[This blog post re-published by BloombergQuint Sept 18, 2017 as “Personal Feud or Technical Flaw, why was Tejas rejected?” at https://www.bloombergquint.com/opinion/2017/09/18/personal-feud-or-technical-flaw-why-was-tejas-rejected
Trust the Indian armed services to make it difficult for themselves and the country at every turn. There’s a big muddle ahead, this time because the Indian Navy decided to issue an RFI (Request for Information) from suppliers for 57 twin-engined aircraft for its indigenous carriers, thereby shunting out, and deprioritizing in its plans, the naval Tejas. This because the naval brass decided that the weight problem — some two ton over mark — couldn’t be solved in time for it to grace the deck of the IAC-1 Vikrant by when it is commissioned in 2021-22, and that this requirement has, therefore, to be met by imports.
The two aircraft in the fray are the Boeing F-/A-18 E/F Super Hornet — the main carrier plane with foldable wings of the US Navy until it is progressively replaced by the F-35C, and the Maritime Rafale Dassalt has been pitching for with SAAB’s Sea Gripen as a distant third, and not in the reckoning for reasons adduced below. SAAB’s offer to jointly develop with India was made in December 2015 at a time when the Navy was committed to the Tejas. Two years later the Rafale and F-18 are being pushed hard, the navalized Gripen prototype is ready, and the Indian Navy has soured on the home-grown LCA.
If there’s a problem with a new aircraft what do more advanced, strategic-minded, navies not habituated to the easy import option do? Well, take the F-35C. After repeated take-offs, the US Navy discovered a serious design flaw that made the catapult-assisted takeoffs so rough, and so disoriented the pilots just when the aircraft is getting airborne as to potentially prove fatal. The redesign, it is estimated will take several years, and the rectified plane won’t be available until 2020 or later. The US Navy tasked its ‘Red Team’ to work on the design modification and get the improved aircraft for trials fastest. Couldn’t the Indian Navy have constituted its own Red Team to work intensively with the LCA design team to trim its weight?
This was not feasible for many reasons, among them : (1) A personal mountain of a reason — bad blood between the lead test pilot in the naval LCA program, Cmde Jaydeep Maolankar, and Rear Admiral Surendra Ahuja, Assistant Controller Carrier Project and Assistant Controller Warship Production and Acquisition at NHQ. By all accounts, Maolankar is a top rated flier dedicated to the Tejas but Ahuja, with no flying experience, is nearer the seat of power and who, perhaps, to spite Maolankar, a batch mate, whose failure to make it to the next rank — however that was managed — was the talk in naval circles, convinced the naval brass that the LCA was no-go, and that its prospects are bleak.
[ ERRATA — My Wrong. Rear Admiral Ahuja is a certified test pilot, cleared for catobar flying from carrier deck, and among the first to operate the MiG-29Ks, as well as a number of other combat aircraft and even transport planes. This was a grievous error on my part of not researching more fully into RADM Ahuja’s career. Apologies.]
Many senior Admirals claim such skulduggery in promotions is not possible because there’s an Appraisals Board, etc. to prevent abuse at the level of promotion boards. In that case, how to explain the Armed Forces Tribunal in July this year holding Vice Admiral PK Chatterjee guilty of passing over many officers with excellent career records — all from the nuclear submarine arm, including Cmdr SS Luthra who had approached the Tribunal, to clear the upward path of his son-in-law Captain A V Agashe? (See http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/tribunal-slams-nepotism-in-navy-imposes-rs-5-lakh-as-fine-on-vice-admiral/articleshow/59851886.cms ). Whence the Navy’s formal rejection of the Tejas. On such personal rivalries hang the fate of nations striving to be self-sufficient in armaments! And (2) It would mean giving up on a chance to import another foreign aircraft and forego all the goodies in train. Easier then for the Indian Navy to give up on the Tejas.
Having desperately hunted for excuses to reject it, Ahuja, possibly driven as much by institutional impulse as personal animus, finally found it in the aircraft’s excess weight and, rather than proposing remedial measures and doubling on the navy’s commitment and investment in an Indian designed and developed carrier aircraft, recommended ditching the naval LCA. Should the Modi government and MOD, assuming Arun Jaitley tomorrow takes over fully as Defence Minister, not instruct the Navy to rethink the import decision? Nah. Jaitley doesn’t know the business end of an aircraft if it bumped him, even less the business end of aircraft development or the value of fostering indigenous aircraft design and development capability. Then again, when have the military services caviled from tilting always and every time toward expensive foreign imports and pushing the nation deeper into the military hardware import hole?
