IAF control of combat aircraft development at HAL: Is that a good thing?


Image result for pics of HAL production line of Tejas

[HAL Marut HF-24 production line]

The Rafale deal has gone into a death spiral. With BJP stalwart leaders Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie making a cogent case about things going awry with the purchase of 36 Rafale combat aircraft from France and fueling charges of corruption and crony capitalism (re: Dassault Avions’ choice of Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence as offsets partner), and with Rahul Gandhi piling on with accusations along the same lines, especially overjoyed that his Congress Party has finally ‘Rafale’ to tar Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party with. This means that in popular discourse, Rafale will soon resonate in the same negative way with voters as ‘Bofors’ did, and still does. These developments have followed the script I had outlined  soon after the PM announced the Rafale buy in Paris in April 2015. [Look up my posts on Rafale from that time.]

The Indian Air Force brass and the Nirmala Sitharaman-headed MOD realize they are in a mess not of their immediate making. Sitharaman’s brandishing of supposed contract papers in Parliament sidestepped the fact that these documents do indeed provide for secrecy but only related to the “commercial” terms of the deal, not for what it will all cost — a sum that will have to be intimated one way or the other to Parliament, CAG, etc and will come into the public domain. In any case, Vayu Bhavan, should be aware, as Dassault and the French government of Emmanuel Macron , perhaps, are that the slight chance of the 36 Rafales being the proverbial “wedge in the door” that will open to a still richer contract for 100 additional Rafales with the full complement of the exorbitantly priced A2A Meteor and A2G Scalp missiles and spares holdings for 72% serviceability, etc., has evaporated.

Worse, no one hereafter in the political class or MOD will for a long time touch Dassult-related goods with a barge pole anymore than they will agree, for instance, to the HDW 214 conventional diesel submarine offered by the Marine Division of Thyssen-Krupp Company of Germany for the Indian Navy’s Project 75i. This is because of the payoffs & commissions scandal that accompanied the contract for six HDW 209 submarines (which along with deal for the Bofors gun) marked the tenure of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in the 1980s. That’s the inevitable fate of any high value defence contract skirting procedures in any way, or otherwise failing to “manage” the perceptions of the reality of “corruption”.

The Modi government may be trying to divert attention from the political kerfuffle over Rafale by its decision to hand over control of HAL, B’lore, to the Indian Air Force. It is reported, that this been done to minimize the time and cost overruns on the Tejas light combat aircraft production programme, particularly its upgraded Mk-2 variant.

Indian newspapers seems to be willing carriers of a lot of defence-related “fake news” — fake, in the sense, that their reporters are rarely knowledgeable enough to separate the chaff from the grain and usually regurgitate whatever is told them by MOD, and the PR offices of Armed Services HQrs without ever cross-checking for the truth. Thus, in an early Aug story, one particular daily repeated the stuff about huge delays in the LCA programme initiated in 1983, and in securing the Final Operational Clearance for the aircraft, without mentioning that the real funding of the project began only in 1999 and the fact that ADA had a prototype flying by 2006 was a commendable achievement, and that the FOC problems are as much a function, as stated repeatedly in my posts on this blog, of the IAF insisting on a battle-ready fighter plane with fully integrated weapons and the avionics suite working tickety-boo even as every other major air force, including the US Air Force, allows for the operational fine tuning of a new combat aircraft in parallel with its induction.  So FOC follows induction, not the other way around  as per IAF’s modus operandi. Moreover,  the Indian press  do not report the fact that on a comparable basis the Rs 8,000 odd-crores invested in the LCA so far and the 18-odd years it has taken for the Tejas betters the record of Lockheed Martin and the US govt which have spent in excess of ONE TRILLION US Dollars and taken over 20 years to field the latest combat aircraft for use by the three US military Services — the F-35, which has turned out to be such a bad aircraft and so ineffective as to be a laughing stock of the aviation world! And to think that F-35 is parented by Lockheed, which over the last 100 years has designed literally hundreds of combat aircraft.

