Questionable commitment of Government and IAF to Tejas combat aircraft series

Image result for pics of tejas lca
[Tejas on tarmac]

The high point of the recent AeroIndia air show in Bengaluru was the announcement by the Government of the purchase from HAL of 83 Tejas light combat aircraft MK-1A for Rs 46,898 cr, with the first delivery to begin three years from now. This decision by the Cabinet Committee on Security comes almost five years after the then Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha flew in a Tejas (on May 18, 2016), pronounced its performance impressive and said it was “ready” for induction, and 13 months after Defence Secretary Ajay Kumar promised the contract for this aircraft would be signed in 2020.

The LCA project definition was initiated in 1987, the design for a small, delta-winged, fighter aircraft was settled in 1990, full funding was approved in 1993, the first technology demonstrator (TD) rolled out in 1995 and the Tejas first took to the skies in 2001, and improved TD-2 flew a year later and in 2003 the aircraft broke the sound barrier, achieving Mach status. (For the full timeline of the Tejas project, refer ) Up to this point the Tejas development had done quite well considering the project had to proceed from a zero baseline in terms of in-house competence in aircraft designing experience and R&D skills.

Dr Kurt Tank, the lead designer of the world famous Focke-Wulfe series of fighter-bombers for Hitler’s Luftwaffe, built up a capability in the country alongside the Indian team led by Dr Ghatge-Patil. Tank developed and had the first prototype of the supersonic multi-role HF-24 flying by 1961, i.e., within 4-5 years of being commissioned by the Nehru government to do so. It made India the first country outside North America and Europe to accomplish this feat! That IAF pilots who flew the Marut still swear by it and go ga-ga over its fabled handling qualities. That it could supercruise (reach supersonic speeds without afterburners) tells its own story!

The dive of this tested and proven indigenous capability from that technology height to zero by the late 1980s is solely because the IAF, successively under Air Chief Marshals PC Lal and OP Mehra, mercilessly killed off in the early to mid-1970s the advanced Mark-2 variant of the indigenous Marut. This murder of the advanced Marut was facilitated by the government working in cahoots with the IAF brass. Designed by Dr Raj Mahindra, the most gifted protege of Dr Tank and stellar member of the Ghatge-Patil team, the HF-72/73/74 — the numeral is unimportant — was ditched whole in favour of the British Jaguar. This so-called ‘deep penetration and strike aircraft’ (DPSA), I had pointed out at that time, could either penetrate “deep” — and for the IAF that meant into Pakistan, or strike hard (carry a heavy ordnance load) but couldn’t do both at the same time — which attributes made this aircraft a dubious buy and an operational liability.

The Jaguar DPSA was bought by the Morarji Desai government and was promptly accused by Maneka Gandhi (in Surya magazine she edited) of huge corruption for okaying this transaction with British Aerospace. Maneka’s charge was that defence minister Jagjivan Ram raked in hefty commissions. It set the trend of commission-mongering as a distinguishing and permament feature of all Indian government deals in all spheres with foreign companies thereafter. The Indira and Rajiv Gandhi regimes, for instance, that followed stood out, in this respect, for the scale of corruption attending on massive multi-billion dollar contracts with the Italian firm Snamprogetti for turnkey fertiliser plants, with Sweden for the Bofors howitzer gun and for the HDW-209 submarine deal with Germany.

But, to revert to Tejas, up until 2003 or thereabouts things were as good as could be expected, with the short time taken by the LCA project to reach that stage in the Indian context (sketched out above) being creditable. Indeed, it compares well with the development schedule of the latest combat aircraft in the American inventory — the F-35 Lightning II, whose delivery was 15 years behind schedule and over-budget by literally hundreds of billions of US dollars and that too in a milieu, if anything, of an over-developed aviation industry with long entrenched global supply chains. By comparison, Tejas is a steal!

