Navy’s choice of Rafale-M endangers the naval Tejas and the entire indigenous combat aircraft programme

[Rafale-M taking off from carrier deck]

The Indian armed services, as I have long maintained, are really not serious about making the country self-reliant in arms, all their swearing by ‘atmnirbhar Bharat’ notwithstanding. The indenting by army under the “emergency financial powers” provision for 15,000 foreign-sourced Level-4 light body armour capable of stopping steel-core bullets at 10 meters for use by counter-insurgency troops in Kashmir, and the imminent decision by navy to go in for Rafale-Marine aircraft under its TEDBF (Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter) programme, are only the latest manifestations of the military’s reluctance to give home-made products even a fighting chance.

Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Trombay, as far back as 2018 had readied for production tested technology for bullet-proof jackets weighing 6.6 kg using boron carbide ceramics that met milspecs. Indian companies — Tata Advanced Materials Ltd and MKU of Kanpur, have been exporting body armour for years. And yet, here’s the army misusing its emergency powers to secure “phoren maal”.

Death likewise awaits the indigenous navalised Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (NLCA) at the navy’s hands. The original air force variant of the Tejas LCA somehow survived IAF’s sustained efforts at killing it off, something the service had succeeded in doing with the home-grown Marut HF-24 fighter aircraft and its Mark-II version in the 1970s. The NLCA first performed a ski-jump takeoff demonstration at INS Hansa, Goa in 2017 and has since passed every performance metric from ‘sink rate’, angle-of-attack, to folding wing-tip, including perfectly executed take-offs and landings on Vikramaditya’s deck. (For technical details on the progress made in the NLCA programme and how it is being thwarted at every turn, see my 2018 book — ‘Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’, pages 289-305.) But it was nevertheless declared overweight and unfit for aircraft carrier duty — the protestations by the navy officered project that weight reduction was eminently doable and once outfitted with the more powerful GE 414 jet turbine engine, would meet reasonable requirements of range and payload capacity for single engined aircraft, making no headway with the Service brass.

Why? Because, well, the navy is well and truly embarked on the TEDBF — a cover, yeah, you guessed it, for importing the phoren Boeing F-18 Super Hornet, or the French Dassault Rafale-Marine, come naval Tejas or high water! And no, no atmnirbharta programme, or defence minister Rajnath Singh’s ‘No imports’ lists is going to stop them. However, the Rafale decision was made more palatable by justifying this imported TEDBF as an interim measure, a “stop gap” solution, until the heavier two-engined variant of Tejas became available in 2032 — or a decade from now. DRDO has promised the larger naval Tejas by then, which promise will be easier to keep considering just how adaptable the basic design is to a little upscaling for a twin-engined configuration, and because of the extraordinary progress in design and other avaiation technologies already made in the NLCA programme.

But the problem is this: Once the Rafale-M or the Super Hornet enter the Indian Naval carrier service and into the IAF as a 112-strong aircraft MMRCA fleet, the sheer inertia and the procurement logic (of reducing unit cost by buying larger numbers) will ensure follow-on buys of the Rafale or the F-18, and investments and interest in the Indian NLCA and successor carrier aircraft for the navy, and in the AMCA for the air force, will peter out.

This is, perhaps, what the Indian Navy and IAF want to see happen.

[The “customised” F-18 Super Hornet, with folded wing tips to fit the Vikrant lifts]

Assuming the Modi regime weathers the American pressure to buy F-18 and 26 Rafale-M are bought, 2032 is almost the timeline by which the sale formalities are likely to be completed and Rafale-M, if it is indeed chosen, is inducted in adequate numbers. Navy further decided that the always controversial pill of importing arms, this time the Rafale-M, would go down the government’s throat better if this TEDBF acquisition piggybacked on IAF’s Rafale deal. The case, was therefore, made that because IAF’s Rafale servicing and maintenance infrastructure was already in place, the cost-saving on this side-deal would be sizeable. Naval HQrs were confident the generalist babu-manned defence ministry would be unable to discern the spuriousness of this argument considering naval and air force fighting assets are rarely co-located.

