Amongst a host of idiotic policies the Indian government followed until at least the turn of the Century was to shun arms exports. High-minded reasons were trotted out — India, a moral and responsible state, couldn’t possibly be in the dirty business of selling arms, etc. Never mind that we were onpassing small arms, ammo, 105mm field guns, and so on — but on a small scale — to friendly states and countries in the neighbourhood.
There were more practical reasons, however, that KC Pant, defence minister in Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet in the mid- to late-1980s, alluded to. He once told me of the issue he was then wrestling with relating to, yes, “commissions”, bribes, call it what you will, that needed to be liberally handed out to all manner of people up and down the procurement systems in potential customer countries who had shown interest in this or that piece of Indian-produced military hardware. It is a mirror image, incidentally, of the tandem system of defence sales-bribes worked by foreign arms suppliers pushing multi-billion dollar arms deals to the Indian military. Names like Bofors, HDW, AugustaWestland have passed into lore, symbolizing the extraordinary levels of corruption that are endemic to big arms contracts. The evidence of corruption has upended governments (Rajiv Gandhi’s), implicated armed services’ chiefs of staff (Air Chief Marshal ‘Bundle’ Tyagi) and otherwise made the public aware of the seedier aspects of arms transactions, including, allegedly, the government-to-government deals such as the one that fetched the Indian Air Force the French Rafale combat aircraft.
So the question is, if bribing is de riguer and almost a standard operating procedure in the arms business, how’s the Indian government formally to account for the taxpayer’s money thus spent even if in a good, national, cause of making friends and influencing countries by selling them arms and, by the by, generating revenues and giving a fillip to the indigenous arms industry? Such was the dilemma Pant struggled with. He also wondered about nut & bolt issues involved, such as whether a separate sales agency needed to be set up in the Defence Ministry, but worried that civilian officials and military officers manning it would, on the one hand, be hamhanded in the delicate business of bribe giving and taking that could blow up in the Indian government’s face and, on the other hand, whether these Indian arms sales personnel would have enough integrity not to pocket some of the hard currency commission-funds that would have to be set aside for this nefarious purpose! In other words, some kind of ‘black budget’ outside parliamentary and other scrutiny of the kind, say, RAW, the external intelligence agency, operates.
Thank God, the Indian government (in the Modi years) has matured in its thinking, entered the real world, and authorized the defence manufacturing units to sell their wares, however they are able to do so, with the necessary diplomatic/military and other assist from Delhi easing the way to the extent possible. Defence Attaches in Indian embassies, expressly tasked to “sell” Indian-made military goods, do the early spadework, and the Indian defence public sector units follow up, what with the government urging a ramping up of exports to amortize the enormous public investment in the DPSUs.
The DPSU Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) knew, once the Tejas light combat aircraft had reached prototype stage, that it had a winner on its hands. The showcasing of this 4.5 generation Indian designed and developed delta wing supersonic fighter aircraft in air shows starting with the one in Bahrain in 2016, in Dubai in end 2021 and, most recently, in Singapore in February this year, was followed a month later by five LCAs from the Sulur squadron deployed to an international air war exercise (Cobra Warrior 22) conducted by the RAF in Britain involving many advanced air forces. All this has has padded Tejas’ reputation as a fast, agile, and highly maneuverable and modern combat aircraft. Moreover, with a competitive price advantage it has obvious attractions for countries with limited means or limited needs. After Bahrain, over a dozen regional air forces showed interest. Air force chiefs from several of these interested countries, including from Central Asia, have flown the LCA and are admirers of the plane’s handling characteristics.
For starters, Malaysia, after a fly-off, has indented for 18 Tejas (with 18 more as possible future buy). It beat the far costlier Russian MiG-35 and the South Korean FA-50, the manifestly less capable Chinese L-15 & JF-17, the Turkish Hurjet still only a prototype, and the Italian Leonardo M-346 trainer jerryrigged to pass off as a fighter/attack LCA M-346FA but minus an AESA (active electronically scanned array) radar, which’s standard equipment on Tejas. (The Leonardo LCA features a mechanical scanning radar.) Should the deal for Tejas be sealed, it will highlight an ongoing policy of military cooperation. In 2017, a complicated deal was hammered out involving the transfer to IAF by Malaysia of all 12 MiG-29Ns in its employ in exchange for Indian HAL spares and assistance to upkeep its Su-30s fleet — an arrangement that apparently built up trust between the two air forces.
Impressed as much by its quality as by its relatively economical cost, Egypt has a more ambitious Tejas programme on its mind. The Egyptian Air Force wants to produce this aircraft in their own country to meet a much larger requirement of 70-odd aircraft. HAL’s sweetener is a package deal involving Tejas LCA technology transfer and a parallel assembly line for the Dhruv utility helicopter. It was too good a deal for Cairo to refuse. In any case, the successful culmination of the Egyptian Tejas programme will be an ironic counterpoint to the joint project with Egypt mooted by Jawaharlal Nehru to produce a “nonaligned” combat aircraft. India was tasked to produce the airframe which it did — the HF-24 Marut; Egypt failed to develop an appropriately powered jet engine, leaving the IAF to manage with a flying-wise fine fighter plane but with an underpowered, make-do, Orpheus jet power plant taken from the Gnat.
Argentina is in the market for 12 LCAs and has sequestered some $700 million for the deal. The only other planes in the race are the Russian MiG-29 and MiG-35 and the Chinese JF-17, which no one wants. The niggle here is Britain — its 1982 Falklands War animus still simmering — has vetoed the sale of Tejas because it has British components, in the main, the Martin-Baker zero-zero ejection seat system and the Cobham radome of composite materials for low observability. But HAL has conveyed assurances that it has designed and is well on its ways to testing and producing an indigenous zero-zero ejection seat system as also a quartz radome. Further, the Argentinian insistence on tech-transfer in any case is easily met.
The trio of Malaysian, Egyptian, and Argentinian Tejas deals located on three different continents should hopefully spark an interest in this aircraft in the rest of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
The fly in the ointment, however, is this: Does HAL have a large, ready to go and comprehensive after-sales service setup? This is a void HAL better fill up fast as priority because the LCA sales will amount to a frustrating nought if the Malaysian, Egyptian and Argentinian Tejas end up being grounded or fail in flight because of local perceptions of bad spares support and servicing flaws/failures by the supplier firm as happened with the HAL supplied Dhruv helicopters to Ecuador. That pioneering venture to prise open a new market soured because of Ecuadorian dissatisfaction with the spares and after-sales service, which were blamed for the crash of 4 of the 7 Dhruv helicopters delivered between 2007 and 2009. Quito scrapped that contract.