In his article “Stop Wasteful Military Deals” published in The New Indian Express on November 1, 2013, Bharat Karnad attempts to reinvent himself as a knight in shining armour charging fearlessly at the Indian Air Force (IAF) on behalf of an imaginary indigenous brigade. By casting aspersions and denigrating the IAF’s commitment to indigenisation based on inputs that range from flights of fantasy to half-baked truths and very few realities, Karnad is playing a dangerous game which has the potential to jeopardise national security.
Whenever civilian analysts and researchers offer critiques on military systems or strategies they do so with meticulous research that stands the test of rigorous professional scrutiny. Karnad adopts no such methodology and rides on his past reputation of being a maverick armchair defence analyst with a general disdain for the establishment.
Let me dismantle some of his propositions. First is that his claim that French and Israeli pilots have gone gaga over the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) is sheer bunkum — no foreign pilot has flown the LCA — period. The LCA Flight Test Team comprises IAF and Indian Navy test pilots who are among the best in the world and do not need any certification from the French or Israelis. The Russian sale of the Tu-22 M3M strategic bomber along with its entire assembly line to China is a deal that has fallen through — the Internet is full of news of the falling through of the deal. Karnad talks of a fictitious trainer aircraft called the HJT-44 being “up and ready” and questions the proposal to buy additional PC-7 Pilatus Basic Trainer aircraft.
The truth is that the training aircraft being offered by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is called the HTT-40 and is still on the drawing board! A word about the Pilatus PC-7 and the circumstances of its induction into the IAF. Plagued by a series of problems on the HPT-32, the IAF’s long-standing basic trainer aircraft, the IAF brainstormed for years with the HAL to resuscitate the trainer. When all attempts failed and when the IAF saw that there were just no trainers to address the needs of basic flying training, it had to literally go in for an emergency purchase of 75 Pilatus Trainers to ensure that the stream of pilots from the training academy to the operational squadrons does not stop.
With the requirement of trained pilot set to increase with the induction of large numbers of twin-seat Sukhois, C-130 J Super Hercules, C-17s and Mi-17 V5 helicopters, the IAF had to take decisive measures even if it meant having to import basic trainers. The Pilatus has been a resounding success at the Air Force Academy and with its excellent pedigree, reliability and global flight safety track record, $1.5 billion is a small price for an emerging power to pay for ensuring the safety of hundreds of our young flight cadets and instructors.
As for the follow-on purchase — it makes logistical and supply chain management sense to buy some more of the same aircraft considering that an indigenous basic trainer is not going to be “up and away” for at least a decade.
Going back to the seventies and the saga of the HF-24 Marut fighter, it is common knowledge that the Marut programme came to a premature end because we could not design or import a suitable engine for the aircraft and sustaining the two squadrons with derated Gnat engines was not going to be an operationally viable proposition for long.
The ensuing Jaguar deal was, without any doubt, one of the most successful deals in more ways than one for both the IAF and HAL. The manner in which the aircraft has been exploited by the IAF ushered in a new era of professionalism in the force; over three decades later, it still remains at the forefront of the IAF’s strike capability. Staying with the Jaguar, the licensed manufacture of the Jaguar by HAL and the quantum indigenous upgradation in its avionics, radar and weapon systems in India itself has provided both Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and HAL with tremendous confidence to leverage the same for development of indigenous aircraft design and manufacturing capability.
Coming back to the LCA, Karnad is confused whether to call it the LCA or the Tejas. Let me set the record straight. The IAF has named the LCA as the Tejas; the Indian Navy is yet to decide on a name for the LCA. Karnad has also gone totally wrong in equating the LCA with the MMRCA (medium multi-role combat aircraft) by suggesting that the Mark II can be a used as an MMRCA. The two aircraft are completely different in terms of the weight class (the LCA is a 13 ton fighter, while the MMRCA is a 20 ton fighter). What this means is that the missions and roles they can perform are completely different. So is the range and the tonnage of armament that they can carry. For the common aviation enthusiast, the LCA can be said to be a replacement for the MiG-21, while the MMRCA is slated to occupy a mid-position between the LCA and the Su-30 in the years ahead.
To be fair to Karnad — yes, the flight control system of the LCA is top class, but to claim that the Mark II will be significantly superior to the MMRCA is far-fetched and devoid of any research strength. Blowing one’s trumpet about the AESA (active electronically scanned array) radar is premature at this stage, as it is not even on the drawing board. In such a situation it is not even clear whether it would be on the LCA Mk II. Having said that, the IAF is fully committed to the LCA and will share the same pride that Karnad exhibits when its first squadron becomes operational. The IAF is also cognisant that it remains the single largest repository of operational aviation knowledge in the country and to accuse it of scuttling indigenisation, as Karnad so easily does, is both unfair and dangerous. Let us not undermine the IAF in such a callous and cavalier manner.
Arjun Subramaniam is a serving Air Vice Marshal in the IAF and an air power analyst.