Whatever the other ill-effects of the supposedly stop gap Rafale-M/F-18 acquisition, it will definitely write finis to the NLCA and hence also to the development of the twin engined naval Tejas, and possibly also the follow-on aircraft to IAF’s Tejas Mk-1A — the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft programme. The country then can kiss a royal good bye to genuine atmnirbharta and settle down in its long nursed arms dependency status. The fact is there’s just too much temptation offered by foreign firms for militarymen and civilians in the defence procurement loops that few apparently can resist. Senior uniformed officers, serving or retired, will never allude to it, but younger, more idealistic, officers in the Group Captain and equivalent grade, not yet compromised, readily point to the filthy lucre at work, all the hoo-ha about corruption-free G2G deals being so much pretense.

If the Modi government is serious about an “atmnirbhar Bharat” and wants to prevent the doing away by indirect means of the still infant indigenous defence industrial and aerospace capabilities, it can have a TEDBF, give the indigenous programmes much needed boost, and save tens of billions in hard currency — what it has to do is have Rajnath Singh immediately announce that the government has reconsidered its decision and the single engined NLCA programme will be put on a warfooting, and be the precursor to the wholly India made TEDBF– the 2-engine medium weight navalised Tejas — to fly off the Vikramaditya and Vikrant decks ten years from now. He should also announce that the government will look askance at all procurement proposals hereon from any military service for importing weapons systems and platforms that, intended or not, undermine the government’s atmnirbharta policy. And that the government will ensure by diplomatic means to not put the navy in harm’s way by asking it to pull distant missions beyond their ken. After all, it is diplomacy army generals, and flagrank military officers generally suggest, do they not, as the means to fend off for the nonce a conventionally superior China in Ladakh and elsewhere on the Line of Actual Control?

What are the chances the Modi government will do as recommended above?


Now let’s turn to Rafale-M and how India has been a boon to France, the French defence industry, and to foreign arms suppliers generally.

France invested some $50 billion in developing the Rafale combat aircraft and found no buyers, earning for this warplane the sobriquet of a “cursed” aircraft after a bunch of countries — Brazil, Libya, Morocco, and Switzerland serially rejected it.

Then in April 2015, India galloped on to the scene replaying its familiar role of upkeeping Western defence programmes — the proverbial knight coming to the aid of fair maidens in distress, this even as the enormously capable Indian private sector defence industry is in a permanent state of funk, pleading for custom to survive! The Indian beneficence in this case came in April 2015 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visiting Paris decided to short circuit the MMRCA (medium multi-role combat aircraft) process and take Rafale in a government-to-government (G2G) deal ostensibly to cut the middleman, commissions, etc. out of the procurement circus. New Delhi plonked down $6.9 billion in hard currency for 36 “customized” Rafales for the Indian Air Force.

“Customized” usually means hanging a lot of bells and jangles on the hardware to make a duffer of a Third World customer feel he’s getting something extra for his hard earned and scarce money! (Even so, many people in the know claim the costs were padded to the extent of Rs 1,000 crore for each of the 36 Rafales IAF has acquired via the G2G transaction!)

By way of contrast, the same year — 2015, Egypt too jumped on board, agreeing to consider this warplane for its air force. But a cleverer Cairo signed up only in May 2021 for 24 of this aircraft with promise to purchase 30 more in due time for a total of 50 Rafales, to be paid for — wait for it! — with France’s own money! Paris agreed to finance the entire deal with a 10 year loan for the package worth $4.5 billion. With the euro’s annual inflation rate of nearly 11% (10.61% actually) in October 2022 as baseline, it means Egypt will secure at least 24 Rafales for virtually nothing! (Like the masses of military hardware India got in the “good old days” from the USSR at 2% interest, i.e, virtually free.)

