Winston Churchill, as the First Lord of Admiralty in 1911, is credited with “technological prescience” by British commentators for building the 12-inch gunned Dreadnought-class battleships. When the First World War began, the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet was the British force to keep Kaiser Wilhelm II’s seaward ambitions in check even as an unprepared army was mowed down by the German juggernaut, in the opening phase.
Remarkably, the Churchillian kind of prescience was manifest in Jawaharlal Nehru’s nursing a weapons-capable nuclear energy programme because he believed India could not afford to miss out on the “nuclear revolution” as it had done the “gun-powder revolution” consequenting in its enslavement. And, in the conventional military field, it was evident in his seeding an indigenous defence industry with combat aircraft design and development at its core. Nehru imported, not combat aircraft but, a leading combat aircraft designer—the redoubtable Kurt Tank, progenitor of the Focke-Wulfe warplanes for Hitler’s Luftwaffe. Tank succeeded in putting an HF-24 Marut prototype in the air by 1961 and in training a talented group of Indian designers at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).
By the time the Tank-trained Raj Mahindra-led team designed the successor Marut Mark-II, Nehru was gone and neither Lal Bahadur Shastri nor his successor, Indira Gandhi, unfortunately had the strategic vision or technological prescience to provide political support for it. Indira permitted the purchase of the British Jaguar aircraft for low-level attack, leading to the termination of the Marut Mk-II optimised for the same mission. It ended the chance of India emerging early as an independent aerospace power in the manner Brazil and Israel have done in recent years. The inglorious era of importing military hardware was on. The resulting vendor-driven procurement system has decanted enormous wealth from India to arms supplier states—Russia, UK, France, the United States, Israel and Italy.
Arun Jaitley, the BJP finance minister-cum-defence minister, is saddled with the familiar problem of too many high-cost government programmes and too little money. He has an opportunity to reduce the huge hard currency expenditure involved in buying foreign armaments and reverse the policy of ignoring indigenous options and private sector defence industrial capability. He can give the lead to the Indian military as the British Treasury had done to the Admiralty in 1918-1938 by pushing for the development of aircraft carriers when the Royal Navy was stuck on the Dreadnought.
There are two far-seeing decisions he can take. With the US bid of $840 million for 150 M-777 light howitzers (without technology transfer) rejected as cost prohibitive, Jaitley can instruct the army to test and induct the modern, ultra-light heliportable gun, to outfit the new offensive mountain corps, produced jointly by a private sector company and an American firm, Rock Island Arsenal, that’ll cost less than half as much. And he could terminate the Rafale contract and, importantly, restore responsibility for the Tejas programme to the IAF, which was kept out of it by the science adviser—SA—to defence minister V S Arunachalam in the 1980s. It will mean IAF funding further developments in the Tejas programme from its own R&D budget which, according to an ex-senior defence technologist, can be increased to any amount, and was the course of action recommended by the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and SA. It will render IAF accountable to Parliament.
The choices before the BJP government are stark. Is it pragmatic to channel in excess of $30 billion to Paris that’ll keep the French aerospace sector in clover and help amortise the multi-billion Euro investment in developing the Rafale, which has no customers other than IAF? Or, use the present difficulties as an opportunity to fundamentally restructure the Indian military aviation sector? This last will involve getting (1) HAL to produce the low-cost (`26 crore by HAL’s reckoning) Tejas Mk-1 for air defence with 4.5 generation avionics, low detection, and other features, for squadron service, and to export it in line with prime minister Narendra Modi’s thinking and to defray some of the plane’s development costs, and (2) ADA and the Aircraft Research & Design Centre at HAL to redesign Tejas Mark-2 as a genuine MMRCA with the originally conceived canard-delta wing configuration (whose absence has made the Mk-1 incapable of meeting onerous operational requirements, like acceleration and sustained turn rates in dogfights) and having it ready for production by 2019—the dateline for Rafale induction.
With the Rafale potentially out of the picture and IAF left with only a limited-capability Tejas for air defence, security needs for the next 15 years until the Russian Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft enters IAF in strength, can be met by buying additional Su-30s and MiG-29s off-the-shelf and/or contracting for larger numbers of the Su-30s to be built by HAL with a deal to get the private sector to manufacture the required spares in-country, all for a fraction of the cost of Rafale. Some Service brass do not care for Russian aircraft but Su-30MKI and MiG-29 are already in IAF’s employ, and are rated the two best warplanes available anywhere (barring the discontinued American F-22) for combat and air defence respectively. A new Su-30MKI, moreover, costs $65 million, which is slightly more than what India forks out for upgrading the 30-year-old Mirage 2000.
Had the design-wise more challenging canard-delta winged Tejas, recommended by four of the six international aviation majors hired as consultants, not been discarded and international best practices followed from when the Light Combat Aircraft programme was initiated in 1982, ADA (design bureau), HAL and IAF would have worked together. IAF would have inputted ideas at the design and prototype stages, HAL produced the prototypes, and IAF pilots flown them. The design validation and rectification, certification, pre-production, and production processes would then have been in sync and progressed apace. The Tejas air defence variant will have entered squadron service and the larger Mk-2, close behind, occupied the MMRCA slot. The lessons are that indigenous weapons projects demand integrated effort, weapons designers need to be less diffident and Indian military ought to helm indigenous armaments projects. Jaitley can ensure these things happen.
The author is professor at the Centre for Policy Research and blogs at www.bharatkarnad.com