So, what happened post-2003? Well, everyone in the procurement loop — in the IAF, Department of Defence Production, Defence Ministry, Government of India, and in defence public sector units (DPSUs), including HAL, began getting the heebie-jeebies when faced with the prospect of a home grown product. The IAF brass wedded to the outmoded idea that everything foreign is better found the Tejas disconcerting, particularly because the younger pilots who flew this plane couldn’t be more effusive in their admiration for it. It robbed those in the defence procurement loop including in the IAF, defence ministry and government of India, of periodic trips to Europe and points farther afield and the many joys and considerations these provided them, and confronted HAL and DRDO outfits that had grown lazy over decades of screwdrivering foreign aircraft — under license manufacture contracts and, when not buying foreign items and putting their insignia on them and selling them to the armed services as Indian-made goods, with now actually having to work to deliver on the technologies they promised and received dollops of funds to develop.

This to say that Tejas upset the vested interests and stiffened resistance to this aircraft up and down the defence establishment, inclusive of DPSUs. Every one so hurt buckled down to derailing the project.

The 2015 Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India on the Tejas LCA programme is revealing about just how much the IAF, DRDO, Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and HAL seemingly competed with each other in their attempts to make this project a non-performing asset. There’s not a page in the report where HAL, ADA, DRDO or IAF, singly or severally, is/are not pulled up and held responsible for unconscionable delays and cost-over-runs, and innumerable actions to slow down or otherwise hurt the progress of the aircraft design stage onwards.

Thus, in separate sections of the Report the CAG hammers the ADA — a special purpose vehicle established to bring the LCA project speedily to fruition, for the failure of its Full Scale Engineering Development to produce two prototypes owing to a shut down of all activities for six years in Phase I, causing a delay of 11 years; slams the HAL for the absence of indigenisation plan and for the the “shortfall in creation of production facilities [which] impacted induction of LCA”; the IAF for “lack of user involvement” and for frequently changing the Air Staff Qualitative Requirements (ASQRs), which necessitated major design changes leading to interminable push-forwards of delivery dates, and for just as frequently revising the weapons carriage profile, which entailed structural changes, raised costs and (again) delays in delivery. The CAG report also highlights the failure of the GTRE (Gas Turbine Research Establishment) despite developemnt expenditure of Rs 2020 cr to produce the Kaveri engine forcing ADA “to depend on GE imported engines for LCA” .

In its 114th report, the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament (2018-2019), 16th Lok Sabha, followed up. Having scrutinized the LCA programme and the CAG audit, it iterated the findings and conclusions of the CAG and ended by rounding squarely on the MOD, saying “the [Defence] Ministry have failed to ensure proper coordination among its own different wings, like ADA, HAL and IAF, to develop our indigenous combat worthy LCA aircraft which ultimately resulted in half hearted approach on country’s security and incurring huge expenditure for procurement of fighter aircraft from foreign countries.”

However, Parliamentary admonishment has had no effect. In January 2020, defence secretary Ajay Kumar said in Kolkata that the contract for 83 Tejas LCA apart, the government had okayed the issual of a Request for Proposal for another 110 aircraft to all potential foreign suppliers. Given that just the up-front cost of buying a mere 36 Rafales — a small fleet that I have argued will be good for absolutely nothing in real operational terms — from France was some Rs 60,000 cr, an additional 110 aircraft for IAF could set back the country’s near empty Treasury by another Rs 15 lakh crore at a minimum as total lifetime costs for the Rafales and whatever imported combat planes make up the 110 aircraft complement with spares and servicing support plus various mixes of exorbitantly priced weapons!!

This is at a time when, as I have been writing and shouting from any and every forum available to me, manned combat aircraft as weapon systems are on the verge of extinction, on the cusp of being replaced by intelligent and lethal drones operating singly or in swarms and absolutely effective in air-to-ground and air-to-air missions. But then IAF is a habitual laggard, happy to bring up the rear of every technological innovation in the world! And the MOD as well as GOI are bereft of sound common sense, leave alone expertise, to guide their decisions. It is like leaving the decision on whether tanks and machine guns would be useful to old school cavalrymen who, in the 1920s and 1930s in both the US and British armies opposed going in for these new fangled armaments!