France has cannily played on two aspects, that (1) unlike the US, and UK and Sweden (whose Gripen combat aircraft are powered by US engines and hence sanctionable), Rafale customers can be worry free — the supply of spares and service support being outside the numbra of potential US sanctions. After all, the Indian Navy remembers how its Westland Sea King anti-submarine warfare helicopter fleet was instantly grounded once US imposed sanctions in the wake of the Indian nuclear tests in 1998, because the Sea King — a British licensed version of the Sikorsky S-61, had US components. And (2) that there are no ‘black box” technologies — an inducement for India to license manufacture the Rafale to meet IAF’s MMRCA need for another 112 aircraft, all technologies, including avionics, will be transferred. It is a tech transfer deal that does not include the high-value munitions (Meteor, Hammer, etc), of course!!

The revenues in billions of dollars generated from the sale of the 4.5 gen Rafale — exactly the same generation as the Tejas, will be poured into the 6th gen fighter aircraft France and Germany have just decided jointly to design, develop and produce by 2050. The sum of $3.8 billion for the first phase (labeled ‘1B’) for feasibility study has already been authorized.

Meanwhile, the indigenous Indian combat aircraft programmes will die a slow death from lack of service interest in them and consequent starvation of funds.

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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16 Responses to Navy’s choice of Rafale-M endangers the naval Tejas and the entire indigenous combat aircraft programme

  1. Amit says:

    Professor, could this be that the Air Force/Navy is not confident of HAL’s capability at all? And that they do not think the HAL/ADA can deliver on Mark 1A, Mark 2, AMCA, ORCA, TEDBF AND Helicopters at the same time? While squadron strength keeps declining? From what I have seen, there is no rampant corruption in the Indian Armed Forces.

    • Gaurav Tyagi says:

      @Amit- “ From what I have seen, there is no rampant corruption in the Indian Armed Forces”.

      For starters look at the army canteens. Army personnel take the products from the aforementioned and sell in the retail/open market.

      In every foreign arms deal. Commission is provided. This has been going on since independent India came into existence in 1947.

      During the Congress regime there were loads of middlemen, largely comprising of retired army officers involved in this highly lucrative business.

      Since 2014, Modi has jumped in directly seeing the huge commissions on offer. All these show offs of government to government dealings are shams meant to fool people.

  2. Ayush says:

    The obsession with Rafael is absolutely insidious, anybody who has any knowledge of even basic air combat would know just how useless those so called “4++” generation aircraft are compared to multi layered S-400 type air defenses.And I am not even talking about the other highly impressive fighters our enemies have.What is even more hilarious is that the overhyped Rafael is not even capable of carrying ANY Advanced anti-radiation missile(Rudram-1 which is at par with AGM-88E).It will be a sitting duck against the air defenses which our enemies field(especially at LAC).Besides, RUS-UKR war has proven just how easily modern layered Russian air defenses can tear through all non-stealth western “wunderwaffe” .Those same defenses are used by the Chinese as part of their A2-AD doctrine.besides it’s precisely the fear of S-400s effectiveness that prompted the development of the much overhyped B21 raider(openly acknowledged).Besides Rafael will not stand a chance against upgraded super Sukhois. IAF and naval aviation imbeciles should give up the dream of matching china weapon for weapon.A much cheaper but effective option is to buy a few regiments of S-500s.

  3. Email from Vice Admiral Harinder Singh (Retd), former Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff

    Fri, 9 Dec at 3:14 pm

    Dear Bharat ji,

    Yes, you have a point of view but its distorted and not based on any logic

    I have been hearing about the LCA and Kaveri engine followed by the LCA N from the end of the 70s , roughly 4 decades. I looked at when I was iDCNS and was convinced that it will not deliver though we happily continued to fund it. Its difficult to find what’s atamnirbhar in LCA except for the frame and some misc signal equipment. Yes we developed and the learning process is important and hence the need to support it.