Why expensive? Because 57 is not a large enough number of aircraft to interest profit-driven foreign suppliers, and certainly not Boeing, especially not if in trying to service PM Modi’s flagship ‘Make in India’ program it is also required to make it in India which, in terms of economies of scale makes no sense to anybody. And buying this small lot of aircraft will mean the country paying through its nose for them.
The reason the Swedish SAAB Company will be happy to produce the Sea Gripen in India is because it is also very confident about selling some 200 of its air force variant in competition with the F-16 in the new single-engined aircraft sweepstakes to equip the IAF, with attractive talk of fully transferring to India “all source codes” — the design-wise know-why element. But there’s yet another problem. Assuming the Sea Gripen is generally of the same size as the air force variant, then this aircraft, as stalwart naval persons will tell you, will barely fit on the lifts in the IACs that carry the planes on to the deck. Except, Sea Gripen is single-engined, doesn’t fit the 2-engined NSQR, and is not acceptable to the Navy. Boeing would be interested too if the IAF picked the F-18 for its fleet, except Boeing is unlikely to onpass source codes and other ‘black box’ technologies to any Indian private sector company or public sector firm, like HAL. Besides, it will be the 2-engined oddity in a single-engined aircraft buy by the IAF. But this plane too suffers from structural features that make it unfit for the Indian carriers — the wings of the F-18 do fold but at the wingtips when, to be accommodated in the elevator, the fold would have to be at the fuselage end.
The joker in the pack is Dassault, which’s hell-bent on selling its ‘Maritime’ version to the Navy to complement the initial sale of Rafale to IAF as a means of beefing up its wedge in the door strategy to sell in piecemeal lots at progressively higher prices more and more Rafales to the Navy and air force without having to go through the rigmarole of transfer of technology under ‘Make in India’ obligations. Senior naval persons inform that teams from Dassault and Boeing have visited Vikrant, taken measurements, and may come up with some solutions. Such as tilting the aircraft just a bit to get them onto the elevator and the hangar below-deck, for which purpose some re-engineering of the hydraulics in the elevators may be needed. So Rafale will be configured, equipped with foldable wings if Dassault espies any chance of selling its naval variant.
All said and done, the fact of the matter is the entire race is going to be reduced to a two horse field. Here’s how. Washington will turn the tourniquet to prevent the Swedes from bagging the IAF deal. Ashley Tellis, of Carnegie Washington, the prime mover of American aircraft to the Indian armed services, Indian MOD and the only foreigner (albeit of Mumbai origin) — as I revealed in a piece I wrote last year and on this blog (look it up!) to have the readiest access imaginable to Prime Minister Modi, has made this plain. In a recent article, he mentioned the fact that between 40% and 60% of the Gripen is composed of components, sub-assemblies and assemblies, including the power plant, sourced from America, that will need US government clearance! Does anybody in Stockholm or in Delhi really believe Gripen has an easy run into the IAF fleet, leave alone the run of the Vikrant deck? But bring the canny French in with their Rafale and the competition becomes more interesting, less predictable.
But the Modi govt, having taken flak for the 36 aircraft Rafale buy and with the 2019 elections looming, will not allow the sourcing of the F-18s without the “make in India” component. This option could become available if India is willing to pay a horrendous price for it. So, it’s ruled out. The one and only solution then would be the default option of buying more improved MiG-29Ks for IACs 1 through 3 at enhanced cost — improvements in the aircraft, as Admirals reveal, that have been made at India’s expense, on the basis of enormous and invaluable 4 years’ test flying data accessible to the Russians.
But why blame the Russians, the Americans, the Swedes, the French and anybody else selling military equipment for taking advantage of India? That’s the logic of the armaments business. What is hurtful though is how the military services do next to nothing to correct the situation other than justify “immediate”/”urgent” need to line up the next series of imports and, absolutely incomprehensible why the Govt of India — whatever the party in power — is loath to implement drastic measures to end such abject dependency. Such as laying down a ‘No Imports’ Iron Rule which alone will compel the armed services seriously to turn to making indigenous projects successful because they’ll be bereft of other options. To make such decisions will take quite stupendous political will, but that’s what Narendra Modi was supposed to muster. No?