If Rs 15 lakh crores is the kind of expenditure in combat aircraft the IAF is seeking and MOD is willing to back, wouldn’t it be more advisable — from the atm nirbharta (self-sufficiency) angle — to channel most of these monies into the programme to fast-forward the evolving Tejas series of aircraft — Mk-II, AMCA (advanced medium combat aircraft), etc? And if the Modi government is truly into reducing the fiscal deficit and government expenditure generally by going in for systematic privatisation, shouldn’t DPSU be the prime targets? And why did Modi, Rajnath Singh and the present dispensation, in the event, permit investment of thousands of crores of rupees into a second Tejas production line for HAL when the more cost-effective solution that I have been advocating is for HAL/DRDO transferring the LCA source codes to Tata Aerospace, Mahindra Aerospace and/or even Reliance Aerospace, say, and otherwise incentivising these private sector companies to have parallel production lines for the manufacture full tilt of the 4.5 generation Tejas to meet IAF needs, speedily augment its fleet strength to 42 squadrons, and for exports to flood the developing country market so that India is set up as a meaningful arms exporter?

Why, oh, why, can’t the GOI ever do anything remotely out-of-the-box while all the time talking about it (pace Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amitabh Kant at Niti Ayog)!!

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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47 Responses to Questionable commitment of Government and IAF to Tejas combat aircraft series

  1. Vaibhav says:

    Bharat sir,
    I think we need foreign assistance for catching up with (at least) China in After-burning Turbofan engine tech; we must overcome this prime bottleneck that is shackling our aerospace industry.

    I agree with you that importing fighters is an non-optimal expensive way of doing this. Can you suggest some other ways we can lay our hands on such tech? Like stealing it through cyber espionage in the China-style?

  2. whatsinitanyway says:

    Given the anti-desi attitude of defence ministry and risk aversion nature of desi businesses I can’t contemplate in any situation indigenisation of sophisticated defence equipment… except ofcourse after getting stonewalled by some sanctions.
    Recently the LnT chief openly stated that they want to get out of epc sector and expand its lucrative and stable IT business. The only other option in such a scenario is corporatisation of DPSU HAL etc… I don’t think defence ministry would consider it. @Bharat ji you have my respect for not getting inured to such ignorance on the part of the whole defence establishment… after all these years. By the way that 150 lakh crores figure is for the whole lifecycle of the fighters? because if only price is considered it would amount to roughly 1.5 lakh crores.

  3. Sunil Kumar says:

    Can you please give the breakup of ₹150LkCr or a link to it?

    • It is an extrapolation of the Rs 60,000 cr for 36 Rafales. Factor in roughly 17% of acquisition cost as annual cost of spares, servicing support and weapons plus mid-lfe refit (change of jet engines, etc) for the 25-30 year life of aircraft.

      • Sunil Kumar says:

        Bharat, even with 17%/yr for 30 years, it add up to less than ₹15LkCr. ₹150LkCr is $2 trillion—that sounds too much. Help me understand what am I missing here.

        – Sunil

      • Sunil@ — Reworked the arithmetic. Perhaps I am getting the number of zeroes wrong! Happy to go with your calculation and call it Rs 15 lah cr and so inserted in the text. Thanks.
        Re: other issues — No, Bristol-Siddeley offered its BOR 12 engine for the Marut which was underpowered with the Gant Orpheus 12 engines, but defmin Krishna Menon refused to pay $10 million for it! The arrangement with Tank for a “nonaligned” aircraft involved India making the airframe, and parcelling out the Messerschmitt team producing the jet engine to Egypt. We produced the airframe but Egypt did not come with the engine. Much of this development is detailed in my books, starting with ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security’.
        Transonic because of the Gnat engines. Tank’s reputation and the quality of Marut he designed may be gauged by the fact that Germany offered to jointly upgrade the HF-24 for Indian and Luftwaffe use, which offer GOI declined! (Again all this is in my books.)