    Aircraft carriers have limited ability to carry aircraft on board and therefore they need to have max reach and time on task, fully loaded and you will not understand this issue. At a rough guess we will require over 50% extra LCA Ns to be loaded on board and for which there is no space.

    Lastly, unsaid, who will provide the Nuclear strike capability from a long stand off distance, certainly not your LCA N. I suspect what may have tipped the scales in favour of the French may just have been this aspect. The navy cant wait another 2 decades for getting this capability to sea against a superior enemy Navy.

    I agree with Arun on his remarks and I dont see that the serving community charged with national defence are stupid and you know more than them and may require more study


  4. Email from Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd), former Chief of the Naval Staff and Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee

    Thu, 8 Dec at 8:07 pm

    Bharat, there are limits up to which ANY civilian “expert” or “analyst” – no matter how well-informed he thinks he is – can claim to “know it all”. Apart from that, an academic of your standing, does not need to, over & over again, cast aspersions on serving armed forces officers by innuendo.

    Arun Prakash

  5. RK Narang says:

    Good Morning Sir.

    Read your article & concerns on Naval fighter program.

    I share concerns about India’s unmanned aircraft development programs. The Inconsistencies in funding and absence of timelines for development, testing and induction of Rustom-1(Archar), TAPAS, UCAV and Kaveri engine (without after burner for UCAV) could cause avoidable delays. This may later lead to shelving of indigenous projects.

    This will also lead to loss of critical and vulnerable technologies such as autopilots, automatic take-off and landing, sensors, software and other hardware that were indigenously developed and integrated in these UAVs/ UCAVs. Foreign OEMs do not share core technologies unless we place very large orders and yet certain level of dependencies would remain. Also, such deals will increase burden on our limited defence budget and adversely impact long term capability development trajectory.

    warm regards

    Gp Capt R K Narang VM (Retd.) PhD

  6. Amit says:

    I’ve interviewed Rand analysts for consulting positions and found them to be quite smart. Finally, a sober assessment of India’s ‘ultra realist’ position from a Rand foreign policy analyst…

  7. There are two 2019 op-ed pieces by the former CNS, Admiral Arun Prakash on the LCA and the Kaveri engine, one after flying in a Tejas, that are worth reading. They are reproduced below:

    Here’s why former Navy chief wants India’s next Raksha Mantri to personally guide Tejas