Now juxtapose the F-35 development by Lockheed with the extraordinary performance of the LCA project, and what do you get — a consistent display of bad faith by IAF’s not believing in Indian talent and not trusting indigenous combat aircraft. And, despite the heinous history of the IAF deliberately and in cold blood, as I have written, killing off the indigenous multi-role HF-73 designed by the gifted designer Dr. Raj Mahindra, the successor to Dr. Kurt Tank’s Marut HF-24 (which decades after its killing and because it is safe to do so, is now praised by IAF chiefs such as ACM Krishnaswamy in my new book — ‘Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’ to be released in market Aug 15, as an extraordinary  low level strike aircraft in its time that was also able to achieve super-cruise without afterburners), in favour of the British Jaguar in the mid-1970s that could do neither! The IAF’s preferring the Jaguar wiped out the painstakingly built-up Marut technological and R&D base and, more significantly, two entire generations of Indian aircraft designers and developers at HAL, forcing the ADA and the LCA project in 1983 to start out anew, from zero technology and design and development base.

Which last brings us to the core of this post: the IAF’s control of HAL and combat aircraft programme in the country. What motivated the Modi regime to do this is not known because the country has experience of long years of the IAF brass running the HAL, an experience that should have been salutary and warned against letting foxes guard the hen house! Consider the disastrous record of HAL under several IAF officers, including a couple of CASs and senior Air Marshals, to get an idea of what may be in store.

Air Chief Marshals PC Lal, OP Mehra and LM Katre were chairman, HAL, in 1966-69, 1971-73 and in the early Eighties respectively. In between the tenures of Mehra and Katre, the post was occupied by Group Captain Baljit K. Kapur (whose claim to fame is that he seeded a milieu of corruption in HAL, spawning the most notorious arms agent, Sudhir Choudhrie — his nephew, that the country has known, who acquired deep pockets and exploited his even deeper connections in the military, the political class, and the bureaucracy, to forge multi-billion dollar defence deals and then escaped trouble by bribing his way out of two CBI investigations. See https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Sudhir-Choudhrie-High-flying-arms-dealer-may-finally-be-grounded/articleshow/31300678.cms )

Lal and Mehra were centrally at HAL controls when the HF-24 was being produced, and which aircraft was so callously treated by the air force that brand new Maruts were actually flown out of HAL assembly line and straight into junk yards! Messrs Lal, Mehra, Kapur and Katre were all aware of Dr Mahindra designing the HF-73 and did less than nothing to promote it with the Service that the three (minus Kapur) went on to head or had led as CAS. Air Marshal SJ Dastur was chairman and known for decisiveness but, like his fellow GDPs, did little to push indigenous effort, or to create a sustainable aviation industry in India but like all these characters was content to have HAL screwdrivering imported aircraft under license manufacture schemes.  Indeed, these airmen may be seen to have been complicit, even guilty owing to their acts of omission and commission, to do away with the indigenous capability altogether over time in conspiracy with the Vayu Bhavan.

Had any Indian PM after Jawaharlal Nehru, who nursed the Marut programme and imported Kurt Tank of Focke-Wulfe fame for the purpose, been strategic visioned and utterly nationalist, or had there been a nationalist-minded IAF chief or a self-sufficiency driven chairman in HAL cockpit, and taken on himself the onus of building on the base that  Tank had erected in Bangalore, Indian combat aviation industry would have been two decades ahead of China today. Think of it. And then think of all the excuses a succession of Indian prime ministers, Chiefs of Air Staff, and chairmen of HAL have since given to explain why the country is in the pits, and one begins to understand the problem that is at hand, but one that is amenable to a solution by strong-willed leadership.

A nationalist-minded air chief determined to see India become self-sufficient in combat aircraft would have ensured — that with or without the Indian government’s help —  the IAF prioritised fighter aircraft design and development in-country and, as a self-respecting chairman, HAL, accelerated their production. Then again, IAF has never had a true nationalist at its apex. It has thus transpired that India, which started out with a bang by designing, developing, manufacturing and flying the HF-24 — the first supersonic aircraft fully crafted nose to tail outside of Europe and North America, was reduced in slow stages to a country that meets all its aircraft needs from abroad, and the IAF to a minor, tactical- level force without the professional nous to even appreciate the need for a strategic bomber in the fleet and, therefore, without one, and also without a genuine strategic capability and, worse, hardware requirements-wise, a full-blown foreign dependency!

