May 27, 2016
The recent front-page photograph showing Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, Chief of Air Staff, taking his maiden flight in India’s indigenously-built light combat aircraft Tejas in Bengaluru understandably made quite an impression on those eagerly waiting for over 33 years to get the “good” news of India’s achievement. ACM Raha is the first IAF chief to fly the twin-seat aircraft. Indeed, Air Chief Marshal Raha’s statement that the aircraft was “good” for induction comes as more than a pleasant surprise, nay music to the ears, nullifying the constant naysayers who didn’t want to see it being a part of the IAF’s operational squadrons.
Many will recall the muddled activities of some powerful individuals when it comes to accelerating indigenous defence production as a substitute for imported military hardware. This despite Jawaharlal Nehru’s early push for India’s own ordinance factories, and Indira Gandhi’s “Make in India” enterprise, that saw the launch of the “conception-to-construction” LCA along with the advanced light helicopter and integrated missile development programme in 1983. Six (British origin) Leander-class frigates were developed and a submarine fleet, imported from the then Soviet Union in the 1960s, was inducted, but a constant sabotage-like scenario, from both within and without, forced India to get dependent on the import lobby and foreign vendors. It made the armed forces helpless too as they could not be self-sufficient, and faced periodic threats of the imposition of Western sanctions, that dangled like a Damocles’ sword over defence preparedness.
This import mania also resulted in the colossal depletion of the Air Force’s assets, coupled with the country’s failure to develop and produce an indigenous fighter aircraft. So much so that it may be virtually impossible today for those in charge of the nation’s defences to tackle a two-front crisis simultaneously. This is one of the gravest security nightmares facing us. Seen in this background, it is time to assess the ground situation arising out of the virtual “test flight” of the indigenously-developed Tejas.
Announced in 1983 as LCA, India’s requirement was for air superiority and light close air support aircraft starting in the 1990s. The stipulated salient features of the plane were: single-seater, single-engine, delta-wing, built of composite material with a fly-by-wire control system, and a central weapons management system.
Today, in the LCA of 1983, renamed Tejas, Air Chief Marshal Raha has given an important message to both the import lobby and indigenous enterprise: India needs its own fighter aircraft that is produced in India.
What made ACM Raha test the Tejas himself? There must have been an element of urgency, plus a desire on the Air Chief’s part to boost the morale of IAF personnel due to the rapid depletion of its operational assets. To make matters worse, the protracted selection process of imported fighter aircraft, the ceaseless charges of corruption in military hardware acquisition since 1980s, the high casualty rate of (fighter) pilots and (flying) machines in the recent past, the nightmarish induction and application of the strategic doctrine of “war on two fronts”, behind-the-scenes activities of lobbies acting on behalf of foreign aircraft manufacturers must have had a role in ACM Raha’s decision.
For the political establishment too, the future is far from rosy. It is a Catch-22 situation. No one can possibly disagree with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s clarion call for “Make in India”. The moot point, however, is how to go about it. Internal elements do not yet appear to have reached the confidence-inducing level, and foreign manufacturers and vendors still successfully market their products to be inducted, or if not inducted, be transferred in the form of imports by India for technical cooperation or joint ventures.
Thus, even if Sweden’s Saab JAS 39 Gripen and the American Lockheed F-16 were “rejected” for not passing the “qualitative requirement” of the Indian armed forces, somehow both have made a mysterious comeback with a strong bid to be inducted into the IAF with an offer as a “Make in India” product.
The timing of both the US and Swedish action appears more than a mere coincidence. It has been a testing time for the indigenously-researched and built Tejas. In other words, if the Tejas today doesn’t pass the flight tests at the highest level of fighter pilots, it could very well be the end of the indigenisation of India’s fighter aircraft programme. It will open the gates for even the “rejected” fighters from foreign vendors.
Another interesting feature of this sudden “triangular” fight between India’s Tejas, the Swedish Saab JAS 39 Gripen and American Lockheed F-16, for the Indian market, is that all are single-engine flying machines. And technically, both the Swedish and Indian aircraft are reportedly neck and neck in “technical performance parameters”.
However, a final note of caution is needed. If “rejected” foreign aircraft try to make a comeback, why not give the Tejas a break with full-throttle support? Should one pay a very high price for the supposed benefits of state-of-art technology? Is there no merit in simplicity? After all, it was the “simple” Gnat that smashed the “sophisticated” F-86 Sabre jet in the India-Pakistan war of 1965.
Consider this: it might be infinitely better to go in for the indigenously-produced Tejas than to renegotiate for the “rejected” Saab JAS 39 Gripen or Lockheed F-16. Is that the signal that was being sent out by India’s Chief of Air Staff from the cockpit?
The writer is an alumnus of the National Defence College of India. The views here are personal.
“And technically, both the Swedish and Indian aircraft are reportedly neck and neck in “technical performance parameters”.”
I think India needs a reality check the Tejas is noway on the same level as the Jas Gripen C/D or an F-16C/D! No need to compare with the Gripen E or F-16E/F it is out off Tejas league!
Than why is India asking for Saab assistance for the Tejas – HERE
“In other words, if the Tejas today doesn’t pass the flight tests at the highest level of fighter pilots, it could very well be the end of the indigenisation of India’s fighter aircraft programme. It will open the gates for even the “rejected” fighters from foreign vendors.”