    By ADMIRAL ARUN PRAKASH RETD. The Print, 26 May, 2019

    Having retired many years ago, my request to fly in the naval version of the light combat aircraft, also ‘Tejas’, may have seemed whimsical or eccentric to naval headquarters. Actually, it was motivated by intense curiosity to see for myself how an ‘outlandish’ concept visualised by the naval staff, a quarter of a century ago, in the face of scepticism and opposition, had survived many challenges to materialise into a flying prototype.
    Given my long association with the light combat aircraft (LCA)-Navy project, now that a two-seat (trainer) version of the aircraft was available, I had an irresistible urge to get a feel of this ‘dream machine’. The Navy Chief, very graciously, acceded to my request and I flew a quick sortie on the LCA-Navy, earlier this week.
    In the early 1990s, when the LCA programme was languishing, the naval headquarters (NHQ) made enquiries about the possibility of a ship-borne version of the aircraft. On receiving a positive response about its feasibility, the NHQ formally sanctioned the LCA-Navy project. It soon emerged that a number of major design and engineering hurdles would have to be overcome, to make the land-based LCA carrier-capable. In addition to complex aerodynamic issues, the problem areas included insufficient engine thrust, a stronger undercarriage, installation of an arrester hook, and need for cockpit and fuselage re-design. Undaunted, the navy affirmed its faith in the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) by initiating a jointly-funded developmental programme and providing engineers and test pilots for the project.
    An important spin-off of this project has been the creation of a ‘shore-based test facility’ (SBTF) in Goa. Just one of two such facilities worldwide (the other one is a Russian-owned complex at Saki in Ukraine), it offers a simulated aircraft-carrier flight-deck ashore, including a ski-jump for take-off, optical aids for landing, and arrester gear for ‘trapping’ aircraft. Complementary to the SBTF is a unique and highly sophisticated telemetry centre for real-time monitoring and analysis of flight-test parameters — created by Indian scientists.
    Having surmounted huge challenges and suffered many delays, the Indian Air Force (IAF) version of Tejas was inducted into service in 2011 and is now in serial production. The prototype LCA-Navy had emerged in July 2010, and its first flight took place in April 2012. The complex flight-test programme is now at an advanced stage, and data is being gathered from ski-jump take-offs and high-speed arrester-wire engagements to validate its unique design and structural features. On successful completion of shore testing at the Goa facility, the LCA-Navy will commence extensive aircraft-carrier trials for obtaining ‘initial/full operational clearances’ (IOC/FOC) – a year or two from now.
    By preferring a ‘tail-less delta-wing’ configuration and an aerodynamically ‘unstable’ design, for a ‘light-weight fighter’, Indian designers had chosen a thorny path. Since an ‘unstable’ aircraft can only be flown via a computerised flight control system (FCS), billions of lines of software programmes had to be written for this and other computers that process air-data, weapon-aiming, and navigational information. Weight shedding demanded development of pioneering carbon-fibre technology for airframe parts. To adapt this design for ship-borne operations added immense complexities.
    Should it, then, have surprised anyone that a pioneering project of such difficulty (for a developing nation) should fall well behind schedule? In 2016, the navy, faced with uncertainties related to development of the LCA-Navy and accord of shipborne IOC/FOC, reluctantly took a decision to exclude it, for the time being, as a contender for its future aircraft-carrier programmes. Does this mean that we should abandon the LCA-Navy project? Before addressing this question, let me describe my recent flight.