So, what gives Prime Minister Modi the confidence that an HAL with an IAF officer in-charge will fare any better than with a DRDO/HAL time-server in the chair? Because theatre commands are prized as are the top posts in the air hierarchy in Delhi, some sodden fool of an Air Marshal will be hoist with the charge of HAL where he will do Vayu Bhavan’s bidding — which is to pave the way for buying more aircraft from the West!!  To suggest as some have done that all aspects of combat aircraft production, including design and development, be brought under the IAF would be to risk the Tejas Mk-2 and the successor Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft programme being run into the ground, the better for Air HQrs to then make the case to the government in the future that IAF needs to import more aircraft!

The answer is to de-bureaucratize the aerospace sector, compel ADA to transfer Tejas technologies with source codes — the know why and know how — to the private sector so that credible, hard driving, profit-generating, private sector aircraft producers that get into foreign sales from get-go, can emerge from the present morass to offer competition to the DPSUs. This will do HAL a lot of good in making it sharper, more efficient, and help India to rise as a consequential all round air power that doesn’t have an air force operating at the sufferance of numerous vendor states.

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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13 Responses to IAF control of combat aircraft development at HAL: Is that a good thing?

  1. AD says:

    But.. but.. if the LCA and subsequent projects result in a series of successful and widely produced aircraft, what will happen to all that extra income currently made by senior officials in IAF? What will happen to those sinecured ‘international’ advisory posts after retirement? What about all those free shopping trips to “phoren” countries? What about all those assurances to get their worthless kids cushy jobs in the west? What about all those meetings where they tell the ‘whites’ that their own countrymen are stupid and incompetent to feel better about themselves?

    Once again, I am going to compare this to how China does things- not because I like them, but because they have clearly demonstrated the ability to do what India has been unable to do. And let us be clear, their people are just as greedy for money as anyone else in the world. In my opinion- the biggest difference is that, deep down, the Chinese are proud of who they are as a people and they remember their ‘century of humiliation’. Their leadership and senior bureaucrats were never mentally colonized, unlike their Indian counterparts.

    That is why something like the HF-24 project would never have been abandoned by China. In fact they would celebrate its success, keep making more of them and improving the design to keep it current. They would have never devalued and humiliated their own people just to suck up to somebody in the west who treats them like stupid children. They would have supported and funded their own designers to create and build even better designs. Also, they would be totally fine with using industrial espionage to improve their own capabilities.

    Furthermore, the Chinese system has repeatedly demonstrated that it has no qualms about getting rid of traitors within their ranks- even if they were highly placed. Sure.. their methods are brutal, but do serve to make others thinking about doing similar stuff think at least twice. Now compare that to the situation in India. How many people in senior positions who sold out Indian interest to foreign powers has paid the ultimate price? Then again, the political leadership class in India (as a whole) is probably even more corrupt, spineless and desperate for ‘western’ approval.

    The point I am trying to make is that the outcomes you see in India are due to the current system functioning exactly as intended. In other words, changing outcomes requires changing the underlying system- and frankly, there is no nice way to do that. The other option is waiting for the current setup will implode under its own contradictions, and that is where things are apparently heading- it seems.

  2. My thoughts were exactly the same. To add to this why should IAF be responsible for production of aircrafts. What is expected is for them to fund R&D, participate in design & requirements as users, evaluate development progress as users not to manage the entire production unit. This is insane because IAF is not equipped for this neither should be expected to. Wonder who advised is plan?

  3. V.Ganesh says:

    @Bharat Sir: What does GDP mean?

  4. jorawar says:

    why doesn’t india bypass the nuclear weapon testing taboo by testing nuclear weapons on mars under the banner of terraforming mars.

    though it would be more expensive but it will help india in both deploying a well tested ,space based nuclear weapons deployment system,as well as fine tuning its nuclear arsenal.

  5. AD says:


    WRT the HF-24, is it true that the Indian bureaucracy was pretending to “save money” by not paying for engines better than the Orpheus? I have heard numerous versions of the story- from ‘such a engine was not readily available’, ‘developing the engine would have taken time’ to ‘they were acting like cheapskates’.

    Also, why did they not try to use alternative higher-power engines such as the contemporary French Atar? I mean.. France never had problems with selling weapons to anybody- including India. I am sure that some sort of deal could have been easily worked out, IF the Indian government of that time wanted to start developing its own military aircraft.

