Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Flying the same mistaken route



By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 10th Apr 18

Nobody is certain about the origin of the aphorism: “Insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”. Albert Einstein has been credited with it, as have Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin, Anonymous and An Old Chinese Proverb. Our ministry of defence has not, which is just as well given its penchant for repeating follies.

Consider how the defence ministry has gone about buying fighter aircraft for the Indian Air Force (IAF) over the last two decades. In essence, here is what keeps happening. The IAF needs hundreds of single-engine fighters to replace its MiG-21s and MiG-27s that should have retired already. But when the IAF initiates a quick and cheap procurement of single-engine fighters, the ministry scuttles that proposal and initiates a complex acquisition process for costly, twin-engine fighters that are so expensive that they are never bought. This happened in 2001, when the air marshals smartly saw an opportunity to buy up French vendor Dassault’s production line for Mirage 2000-5 fighters, which was making way for a new line to build the Rafale. The IAF still loves the Mirage 2000; the single-engine fighter is reliable and effective; and the French no longer needed the line, setting the stage for a bargain sale that pleased all sides. But George Fernandes, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) defence minister at that time, recently scalded by the Tehelka television sting on corruption in defence procurement, shrank from a single-vendor purchase. Instead, he ordered an expansive global tender, setting the stage for a fiasco – the eventually aborted process of buying 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA), in which Dassault’s Rafale was named winner. But, so controversial was Dassault’s quote that United Progressive Alliance defence minister, AK Antony, refused to endorse it, a lead that was followed by two NDA defence ministers after 2014 – Arun Jaitley and Manohar Parrikar. Eventually, the MMRCA tender fizzled out into the purchase of 36 Rafales in June 2016 for almost $10 billion -- the price envisaged for 126 MMRCAs.

It seemed as if we had learned a lesson from this debacle when, in October 2016, the IAF issued a request for information (RFI) inviting global vendors to partner Indian companies in building a single-engine fighter in India. Like the Mirage 2000 earlier, the two single-engine fighters now in contention – the American F-16 Block 70 and the Swedish Gripen E – present cost-effective, operationally potent options. But this was too good to be true! Last Friday, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, like George Fernandes in 2001, scuppered the single-engine fighter RFI and issued a fresh RFI that allows in expensive, twin-engine fighters. We are now poised to witness a repeat of the MMRCA process. Even the contending aircraft are almost identical; why would the result be significantly different?

The table alongside this article helps in understanding the IAF’s needs. In 1988-89, the high-water-mark when the air force actually operated its authorised 42 squadrons, that combat fleet included 27 single-engine MiG fighters – 17 MiG-21, four MiG-23 and six MiG-27 squadrons. By 2022, all but one of these would have retired. In their place the IAF would have inducted 13 squadrons of Sukhoi-30MKI fighters and two squadrons each of the Rafale and the Tejas Mark 1. The deficit of 10 squadrons, adding up to 210 aircraft, should be logically filled by similarly affordable, single-engine fighters -- a category that would now have been reduced to just two Tejas squadrons. Without those, the IAF’s fighter fleet would taper off to 24 squadrons in 2032 when the Jaguar and MiG-29 fleet would have retired.

Air force fighter squadrons: 2005-2032

Aircraft type
Number of operational fighter squadrons
2005
2012
2018
2022
2027
2032







Jaguar IS/IM
6.5
6
6
6
4
Nil
MiG-29B/UPG
3
3
3
3
3
Nil
Mirage 2000H/I
3
3
3
3
3
2
Sukhoi-30MKI
6
9
12
13
13
13
MiG-27/UPG
6
5
2
Nil
Nil
Nil
MiG-21/M
5
4
1
Nil
Nil
Nil
MiG-21BIS
4
1
1
Nil
Nil
Nil
MiG-21BISON
6
6
4
1
Nil
Nil
Tejas Mark 1/Mark 1A
Nil
Nil
0.5
2
4
6
Rafale
Nil
Nil
Nil
2
2
2
AMCA
Nil
Nil
Nil
Nil
Nil
1 (?)







Total of all types
39.5
37
32
30
29
24



However, allowing expensive, twin-engine fighters into the contest might contain the seeds of its eventual failure. The Rafale contract provides an indication of what we could pay for 210 twin-engine fighters. The contract price of $9.63 billion for 36 Rafales included $859 million for weaponry, $2.2 billion for spares and engines, and $368 million for logistics guarantees; expenses separate from the cost of the aircraft. For the Rafale fighters themselves, including the cost of “India-specific enhancements”, India paid $6.13 billion. That translates into a cost of $170.4 million for each Rafale.

