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 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_HAL_Tejas ) 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)!!