who’s to say India cannot afford its follies? It will be the third largest, multi-trillion dollar economy by 2030 don’t you know? But, in the here and now, there’s no money to buy these cost-benefit-wise wonky aircraft that will, for one reason or another, fail to come up to their billing. However, one thing is certain. In the context of severe resource crunch, this deal — a carryover from the half-baked MMRCA requirement conjured up by Air Hqrs, will be at the expense of the poor, expendable, home-made, Tejas LCA — lovingly designed into a beautiful aircraft that’s now orphaned, its future put in doubt despite  having the real potential as huge revenue earner in the global arms market,  by a government that talks desi but acts firang. And this is happening even as we hear not a squeak out of the ruling party’s minders in Nagpur.

But Group Captain Madhav Rangachari, CO, “Flying Daggers” 45 Squadron, the only Tejas unit in AF,  based in Sulur, Andhra Pradesh will, as a consolation, be allowed to take up his locally designed and developed air defence aircraft to show the crowds below just what the country will miss seeing in the Indian Air Force — an LCA  armada with the capacity to take out more exalted fighters in combat.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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11 Responses to Single-engined ruse

  1. Ram Natarajan says:

    These are the issues worth discussing with sympathetic ears in Nagpur, and even the Swadeshi Jagran Manch. Only you can do it (not flattery). Even if you disagree with their politics otherwise, they have the most influence with the current dispensation. Otherwise despite fully knowing the govt’s folly, it would be impossible to bring any pressure, let alone convince them. Gurumurthy may be the man to reach out to?

  2. Sunil says:

    I think you should blame the Indian Air Force / Indian Navy and not the Modi government. It’s the end user’s reluctance to work with DRDO, provide feedback and request changes early, which is really killing Indian built projects. Alternately, you could say it would be better for DRDO/ADA to work with private industry rather than HAL, another company that seems to be happier with screwdriver-giri on pre-existing foreign products that building from scratch.

    • Sunil@ — Have been arguing ever since my days in the first NSAB — where I wrote a policy paper on this subject, outlining the dismantlement of of the govt-owned DRDO-DPSUs-Ordnance factories’ structure, and their reconfiguring into two competing defence design-industrial bureaus/complexes to be run completely independently and for profit by the two leading and versatile private sector majors — L&T and Tata. This scheme is explicated most recently in a whole chapter in my latest book ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’ and in my writings since where, specific to the Tejas, I have analyzed how and why ADA and HAL transferring the LCA technologies to select and capable private firms for further development as bulk fighter for IAF and for rapid export to amortize the public investment in this project, is the best way forward for the country to get out of the arms dependency mess it is in.

      • Reproduced below is the response by GS Madhusudan associated with many DRDO projects (at on Feb 12, 2017 to the above piece posted on
        It is certainly not being ditched. IAF order is for 103, a minimal number for Mk1
        and the rest for Mk1A. FOC is expected in 2018.

        DRDO also announced that in 2018, LCA
        variant with Kaveri engine (cleaned up with Snecma help will fly). Mk2 (AF) and MK 2
        (naval) variant are also under development by ADA. Naval is not keen on
        single engine fighter but MoD has approved internal R&D funding of naval variant.

        Given the slower pace of LCA development (primarily due to lack of funds
        and an Indian eco-system), an alternate single fighter line was inevitable.
        Pros and cons for the decision. larger eco-system with good sub-components
        will improve LCA in longer run. One of the areas we are working
        with DRDO/Armed forces is standard electronics across all systems.

        I think Mr. Karnad is panicking a little prematurely.

        AMCA also seems to be getting funded a a new naval twin engined fighter seems to
        have surfaced. That worries me. If engine commonality and sub-system sharing is
        done, then all can be pulled off.

        Don’t go too much on the Russian 5G fighter and similar programs. Cannot build
        a credible force with new, unreliable stuff. They are needed but given
        our budgetary requirements and threat perceptions, some compromises towards
        more affordable and reliable equipment is a must. You will know this when you
        design and maintain defence equipment.

