Need to restructure indigenous fighter programme

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Need to restructure indigenous fighter programme

Tuesday, 08 October 2019 | Abhijit Bhattacharyya

India could emulate the Beijing model if it sincerely wants the IAF to be a strong and superior fighting institution of a 1.3 billion people

It’s the innermost desire of 1.3 billion souls of India, me too included obviously: How to transform the Indian Air Force (IAF) from “Imported Air Force” (IAF) to “Indigenised Air Force” (IAF)? This write-up is an attempt to suggest “ways forward” by an interested and concerned citizen. I, therefore, would focus on “Made in India” fighter aircraft for the IAF because traditionally, that’s the main concern and core area, owing to technology, price, maintenance, logistics and upgrade during its prescribed shelf-life and beyond. How to proceed then to an issue which hasn’t yet been satisfactorily resolved by the State? Are 72 years not long enough for India to be self-reliant in combat aircraft production for its own air warriors?

To be fair, India started well and was in a position of advantage. Being under British, close to two centuries, had its minus points but Indians also benefitted in use of modern military hardware, which were of British-origin. Fighting ships to fighter aircraft, which enabled Indian sailors, soldiers and subalterns to gain experience and become experts in usage, upkeep and upgrade. 

Thus, post-1947, the IAF had the fortune of using front line combat aircraft like English Electric Canberra photo reconnaissance bomber, de Havilland Vampire and Hawker Hunter fighter and French Ouragan and Mystere craft. India also initiated manufacture of single-engine Gnat and twin-engine Marut fighters with imported technology and participation of eminent German technologist. For some time, India’s indigenisation enterprise did appear promising and impressive. Nevertheless, it was short-lived as Indians couldn’t capitalise on available Western technology and improve upon it. Things thus went downhill, only to revive in 1983 in the form of light combat aircraft (LCA), the new avatar of which is today’s Tejas multi-role fighter.

As the single-engine Tejas undergoes trials, experiment and upgrade, from all accounts, it’s definitely going to see an operational role in squadrons of the IAF in the near future. That’s good news undoubtedly but the moot point remains: How does India go for additional home-made fighters, both single and twin-engine, with different roles? Should one dare suggest! Why not?

The first act has to be from the highest quarters of Government. We could emulate the Beijing model if we sincerely want the IAF to be a strong and superior fighting institution of a 1.3 billion people. Let’s face it. Just as no Navy can be respected by only buying and not building its fighting ships, the IAF, too, will always be at the mercy and charity of foreign fighter manufacturers. And, in the ruthless cut-throat arms bazaar, no foreigner, however friendly they pretend to be at the high table of diplomacy, will ever give India the latest and best technology. That’s impossible in contemporary mercantilist economics. Hence, India today requires at least two types of home-made combat aircraft. First, a single engine like Tejas. The role of which could be two-fold, conventional ground attack, close-air-support to advancing or defending troops and counter air-defence in tactical/forward edge of battle area. Second, the need for twin-engine multi-role offensive operation fighter, which would be tried for mixed or interchangeable role; both defence and offence mission. Deep penetration (like SEPECAT Jaguar); air defence capability of upgraded MiG-21 and other variants; counter air offensive of MiG-29 as well as interdiction; enhanced payload, range, combat radius, service ceiling, Mach speed, avionics and electronics. Added features of reconnaissance, akin to MiG-25, could also be explored. Aside, the present-day electronic warfare capability, which the Chinese Air Force is reported to be developing, has to be gone through research and development, owing to various electronic counter-measure (ECM) and electronic counter-counter measures (ECCM)-filled combat flight mission/envelope.

All these, of course, are easier said than done. Nevertheless, the onus to develop local combat aircraft fairly and squarely lies with the Indian State and it cannot be handed over to any private company or inexperienced non-Government enterprise in any way. India could very well learn from the experience and success of Chinese State-owned enterprise (SOE), rather than blindly following Western free trade and freewheeling multinational military-industrial-complex. Resources being limited, it’s important they are not frittered away and handed over to private players to “extravagant experiment” after 72 years of sovereign Indian polity.

Coming back to indigenisation, we need to emulate Chinese experiment and experience, as vividly described by HM Paulson, Junior, the former US Treasury Secretary. Paulson was in  awe of China: “China’s stated goal has been to create national champions in strategic areas critical to national security to improve global competitiveness and to boost technological progress at home.”

Chinese foresight is indeed praiseworthy. They do know how to look after their critical national interest.

“In 2006, the Government revealed a list of sectors that SOE” (equivalent to India’s public sector undertakings) “must dominate, included in which are defence, electricity, oil and petrochemicals, telecommunications, coal, aviation, and shipping.” Beijing also is to maintain strong presence in “pillar industries”, like “equipment manufacturing, auto-making, electronics, construction, steel, non-ferrous metals, chemicals, surveying and scientific research.”

Now, we know why and how the Chinese progressed and India was left behind, thereby resulting in an annual foreign trade deficit of $184.33 billion for 2018-2019 (with China, including Hong Kong, accounting for $60 billion plus)!

India, therefore, should restructure its indigenous fighter programme. First, a full-fledged Cabinet Minister, Aircraft Production be appointed who would report to the Prime Minister, like Department of Space. Second, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited be merged with the IAF because both are monopoly producers and consumer/user/customer, banking on mutual supply and demand. Third, an ace test/fighter pilot or an eminent aeronautical engineer of Air Marshal rank should head all projects for three years on rotation and continue, if need be, up to 65 years, extendable to 70, if physically fit. Fourth, all research, development, testing, production and prototype, upgrade must be done in-house, funded by the State.

India lost precious seven decades. Powers that matter make their own fighters: Russia, China, the US and France. Even Japan, South Korea and Turkey have risen. Individually, Israel, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and Spain no longer produce fighters because of post-Cold War budget constraints, leading to decay. Yet, four Europeans collectively manufacture Eurofighter.

The IAF chief’s strong pitch for indigenous fighters could not have come at a better time. This author’s four-decade-old plea appears to have been heard by some supernatural psychic power. The IAF today is 87. Happy birthday. Happy flying.       

(The writer, an alumnus of the National Defence College, is author of China in India)

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