  4. BHASKAR says:

    “… to produce two prototypes owing to a shut down of all activities for six years in Phase I, causing a delay of 11 years; slams the HAL for the absence of indigenisation plan and for the the “shortfall in …”.

    Do you mean to say that there is actually no periodic assessment or evaluation of progress from MOD or CAG for that matter? Can anything remain stuck up for 11 years even under weak excuses !! ?
    It’s better to live under sanctions then …

  5. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    A brilliant analytical composition by Professor Karnad.

    Sir, kindly refer to the following;

    An excerpt from the above article;

    Many in Raini village are in grief, their family members either dead or missing. Some said when they first heard the roaring waters, their first thought was a Chinese attack. Incidentally, a news channel even aired the theory of a Chinese conspiracy behind the Uttarakhand disaster.

    Professor Karnad, I would like to know your thoughts about it, is there any possibility of Chinese hand behind this recent tragedy in Uttarakhand?

  6. Amit says:

    Sadly, what you have described is true of India in general. Mega infrastructure projects for example are announced more for how much money can be siphoned than public convenience (e.g., Namma metro project in Bangalore to the airport vs. flyovers vs. suburban rail). The only reason the last year has seen progress on the defence side is due to existential threats along the western and northern fronts. Not sure how long it will last! That’s why I sometimes think there should always be some kind of pressure on India. Only then it will change. The political class is quite corrupt in most states (I think much of the problem is at the state level). Yet there are pockets of competence in India. It’s hard to feel optimistic, yet it’s not all hopeless. I feel more optimistic when I look at India from the outside, yet every time I’m in India, I feel large pangs of frustration along with reasons for hope. India is like that only!

  7. Sankar says:

    There are a few points where I would disagree:
    1. “Up to this point the Tejas development had done quite well considering the project had to proceed from a zero baseline in terms of in-house competence in aircraft designing experience and R&D skills.” –
    To my information, Tejas is an upgraded version (modernized) of the India Gnat (the British Hawker-Siddeley) of the 1950-60 vintage. Please check with some past articles (if they have been archived and available) that appeared in IDR. Gnat played havoc in the 1965 war.

    In the 1950s Britain had offered India to develop a really supersonic version of Gnat for a cost of 10 million pounds, but Nehru (and Krishna Menon) rejected it. Instead, Nehru made a joint arrangement with Nasser and Tito to pull the resources of these non-aligned nations together to manufacture fighter aircrafts. India chose the role of “designing” the aircraft, Egypt to produce the engine and Yugoslavia to manufacture the aircraft’s frame. What a disaster- Egypt could not even manufacture the motor car engine, but was given the responsibility to manufacture the supersonic fighter engine! Obviously, nothing came out.

    2.To my info HF-24 was just transonic (1.1 mach?), not exactly supersonic. I do not know what elevated Dr Tank to be regarded as the foremost designer in the world in that era.

  8. Kunal Singh says:

    Elon Musk told us airforce pilots that ” fighter jet era has passed” &”drone warfare is the future” n there was silence/murmuring

  9. V.Ganesh says:

    @BharatKarnad Is there a chance of the Indian Air Force [IAF] deliberately creating problems in its existing Tejas LCA fighter jets through subversive means and then go to the Government of India [GOI] to press for buying foreign fighter jets citing the Tejas LCA as being trouble-prone and unreliable?

  10. V.Ganesh says:

    @BharatKarnad, I know that this blog post of yours is about the Indian Air Force [IAF]. Yet, I’d like to ask you your opinion about the Indian Army. Yesterday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi handed over the Arjun Main Battle Tank [MBT] Mark 1-A to the Indian Army in Chennai in a ceremony for it.