    My brief exposure to the LCA-Navy was merely an ‘experience flight’ with a test-pilot at the controls; not quite a joyride, but certainly far from an ‘evaluation’ sortie. However, having undertaken similar flights over the past two decades in aircraft like the MiG-29 (M2), Sukhoi-27 (KUB), the Rafale-M and F/A-18(F) Hornet, it did provide useful insights into some characteristics of the LCA-Navy, which I summarise here.
    Given its weight/size constraints, the LCA cockpit is a tight fit, but ergonomically designed, easily accessible and logically laid-out. Strapping into the (zero-zero) rocket ejection-seat and connecting up with aircraft services is swiftly accomplished. Multiple switches, buttons and toggles, have been squeezed in to provide the pilot a ‘hands on throttle and stick’ (HOTAS) facility for sensor-control and weapon-selection. The state of the art ‘glass cockpit’ has multi-function displays (MFD) to provide thousands of selectable pages of flight, navigation and sensor information as well as weapons/systems-status, emergency check-lists and much else.
    The pre-start routine and start-up were crisp and simple, and sensible nose-wheel steering, via rudder-pedals, made for relaxed taxiing to the runway. I was shown a quick line-up and after-burner take-off, with the jet surging forward eagerly to get airborne. In the air, handling the Tejas was easy enough, given its responsive and well-harmonised controls and prompt engine-response. I lacked a head-up display (HUD) in the rear cockpit but an eye-level multi-function displays (MFD) made up somewhat.
    A few turns and manoeuvres served to demonstrate the aircraft’s agility and high instant turn-rates. I had been told that the flight computer would assure ‘carefree handling’, and at no stage did we encounter judder, wing-rock or instability under g-loading. I was shown a typical carrier approach and a ‘touch and go’ before coming in for a final landing. The aircraft was stable on both approaches and the front cockpit afforded good visibility.
    I left the Tejas cockpit with a distinct feeling of elation, for three main reasons.
    1. I had just flown an Indian designed, ‘Made in India’ fighter that incorporated contemporary technologies, and was as good (better?) as any of its peers world-wide.
    2. Despite long delays and sustained scepticism, the LCA-Navy would soon embark the aircraft-carrier, making India one of four countries capable of designing and producing a carrier as well as a carrier-compatible aircraft.
    3. The LCA’s computers and avionics software have been designed by Indian programmers, using ‘open architecture’. They can change, modify or update them in-house at will. We know that foreign companies guard such ‘source codes’ jealously and charge millions for modifying/updating them.
    India’s promising aeronautics industry has suffered from egregious neglect by users and politicians alike, allowing countries like China, Brazil and Turkey to overtake us. In the next few days, there will be a new Raksha Mantri in South Block and I would like to offer the following unsolicited advice to her/him: 1. The Ministry of Defence (MoD), and preferably the new RM personally, should monitor, guide and nurture the LCA programme so that the priceless experience and data generated by designers, engineers and flight-test teams does not go waste. This database should be used to sustain an ongoing, long-term fighter design/production process. 2. Even if the LCA-Navy does not come up to the navy’s qualitative requirements for a ‘deck-based fighter’, its induction as a carrier-borne ‘air-defence fighter’ should be pursued as a prelude to development of the ‘naval advanced combat aircraft’. 3. An issue related to the LCA that demands urgent attention of the MoD is that of the indigenous Kaveri turbo-jet engine – another unfinished DRDO project of national importance that must be taken to its logical conclusion.