        See the problem the US is having. Less than 50% availability. This is what you get
        when you do not spend on maintenance and keep buying new stuff ! (See

        And my response to Mr Madhusudan, posted on the ‘India First’ site:

        ‘bharat karnad’ via INDIA FIRST Today at 1:21 PM
        Message body
        ‘Am constrained to point out the obvious to Mr Madhusudan: The crux of the problem that he seems mindful of is, namely, the paucity of financial and skilled manpower resources and hence the absolute imperative to use what limited resources we do have wisely. The point I have been trying to make for a very long time is one of inter se prioritisation.

        There is no mechanism in GOI to draw up a holistic priorities list for the entire national security sector, whence ad hocism in decision making prevails and haphazard military hardware acquisitions obtain that make no sense. To wit, the PM’s on the spur of the moment decision to please his hosts by buying a small number of the cost-prohibitive Rafales, and, perhaps, a decision in the future to pacify Trump by buying venerable aircraft, at the cost of the Tejas which has no pooh-bah pushing it.

        A cautionary tale is offered by SATHI (Situation Awareness to be Handled by Infantry) — a tested and proven hand-held device for realtime battlefield information provided the jawan by all manner of sensors, which was a pioneering, entirely Army-funded and developed technology, that died because no army commander level officer, leave alone a minister, took ownership of it [the case is detailed in my book Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)]. A shortsighted army is now searching for, what else, a foreign supplier (Ericsson, the last time I checked) who will produce the same technology a decade or more late and at many times the price! It is a fate that awaits the Tejas LCA.

        Tejas can be fast-tracked if ADA/DRDO/HAL transfer all LCA technologies to a private sector combine to produce this aircraft in bulk for IAF and, for profit, from exports, then it becomes a doable, financially feasible, program that can be realized in the time frame estimated for the license manufacture of the single-engined Gripen/Rafale/F-16/ or the 2-engined F-18, all of which have not an iota of indigenous design content or critical inputs. If Meccano-level screwdriver technology is all that India has done to-date and can aspire to in the future, and if this is what ‘Make in India’ is about, then what’s there to say?

  3. While it has become fashionable to pair China and India as if they were joined at the hip, it is often forgotten that the two have little in common politically, economically or culturally.

    Comparatively speaking, the countries are new neighbors. The vast Tibetan plateau, encompassing an area greater than Western Europe, separated the two civilizations throughout history, limiting interaction to sporadic cultural and religious contacts.

    It was only after China’s annexation of Tibet in 1951 that Chinese army units appeared for the first time on India’s Himalayan frontiers. This was followed 11 years later by a war in which China’s battlefield triumph sowed the seeds of greater rivalry.

    Today, Tibet remains at the center of the China-India divide, fueling territorial disputes, diplomatic tensions and feuds over river-water flows. For example, Beijing was harshly critical of New Delhi in December for allowing the exiled Dalai Lama — who has lived in India since fleeing Tibet in 1959 — to visit the presidential palace for a public event and meet President Pranab Mukherjee, India’s head of state.

  4. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    :D, now we have Mandal commissioned planes from USA and Europe.

    Actually the FGFA not coming in can be the boon in disguise we are all looking for. The NDA-UPA plan to hog the political space for the benefit of their foreign benefactors cannot provide for the real needs of India. And the only way to expose that is when a sufficiently large number of people see their failures, completely unsupported by Indian and even Russian subsidized production capabilities. 10-20 years down the line China would be firmly on the road to their 6th Gen. while India, thanks to these kala-angrez will be asking itself who moved its cheese.

    @BK your interaction with the DRDO person shows how naive or purposely supine some of these have lied for long. It is already clear how NDA-UPA combine has ensured that a large number of Indian projects are perpetually on drip irrigation, never going beyond TD phase. What do these TDs gather for India, besides some bimbo on the net forever remaining wet? From these TDs, from time to time, one or the other TD would be given a flush of some funds and promises and the project leads of those TDs would be asked to speak up in favour of the status quo. If India today or say till November 8, 2016 had the money to fund its projects and instead of funding those projects, some other brainwave was given space, then it implies only one thing, which is the truth, perceived by those who want to.