    In your opinion, is the Indian Army accepting it grudgingly knowing Modi’s push for Make In India, Aatma Nirbhar Bharat and the current stand-off with China or is it happily accepting it to support indigenisation?

    Is this the case with the IAF too with it happily accepting the Tejas LCA or a grudging acceptance of the Tejas LCA forced by the GOI?

    Will the Indian Navy also face the same fate of having to grudgingly accept indigenisation or does the Indian Navy genuinely [I hope it’s the same in all the 3 services] support indigenisation?

  11. V.Ganesh says:

    @BharatKarnad Is the Tejas LCA somehow influenced by the French Dassault Mirage 2000 and the French Dassault Rafale? The Tejas LCA looks very similar to them, unless one observes it closely.

  12. PRATIK KUMAR says:

    Sir a general question. Would you still recommend India to buy long range bombers for IOR, when we have P8i maritime patrol aircrafts? We are planning to buy more in future. They also have long range and great surveillance capabilities.

  13. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    With all due regards Professor Karnad, the Indian government doesn’t even have the guts to reclaim its captured territory from China in/around LAC.

    Pigs would fly before Indian establishment (no matter, which political party) can even dream to launch aerial attacks in interior China.

  14. Debanjan Banerjee says:

    Another wonderful article by the mighty pen of Mr Karnad. MK Bhadrakumar believes the recent AMAN 2021 exercise in Pakistan strengthens Pakistan as a major player in the Indian ocean region. What is your viewpoint on the same?

  15. Abhi says:

    Please try to make a trip to the Bay Area after covid restrictions are lifted. I am vegetarian, but I would love to treat you to a Rig Vedic meal and listen to whatever you have to say.

  16. V.Ganesh says:

    @BharatKarnad What do you have to say about this It says that for India to enter into negotiations for the fighters [Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II] with the USA, India will have to drop the S-400 deal just like Turkey seems to be doing as per

    • Every aircraft supplier country making a pitch. Who knows what will transpire considering there’s no money?

      • V.Ganesh says:


        1. If you say there’s no money, then, can’t the Government of India [GOI] tell the Reserve Bank of India [RBI] for it to buy much needed military hardwares, just like in the past the GOI told the RBI to give it a few lake crores?

        2. Your blog’s header photograph/banner has the words geostrategics and military in it. Do you think Erdogan is playing Biden and Putin for fools by trying to abandon the S-400 in order to either get the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II or Transfer of Technology for the S-400 from Russia?

      • (1) That way is stagflation, & (2) Erdogan may be overreaching.

  17. krishna soni says:

    Prime Minister Narendra Modi had expressed his unhappiness over the functioning of the Indian bureaucracy and in a meet attended by top IAS officers had questioned the slow decision making of the bureaucracy, Hindustan Times has reported.

    The report adds that it was quite evident that Prime Minister Modi was very concerned about the bureaucratic decision making in the country.

    In the PRAGATI meeting attended by Principal Secretary P K Mishra, Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba, other top Secretaries and state Chief Secretaries, Prime Minister Modi had cited 10-year delays in implementation of railway and highway projects.

    The report adds that as the bureaucrats sat in stunned silence, Prime Minister Modi said that not only was he concerned about cost overruns, he was also worried about loss in economic opportunities and jobs due to these delays.

    This revelation comes at a time when Prime Minister Modi had hailed the Indian Private Sector for its contribution towards nation building.

    He had also made a veiled criticism of the Indian bureaucracy by questioning as to what can be achieved by handing over the country to Babus.

    “Will the Babus do everything? If one becomes IAS will he/she do everything like running fertiliser industries, chemical industries or flying a plane…what are we going achieve by handing over our country to Babus. If Babus belong to our country, so do the youth (who work in the private sector)”, said Prime Minister Modi.

