A test pilot of the National Flight Test Centre (NFTC) readies for a test flight. The NFTC, crucial for future fighter development programmes, was set up for the Tejas.
by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 22nd Feb 11
The recently concluded Aero India 2011 air show in Bangalore highlighted the growing success of the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft, or LCA. Stuck for years in a quagmire of funding shortages, international sanctions and the painful accumulation of technologies and infrastructure needed for building a modern fighter, the success of the Tejas provides a positive occasion to reflect on what needs to be done to take India forward towards self-sufficiency in building its combat aircraft.
This is especially so, given the mind-boggling cost of next-generation fighters and India’s growing requirement for more. Adding together the impending purchases of 200-odd medium fighters (the initial tender is for 126 aircraft) for some US $18 billion; another 250 fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) that will be co-developed with Russia and built in India for US $30-35 billion; the fabrication by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) of 200 or so Tejas for US $ 8-10 billion; and the indigenous design and fabrication of another 200 Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) for a roughly estimated US $12-15 billion, India will buy an unaffordable US $75-80 billion (Rs 360,000 crores) worth of fighters over the next couple of decades.
Going forward from there, things will only get more expensive as unmanned combat aircraft --- stealthy, pilotless drones that carry tonnes of smart weapons --- become the norm. While bayonets and boots will continue to determine success on the ground, technology is rapidly becoming the key differentiator between victory and defeat in the air battle. Some of those technologies will simply not be purchasable; others will be unaffordable. India’s need for credible conventional deterrence leaves it with little choice but to develop expertise in designing and producing sophisticated, yet affordable, combat aircraft, which can shape the future battlefield to our advantage.
This involves one simple process and several extremely complex ones. During the development of the Tejas fighter, the complex challenges have, to a significant degree been overcome. Project management skills, and expertise in systems integration, have been acquired by the Aeronautical Development Agency, which has also gathered a stable of aeronautical designers. A network of DRDO laboratories has gained crucial expertise in writing the complex algorithms of fly-by-wire systems; in developing mission computers; in radar technologies; and in avionics software. A world-class flight-testing agency, the National Flight Test Centre, has been set up. Production agencies, in both the public and private sectors, have learned the precision machining that is needed for aerospace components (like spacecraft and submarine parts, aerospace components have to be certified as suitable for use in aircraft); the art of fabricating components from composite materials; and the forging of technology partnerships with foreign companies to quickly import and absorb useful technologies. Creating this complex mosaic of building blocks was the difficult challenge in creating an aerospace industry.
But the easy part remains to be done. This involves creating an overarching structure that can integrate these building blocks into a result-oriented eco-system. The only organisation that is currently placed to do so --- the ministry of defence --- suffers from a lack of expertise. With decision-making confined to the ministerial and bureaucratic level, crucial technological and scientific inputs tends to be given short shrift or misevaluated. The MoD’s other great drawback is that it has no authority over organisations under other ministries, which could play crucial roles in the realm of aerospace design and production. One example is the National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL), a highly regarded laboratory under the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). NAL has made a significant contribution to the Tejas programme with its expertise in composite technologies and is, even now, engaged in developing the Saras light transport aircraft. But, with no formal integration into India’s military aerospace programmes, Dr Satish Dhawan often described NAL as “a beautiful bride, all dressed up and nowhere to go.”
In order to widen the net for expertise, it is time to set up a separate Department of Aerospace, bringing together research organisations on the one side; and production organisations on the other. Heading the department should be a scientist, given the rank of a secretary to the GoI, regardless of the objections that might be anticipated from the IAS community. Whether the Department of Aerospace is placed under the MoD, or under another ministry, it is essential that it be empowered to harness research potential countrywide.
This vertically integrated structure for the Department of Aerospace is not a novel idea. Already, the Department of Atomic Energy and the Department of Space are vertically integrated, a structure that has served them well. Vertical integration will provide aerospace with the same synergies and prevent the dissipation of resources, especially within the private sector where companies simply cannot afford to put effort into R&D unless it is government-funded or directed so precisely that it will almost certainly yield commercial orders.
In consolidating its aerospace resources under a single structure, India will only be following the global lead. Russia, where individual design houses like Mikoyan and Sukhoi once played wastefully with designs that went nowhere, has now consolidated its resources tightly. The Federal Service for Military Technical Cooperation (FSMTC) provides oversight, while the United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) brings together design bureaus and production agencies. It is time for India to bring together its scarce aerospace resources.