    • The real story is in my book ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security’: Briefly, Defence Minister Krishna Menon refused to approve the Rs 5 crores asked by the Bristol Siddeley Company of UK to adapt its Orpheus 12 engine that had been designed with the joint NATO fighter in mind, to fit the HF-24. The Menon-led MOD deemed Rs 5 crores too high a price!

  6. andy says:

    This takeover bid of the LCA is a bad move by the IAF, no offence meant but production engineering and factory operations is not IAF’s core competence no matter how much they try to convince everyone and themselves.IAF has only one solution to a complex problem…just put their man in charge….. to do what?…Something he has no clue about.

    Someone needs to ask them what is the skillset they bring to the table?Running Base Repair Depots is a whole lot different from cutting edge aviation manufacturing.If they want to fix the production issues of the LCA they should work at it with HAL and do whatever it takes to get everything on track, rather than getting into turf wars.

    Throughout the Tejas saga the IAF sat imperiously on the sidelines putting out outlandish ASQRs,knowing fully well that Research and Development is a time consuming process ,also mastering new technology is no piece of cake.As soon as the technology was about to be acquired/mastered by other agencies they put out newer Qualitative requirement such that Tejas requirements were never frozen The brattish IAF whose fetish for imported toys knows no boundaries,had no idea what the hell they wanted and in turn the other agencies had no idea what they were trying to create.

    The latest round began in early 2015, the IAF, defence ministry and Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) agreed LCA Tejas could enter mass production as soon as HAL incorporated five improvements. Namely, an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, an electronic warfare (EW) suite, a self-protection jammer, mid-air refuelling capability and easier maintainability.Now, however, the IAF has added to that wish list. Among several additional demands are: “smart multi-function displays” for the cockpit, a “combined interrogator and transponder” to differentiate friendly aircraft from foes, a digital map generator and an improved radio altimeter.These technologies might be available off the shelf ,but integrating them with the LCA software is a time consuming process,With such arbitrary and ad hoc demands its no wonder the whole LCA project has got inexorable delayed.

    This takeover attempt of the LCA by IAF has been thought up by people knowing full well it would be disruptive to say the least, if not fatal for the LCA,its their only chance to kill off this pesky indigenous effort so that they can go about acquiring newer imported fighters under the garb of (the boys need the best).Its better if the IAF doesn’t try to be predatory and all agencies involved including IAF, HAL and ADA think and act in the collective national interest by creating synergies rather than acting as if each was sovereign.After all what does the driver who drives my BMW know about how to manufacture it?No one in their right mind will allow him to head its factory.

  7. Kya says:

    Quote ” without mentioning that the real funding of the project began only in 1999 and the fact that ADA had a prototype flying by 2006 was a commendable ”
    Under the unelected pm mmsingh the traitor it became fashionable to blame Public sector utitues and concerns for all the ills of India when the fact is that public sector did much more commendable job despute financial constraint.
    Pruvate sector has ways been for crew driver technology and for making paper bags for say potato chips.

  8. Vishnugupt says:

    @ Prof Karnad.
    “The answer is to de-bureaucratize the aerospace sector, compel ADA to transfer Tejas technologies with source codes — the know why and know how — to the private sector”

    Yes indeed it is, but it would also constitute as a political suicide by the party who takes the plunge(assuming a nationalist party wants to do it), this is the unfortunate reality of India.

    As long as the “average joe” look upto the DPSUs as job creating ventures run by the government, there is no way out.

    The Chief Economic Advisor of India Arvind Subrahmaniyam rightly summed up India’s problem which is “Crony Socialism with stigmatized Capitalism”.

    And i for one blame the “average joe” as well for that he only cares about a government job(where he gets job security with no accountability) and freebies from the government.

    Let us first start by removing the wretchedly subversive word “Socialist” from the preamble.

  9. San Mann says:

    Mr Karnad, what is your reaction to the latest announcement by the PM during his Independence Day speech, that India would undertake its first manned spaceflight mission, Gaganyaan by 2022?

  10. Kya says:


    Su-35 Can See F-35 All Right’: Military Expert Says US Jet ‘Too Complex’

  11. V.Ganesh says:

    @Bharat Sir: Can you please give your opinion on this 👇🏾?

    Russia, India Engaged In Talks On 5th Generation Fighter Jet – UAC


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