    Let them take flight: on Tejas and Kaveri projects
    It is not late to declare the Tejas and Kaveri projects as ‘national missions’

    By Arun Prakash, The Hindu, March 12, 2019

    At the Aero-India 2019 airshow and aviation exhibition, held in Bengaluru last month, there were two developments of significance, for India’s national security as well its moribund aeronautical industry. On February 20, the Indian Air Force and the aviation community heaved a collective sigh of relief after the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas Mark 1, received its long-awaited Final Operational Clearance; this means it is combat-ready and can be exploited to the limits of its approved ‘envelope’. However, a day later, came a rather unwelcome report: a Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) announcement at the show of its decision to shelve the Kaveri turbo-jet engine project. While one waits for this report to be confirmed or denied, given the criticality of this engine for India’s aeronautical industry, the issue deserves a close look.

    Political myopia
    Historically, all major aerospace powers have possessed the capability to design airframes as well as power-plants. Until India can design and produce its own aero-engines, the performance and capabilities of any indigenously designed/built aircraft will be seriously limited by the technology that we are permitted to import. India has already had two bitter experiences in this regard. The Hindustan Aeronautics Limited’s sleek and elegant HF-24 Marut fighter, of the 1960s and 1970s, failed to achieve its huge potential as a supersonic fighter for want of a suitable engine. Rather than exert itself to seek alternatives, the government of the day, with stunning myopia, closed the programme.
    Similarly, many of the problems the Tejas faced emanate from lack of engine thrust. Even as the Kaveri has failed to make an appearance, U.S.-made alternatives such as the General Electric F-404 engine, or even the more powerful F-414, do not deliver adequate thrust for the Tejas Mk 1, to meet all its missions. For the Tejas Mk IA, Mk II, the LCA Navy, and other aircraft programmes such as the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft, India will need turbo-jet engines of even greater thrust. Thus, it is vital for India to develop a family of homegrown jet engines to power indigenous combat aircraft as well as re-engine imported ones.
    A pivotal role
    In this context, it is necessary to recognise that both the Tejas and Kaveri projects — which have seen more than their share of headwinds and uncertainty — form key components of India’s technological aspirations. Unless carefully guided, protected and nurtured, their failure could spell the end of India’s aeronautical industry, or condemn it forever to licensed production. A long production run of, say, 250-300 aircraft for the Tejas and its advanced derivatives is essential if the industry is to hone its design and production skills.
    The same holds good for the Kaveri, except that the design and production of a functional turbojet engine are even more challenging. The HAL claims to have “manufactured” nearly 5,000 aero-engines of British, French and Russian design, and overhauled 18,000 of them. Since this putative “manufacturing” process involves merely the assembly of imported components, several engine divisions of the HAL have failed to imbibe aspects of design, metallurgy, thermodynamic and aerodynamic engineering as well as the complex tooling and machining process required for the design and manufacture of aero-engines, over the past 60 years — a sad commentary. In 1986, the DRDO’s decades-old Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE) was tasked with developing an indigenous power plant for the LCA, which was to replace the U.S. engines being used for the development phase of the aircraft.
    Having developed two experimental engines, the GTRE took up a turbofan design, designated the GTX-35VS “Kaveri”, for the LCA. Full-scale development was authorised in 1989 for 17 prototypes at a cost of $55 million. The first complete prototype Kaveri began tests in 1996, and by 2004 it had flown on a Russian flying test-bed; albeit unsuccessfully. Since then, the Kaveri has made sporadic progress and the GTRE has been struggling with serious design and performance issues which it has been unable to resolve. As the Kaveri missed successive deadlines, the U.S. import option was mindlessly and gleefully resorted to.
    A series of troughs
    Given the DRDO’s penchant for secrecy and misplaced optimism, the true story of the Kaveri’s halting progress has never been revealed to Parliament or the taxpayer. However, two details, available on the Internet, are revelatory of the organisation’s ‘modus operandi’. It has, at least, on two occasions, approached French and British aero-engine manufacturers for advice and consultancy in operationalising the Kaveri. Despite reportedly attractive offers of performance-enhancement and technology-transfer, the negotiations stalled reportedly on cost considerations. It is also interesting to note that in 2014, this project — of national importance — was arbitrarily shut down by the DRDO only to be revived subsequently for reasons unknown.
    It is obvious that the onus for repeated setbacks in these projects must lie squarely on India’s political leadership; for its neglect as well as absence of a vision for the aeronautical industry. There are three more factors: over-estimation by the DRDO of its capabilities compounded by a reluctance to seek advice; inadequate project management and decision-making skills of its scientists; and exclusion of users — the military — from all aspects of the projects.
    It is still not too late for the government to declare both these projects as ‘national missions’ and initiate urgent remedial actions. The success of both the Kaveri and Tejas programmes will transform the aerospace scene, and put India in the front ranks of aeronautical nations, perhaps even ahead of China, if the desired degree of resolve and professional rigour can be brought to the fore. If we miss this opportunity, we will remain abjectly import-dependent forever in this vital area.


    @Dr Karnad I would love your views on this analysis of mine with regards to the Indo-US relations.

    I want to mention here that the US would love India to play the role of the offshore balancer ie playing a hegemonic role in the seas of the Indo-pacific. The US needs India to play this role for the simple reason that due to the war in Ukraine, the US is now forced to concentrate most of her resources in that European theater.

    This was the background reason that the US has decided to name India as the upcoming great power. In this way, by playing to the vanity of the Indian intelligentsia the US have tried to achieve two important aims. One, ensuring that the Indian leadership at least publicly distances itself from Russia and minimizes its commercial contacts with Russia and two, ensuring that US is not without resources when it comes to balancing China in the Indo-pacific region.

    Looking at initial reactions by the Indian government so far, we can observe two interesting things. The Indian decision to postpone the annual India-Russia summit and the recent decision to hold the annual Indo-US joint military exercises near the disputed Uttaranchal border between India and China, seems to favor the US.

    It naturally suits the US to ensure India plays a larger role in the Indo-pacific for two reasons. One, it ensures a steady supply of US-made weapons systems to the Indian military and two, it ensures a growing distance between India and Russia as well important regional allies such as Iran and the gulf countries.