    Respectes Sir@Professor Karnad , I had read your various articles and watched your interviews in which you had considered the socialist bureaucracy as one of the main hindrances for our country ,in your interview with swarajya you criticised PM for not taking a harder stance for breaking this socialist model, do you view the statement By the Prime Minister and the recent Budget 2021 and the economic reforms as a postive development in the right direction.I hope for your wonderful and DETAILED views on the topic.

  18. Sir, the recent address of the Prime Minister in the parliament involved a word “IAS BABU”. Do you now think that the government is finally waking up to the goods the private sector does?

    Sir, you were the part of the committee which drafted our nuclear doctrine.
    1. Why didn’t you suggest a security force for the security of the scientists?

    2. I. Saw the Al Jazeera documentary on Indian nuclear plant in Challakele ,Karnataka. The Americans were quoted as saying they are keepin an eye on it.
    These words are pre 1999 vibes.

    — Are we now doing something about the nuke arsenal?

    Why is our current government not getting over the fact that America is not an ally?

  19. V.Ganesh says:

    @BharatKarnad With regard to my first question, you replied saying it’s stagflation. Then, what should India do to get money to buy the much-needed military hardware that it needs? Because the way I see it, no politician and no political party irrespective of their political and ideological beliefs is going to stop giving subsidies, stop waiving loans and stop giving freebies to stay in power and grab power, thus leading to India always being short of money for its defence needs.

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

    Sorry, but for Stagflation to kick in, you necessarily need a stagnation in growth of the sticky kind which may or may not be fed by a QE fueled inflation.
    Indian stagnation is not a sticky kind and is merely the result of the policies in vogue.
    Inflation is also a distant concern for the supply side because the real interest rates are too high.

    I am afraid this is a garden variety (can be made to worsen) balance sheet shrinkage where people want to get rid of leverage even if it means some tightening today. Especially for the Individuals. I had to use the DMRC at times in last few days both during rush hours and off it. It seems at about 50% its pre lockdown levels. – “Personal loans registered a decelerated growth of 9.5 per cent in December 2020 as compared with 15.9 per cent growth in December 2019”

    Basically the people with pristine creditworthiness are hesitant to become part of the economic cycle. While the ones demanding credit are the ones that had already been undermined prior to lockdown eg. MSME. These alongwith a few new joiner after the lockdown are comatose. Obviously it would be commercially suicidal now to extend credit to these later borrowers and hence the rates for them will remain too high too be meaningful. Their production has in-fact already collapsed and part of their production has been taken over by the larger firms with better balance sheets and hence the GST uptick.

    Funds crunch has nothing to do with economic downturn in India and everything to do with the ‘foreign hand’ or the ‘shock therapy technocrats’.

  21. Anon says:

    Why there is no focus on cyber capabilities,AI, quantum communications. This still new if we master it may give us edge if we catch up .Why our armed forces just obsessed on getting some toys which they think will change the dyanmics significantly.Our armed forces seem to lack creativity and have same response template rather than coming up with customized solution and just complaining lack of funds .They just focus on optimising harware instead of optimising their software .This has been aptly displayed by countries like Vietnam ,Pakistan,North Korea who inspite of lacking funds were able to create credible deterrence compared to them we have a lot more resources.

  22. Bhishma says:

    Bharat Sir,

    Looking forward to your commentary on the recent (temporary no doubt!) de-escalation in Ladakh and the postbellum strategy needed.

    • Yea, 2 pieces coming through: BloombergQuint will upload one Friday (Feb 19); India Today, issue of March 1 (coming out this Saturday) will feature my piece in its “Up Front” column.

      • Gaurav Tyagi says:

        Ardently awaiting to read your compositions on this latest surprise (so called de-escalation) between China & India.

        It doesn’t add up as per my understanding.

  23. Sir, I feel Mossad is behind the majority of scientists assassinations in India because they are the ones who stand to lose the most business from us.

    Also, looking at their track record of assassinations of scientists in Egypt affair and Saddam supergun, it is highly probable.

    What is your take on Mossad’s role in all this?

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