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Mayday, mayday!

The decision to buy the Rafale aircraft shows the state of our aerospace industry. We must revive the sector for our benefit, writes Srinivasapuram Krishnaswamy.

india Updated: Feb 03, 2012 20:44 IST
Srinivasapuram Krishnaswamy

The news on the selection of the French Rafale as the winner of Indian Air Force’s Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition brought much relief after years of speculation. Despite the media fanfare, the selection process was handled professionally with the discretion and confidentiality it deserved. A few steps are still left that need to be guarded against by any possible ‘bad loser’.

While the winner of the $10-15 billion mega deal will be a European aerospace company, the loser will be India. India capitulated, not unlike our cricket team, leaving the stage free for the Europeans and the Americans. Ideally, the billions of dollars of investment should have gone towards our own indigenous design of the light combat aircraft (LCA). Had the LCA entered the service by 2004 after meeting all service requirements, there would not have been a need for any MMRCA deal.

The IAF had anticipated early enough, in 1985, the retirement of over 200 MiG-21 aircraft that had been flying for over 35 years after reaching the end of their technical life. The Defence and Research Development Organisation (DRDO) initiated the design and development of the LCA, an indigenous combat aircraft (to give a fillip to indigenous capability) to be built to IAF specifications. This was initiated on a ‘fast-track’ to deliver a fully tested version and ready for production within 10 years — that is by 1994.

The government took an unconventional approach, giving the DRDO, instead of Indian industry at large, the lead. An untested ‘fast-track’ organisation, the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) was created with the scientific adviser to the defence minister as its director general. He also had a third ‘hat’ as a secretary to the Government of India, thereby giving him enormous combined power to propel down the fast track. But even 27 years has proved inadequate for the LCA to see the light of day.

The complexity of the programme was misjudged and the organisational structure was not optimised to deliver as expected. Lacking firm project management, the project itself became pretty much a holy cow that was allowed to drag on. As a result, the inevitable happened: the IAF exercised the option of importing.

The damage that occurred subsequently is considerable:

A few thousand crores were invested in the LCA programme. This may now become an non-performing asset since the MMRCA is being imported.

A few thousand crores were invested to develop the Kaveri engine. The Indian scientific community has given up on this and has hired a European company to complete its development.

A naval variant of the LCA seems unlikely to ever land on a ship’s deck. It may probably need a new engine apart from lots of testing and modifications. There is little demonstrated stamina to take these risks.

The failing battle to keep the LCA systems and design relevant 27 years after work has become obvious.

The cumulative effect on our military capability has been made even more acute now that it is beyond our budget. In the early 90s, anticipating the induction of the LCAs, the IAF made a valiant effort to keep the MiG-21s air-capable for a few more years. An expensive upgrade programme was initiated that cost a couple of thousand crores. Dozens of old and refurbished MiG-21s were bought from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries. A large number of second-hand refurbished engines was bought.

The IAF acquired additional MiG-29s to augment the depleting force level. An attempt was made to procure additional Mirage 2000s, including second-hand aircraft that later evolved as an expensive MMRCA programme. In the late 90s, the air force had to bravely defend the MiG-21 crashes against adverse publicity and not let morale down. In 2002, during the India-Pakistan stand-off that followed the December 13 attack by terrorists on the Indian Parliament, the IAF was concerned about the availability of an adequate number of combat aircraft. Had the LCA been inducted in time, these embarrassing difficulties and expenditures could have been avoided, or at least better managed. The loss cannot be counted merely in crores of rupees.

Our scientific community has, without doubt, produced stellar results in some areas. The country had returned the compliment by making one leading scientist the president. But the aerospace programme has been severely let down by the same community, the government and the IAF by not delivering, by not insisting on accountability, and by not projecting its concerns strongly enough.

The woes continue. Our aerospace industry, which could meet the commitment of our military for trainer aircraft till now, is frozen. The IAF is likely to import propeller-driven trainers since Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) could not rectify engine failures on the HPT-32, which was designed and produced in its own stable. The causes for this failure remain mysterious and beyond HAL’s scope to set right even after the latter has built hundreds of this simple design.

The Intermediate Jet Trainer (IJT) prototype has spun out of the sky and the Light Attack Helicopter is being developed at a snail’s pace. The National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL), after having lost the only prototype of the multi-purpose civilian aircraft Saras along with its complete crew in the 2009 crash, is reviving the exercise. It is debatable if the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research laboratories should actually get involved in the production business at all. Global development in this vital sector is bypassing us. Our aerospace industries and activities require a through review since it is of strategic importance.

(Srinivasapuram Krishnaswamy is former Chief of Air Staff. He was awarded the Agni Award for Self Reliance in 1999 for promoting indigenous development in the Indian armed services.)

The views expressed by the author are personal