The five-Tejas flypast at the inauguration of the Aero India 2011 show at Bangalore on 9th February. The IAF has already placed orders on HAL for the first 40 Tejas Mk 1 fighters
by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 22nd Mar 11
Indian Air Force chief, Air Chief Marshall PV Naik, has surprised everyone by declaring more than once that the ministry of defence was just days away from deciding the winner of the keenly-watched global tender to sell the IAF 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) for an estimated Rs 42,000 crore. Naik was evidently hustling his boss, Defence Minister AK Antony, into an early decision, illustrating how narrow service considerations often trump the national interest. For Antony, who has indicated that the contract would be finalised before March 2012, these are the last few months to reconsider what will be a giant white elephant.
Antony cannot be swept away by the fighter pilot community’s simplistic argument that credible defence against China and Pakistan depends upon building up 42 fighter squadrons, up from the 32 squadrons that currently exist today. Instead, he must take a broader view, considering three key questions. Firstly, is victory in the air in modern warfare about mere aircraft numbers or about capabilities? Increasingly, digital networking and command and surveillance systems are significant force multipliers, allowing one squadron to do the job of three. But those networks involve top-secret source codes that no developer parts with, not even for Rs 42,000 crores. If the IAF has to be, as it often insists, a fully integrated and networked force, it must develop its own fighters, complete with network systems.
Given that truth, and India’s evolving ability to build its own fighters, Antony’s second question should be: given our limits on defence spending, would it not make better long-term sense to invest the MMRCA billions in enhancing our flimsy infrastructure for aeronautical development? Would wisdom not lie in accepting a 32-squadron air force for some years in order to develop ourselves as a comprehensive aeronautical engineering powerhouse? Beyond the lip service paid to indigenisation, the 2011-12 defence budget allocates a mere Rs 4628 crore for the military’s capital expenditure on R&D; while allocating Rs 27,322 crore for the capital purchase of aircraft and aero engines. The project to develop an Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), with custom-designed plug-ins to the IAF’s command networks, has so far been allocated a paltry Rs 90 crores.
A ten billion dollar infusion would fund a world-class infrastructure base of academic and training institutions; facilities for fundamental research; the upgrading of our ancillary aerospace industrial base; the building of test ranges; and adequately-funded programmes to plug our capability gaps, especially in aircraft engines, radars and missiles. A decade down the line, with the AMCA reaching completion, India would never again look abroad for a medium fighter. With the evident success of the indigenous Tejas programme reinforced by the forthcoming experience of co-developing the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) with Russia, India’s aircraft designers and manufacturers need to be supported with all the financial muscle that the MoD can muster.
Thirdly, Antony must consider the question of insurance. And he should ensure with his US counterpart that, if our security environment suddenly deteriorates 3-5 years down the road, the IAF would have access to a better combat aircraft than any of the MMRCA candidates. By then the 5th-generation US-built F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will be entering operational service. Unlike the 4th-generation MMRCA contenders, the F-35 will remain a cutting-edge fighter for another four decades.
Like children running heedlessly towards a cliff, the MoD and the IAF seem deaf to all warnings, even to the multiple tales of woe emerging about the MMRCA contenders. In a report commissioned by the UK MoD (“Management of the Typhoon Project”, released on 28th Feb 2011) the British CAG points out that the Eurofighter Typhoon, which was conceived as an air-to-air fighter, will have full ground attack capability only by 2018. “Problems with spares availability” has meant that the Typhoon “has had to take parts from some of its Typhoon aircraft to make other aircraft available to fly”. Despite that, the Typhoon has fallen 13% short of its target in annual flying hours, permitting only limited training by RAF pilots. Between Nov 09 and Aug 10, just “15% of pilots had sufficient training hours to perform tasks beyond air defence”. The report says that it will take another 5 years for the situation to be remedied.
It says something about the IAF’s attitude towards indigenisation that it takes careful cognizance of Indian CAG reports critical of homegrown systems like the Dhruv and the Tejas. But when it comes to a foreign aircraft, the criticism is not taken seriously.
It is this tolerance for foreign folly that has made India the world's largest arms importer, having bought a staggering 9% of all weaponry sold internationally between 2006–10 (figures: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute). Unwilling to back our own defence industry, the MoD seems comfortable with the idea of bailing out others. Earlier this month, Sweden’s defence minister announced that, without an Indian or Brazilian order, his air force would not develop the new Gripen fighter till at least 2018. But, trailing his coattails before New Delhi, he declared that it could be done by 2013-14 if a foreign order came in.
It is not too late for Antony to pull the plug on the MMRCA. The cancellation of that tender will be infused with a hugely positive buzz if it is accompanied by a public declaration to invest significant funds into fast-tracking the AMCA project. This single step would galvanize India’s aerospace sector, including the industrial eco-system that must underpin fighter development. For Antony, it would be a personal triumph, burnishing his nationalistic credentials and highlighting his emergence as a defence minister with the vision to end India’s dependence on foreign arms purchases.