    Also regards the advise by another poster to go talk to Swadeshi Jagaran Manch or Nagpur. My personal advise would be exactly the opposite.

    If today, Mohan Bhagwat is saying that people should not doubt the nationalism of others, then you can be sure at least about one thing. That he has not, suddenly become caring for the sensibilities of Barkha Dutt or Sardesai or Muslims or Christians or Congressis.

    Nagpur people probably could have been talked to in the early 90s and the time for that talk is firmly in the past now. It would be a compounding of several wrongs to go to them today.

    This is the time to state the truth and just let people have choices. Choices with Indians is the best strategic weapon that India can ever develop.

  5. I am for a moment assuming GOI was veering towards US. Assuming also that Russian companies are being kept out of Aero India as far as fighter go, reflect not just this shift towards western equipment but also Delhi’s unhappiness with China-Pakistan-Russia closeness being seen recently. Then the best option for India was to join the manufacturer and supply chain of the F-35 program rather than these soon to be outdated platforms. Someone has sold our PMO snakeoil.

    Any 4 gen fighter procurement/production line Is going to eat into LCA++. Given that 90% of the hard work in setting up aerospace infra has been done , not capitalizing on it and setting up an assembly line for F-16s or Gripen’s is too hard to digest. The more folks have to come out in open and justify it more the weakness in their argument will be revealed.

    There needs to more public debate on this and senior decision makers both civil and military need to come out and give their story.

    Putting all blame on HAL won’t cut ice here.

  6. andy says:

    Probably the IAF will have its way in shunning Russian aircraft by induction of the F16 or the Gripen,this after the purchase of 36 Rafale (the French looking forward to selling more of these expensive toys to India,a country that unknown to most of us, has suddenly become super rich)

    The persistent arguments used against Russian birds in the IAF has been their low availability rates but with some damning figures appearing about the Rafale,just 48% avalability and also the fact that the USAF discontinued the F22 Raptor program due to high %age of downtime ,this argument is no longer valid (if ever it was).The only area where Russian aircraft lose out to the others seems to be in the quality of the airframes, but considering that the MIG21s have served in the IAF for more than 5decades even this is questionable.

    The IAF also does not seem to favour the induction of the Tejas and has been trying to delay this indigenous program by repeatedly changing the ASQR leading to prolonged delays.Tejas also seems headed for a fate similar to the Arjun MBT with a token amount to be inducted and then allowed to languish.While all this happens the American,French and Swedes are licking their lips in anticipation of multi billion dollar contracts from GOI.No wonder then that the Russians are miffed and have all but thrown in their lot with the Chinese,much to Indias discomfort.All in all some interesting times ahead.

  7. apna says:

    Narendra modi now gives bribes to usa in form of immediate decisipn to buy spy infested american junk weaponary costing billions of dollars all within 2 years without any tender.

  8. sakthivel says:

    LCA AF Mk2 has the following improvements,

    1.Possible chine and strakes,
    2.Optimized fuselage geometry,
    3.Refined canopy design,
    4. 0.5m fuselage lengthening

    These will reducing drag and improve performance.

    Combined with extra fuel, payload, thrust & avionics improvements, it will be better than F-16 in many ways , at a lesser cost.

    Also it can be continuously improved, without any one’s permission. Not possible with end of the lifecycle F-16.

    IAF is surprisingly “shy” of supporting this Tejas mk2 effort. God knows Why?

    With most of its budget geared towards FGFA & rafale buys, tejas mk2 is the only cost effective alternative for IAF to reach its sactioned 42 squadron strenght.

    FOC is almost done, Only subassemblies like Gun, AESA BVR combo needs fine tuning.

    All matters related with the fighter aerodynamics are done & dusted.

    As time goes by we can make tejas even 100% indigenous with proposed french JV for kaveri.

    but F-16 is always an American albatross tied to IAF’s neck.

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