    India, presents the best option for the US in the sense that on one hand it is a big consumer of the Western weapons systems and on the other hand it seeks acceptance by the Western ruling elite to be accommodated as a great power for future. For this specific role, India is the best option that none of the other prominent Western allies such as Australia, Israel, South Korea or Japan can play at this moment of history.

    Interestingly, alike US, China too would be happy if India plays the role of US as the naval balancer in the Indo-pacific. For one, China would be happy that India with two live land borders would be deploying the specious military resources in the naval arena.

    This actually allows China to ensure India gets entangled in naval responsibilities which allows China (or for that matter Pakistan in future) to nibble around territories in the disputed himalayan regions such as Arunachal, Ladakh and Kashmir in future. Plus, with India distracted by naval duties, China can afford to plan for a possible future naval blockade and eventual capture of the Taiwan islands.

    Also, China will be happy that any entrenchment of relations between India and the US in the Ind0-pacific will automatically create distances between India and its erstwhile allies such as Russia and Iran which China(and Pakistan) can only play for its own usefulness.

    To conclude, India playing the US desginated role of naval balancing China in the Indo-pacific region will likely be more beneficial for China, once it happens eventually.

  9. Gab Singh says:

    Bharatji, Why on earth is Indian Navy buying Rafale-M at the first place ? Earlier India did buy Admiral Gorshkov garbage ( INS Vikramaditya) and Mig-29K. Later on India built an aircraft carrier of its own INS Vikrant 2. So now we need aircraft to fly from desi carrier. Why not buy Mig 29K from Russia ? There will be economies of scale by buying more Mig 29K
    The truth is that just like any Russian equipment INS Vikramaditya and Mig 29K are such disasters that Indian Navy has no other choice but to buy a Western Aircraft.

    • Sankar says:

      Gab Singh@ — Mig 29 (including its ‘K’ version) was until very recently being manufactured in Ukraine. Now with the Russo-Ukraine war everything has gone awry. So India is in a quandary and must search outside Russia. This could be the case with some other Soviet era military hardware. I do not know where you get the assessment that the Mig 29K was a ‘disaster’ as a component in the naval war fighting capability.

  10. Amit says:


    I remember last year you were saying that the EAM is so pro US that India will buy the F/A 18 for the navy. Well that hypothesis seems to be proving wrong. Now your hypothesis is that India going for the Rafale M will kill the entire Indigenous aircraft program. I doubt it very much and am quite sure even this hypothesis will prove wrong.

    Even an outsider like me can see why the AF and Navy are going for imports. HAL/ADA have a poor track record of delivery and they almost certainly can’t deliver on the multiple programs they are undertaking in a timely manner. You’re shooting too many blanks Professor!

    • You may care to revisit my blog posts (which like op-eds and stuff I choose to call, in Graham Greene fashion, “entertainments”. There I have repeatedly mentioned Jaishankar’s tilt for things American. That doesn’t. however, mean his views always garner success with Modi, as the Rafale decision proves.

      Better still, suggest you read my books for a more substantive take on the foreign policy choices and nuclear/conventional military options I have been advocating for, what, some 40 years now. You may be surprised to discover just how many of them now form part of the country’s policies.

      • Sankar says:

        @Professor Karnad:

        1. Who advised Modi to go for Rafael?
        2. On whose instruction Modi lectured (mocked?) Putin, that this is not the era of war with reference to the Ukraine war? Or was it Modi’s own gaffe?
        3. Has the French fitted India’s Rafaels by now the RWRs (radar warning receiver)? Or are they supplying for India the latest (technologically advanced ‘fusion’) receivers which fuse RWRs with radar receivers (RR)?

  11. Amit says:

    Entertainments or what I like to think of as ‘fauji gup shup’ to be enjoyed with some fried moongphali do pyaaza and a single malt! (Or a few!). But like they say in science, gup shup has its value too! And I agree with your comment about many of your views being already adopted by the GoI.

  12. sunil kohli says:

    A pessimistic and unrealistic article.

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