Building the fighter in India, which would add on expenses like technology transfer, shifting production and higher Indian production costs, would add a conservative 25 per cent to the price, hiking up the cost of each “Made in India” fighter to $213 million. Even without factoring in inflation and forex variation, 210 Rafale-class fighters would present India with a bill of $44.8 billion.

Spreading that cost over seven years of production, the IAF would have to budget $6.38 billion annually for this procurement alone. This when the IAF’s entire procurement budget for 2018-19 is $5.5 billion, with over 75 per cent of that pre-committed towards instalments on earlier procurements.

True, the Rafale is at the upper end of the cost spectrum and the American twin-engine fighter likely on offer, the F/A-18 Super Hornet, might well be cheaper. But how much cheaper? In any case, in the MMRCA evaluation, the IAF chose the Rafale knowing it would be a financial millstone round their necks. There is every likelihood they would do the same again.

Some days ago, I listened to a gathering of IAF marshals, including several former air chiefs; discuss why the political leadership remained unconcerned while the IAF’s squadron strength plummeted dangerously. They berated the usual suspects: A government that complacently and irresponsibly ruled out war, even while raising tensions on the border; bureaucrats that perversely blocked procurement; Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) and Defence R&D Organisation, which seemed unable to get the Tejas on track; and a media that stood idly watching. Many of their arguments had merit but, ultimately, it was an exercise in name-calling. Nobody reflected on how to align two competing priorities: The IAF’s desire for cutting edge (and, therefore, very expensive) aircraft on the one hand, and the government’s preoccupation on the other with employment generation and development.


If the IAF is to get its fighters, it must move away from foreign procurement and, instead, ride the government’s wish for job creation and skills development and indigenisation. Like the navy, it must tread the long, arduous route to indigenisation. Starting from the top, its officer cadre must internalise this goal. The air marshals must divert effort and personnel to an aerospace design bureau and a directorate of indigenisation. The IAF must take direct and active ownership and leadership of projects like the indigenous Tejas and AMCA. It must make available capable and hard-driving air marshals to lead HAL. And, vitally, the defence ministry must assure the IAF that money and effort diverted from international aircraft buys will be directly canalised into an IAF-led effort to build an indigenous aerospace eco-system.

11 comments:

Anupam Das said...

I think this new MRCA contest will take away the spotlight away from Tejas which will get a breather to mature properly. Eventually this will be mostly chai biscuit exercise.

Anonymous said...

Bravo!

I hope the IAF and MOD are listening.

Anonymous said...

Broadsword attended a gathering of IAF Marshals, so how many in the gathering have had the spine to call the Government out about Indias failed defence policy? Something as serious as what Broadsword has written, which could lead to a catastrophic defeat in times of war, should have been a ongoing cause of concern.
How many of these Marshals have expressed their views in public about what has gone wrong and what the procurement policy should be?
In most professional establishments all over the world this is an issue which causes voluntary resignations in the top brass, who feel a responsibility for their organisations mission.
Is their no feeling of accountability? Of ownership of the success and failure of the Air Force which they command.
Courage is not only bravery on the battlefield.
These senior officers have failed to speak up, and thus not done their duty.
I cannot find anyintegrity and character that these Marshals expect from their young officers, in their own spineless conduct.
These Marshals seriously have let down their country, their Air Force and the men they command by not standing up.

Anonymous said...

Spot on if a bit pessimistic though not without reason. The only hope and difference is no Con Gress and that the current RM is not Antony or Fernandes. LCA+ seems committed and the 100 fighter proc. has deadlines that are likely to be met. The most important takeaway is the intransigence of the Air Force is going the navy way. Thanks Ajai.

Anonymous said...

The most important link is small and micro industries that devlop the cutting edge technology and the support they get from the government. The research should be oriented around the demand and there is lag period of atleast 5-7 years. Kelly Johnson my idol did the same at shunkworks when he could desiegn SR 71 with very primitive equipment he had at hand. Take example of fiber optic control and signals be used to control fly by wire system , someone miniaturises the equipment and desiegn another iron bird and try to run the same flight regime on fiber optic system. This would save tejas atleast 500 kgs. Of weight and then Tejas can beat any plane if they achieve sensor fusion.
I would do the things my way if I was the decision maker.

1. Put 1 billion for developing tejas which is not a huge sum considering the money spent on imports.

2 device that money with 100 million to 3 major part suppliers to bump up the production and research to miniaturize the system components and in 100 million get a refurbished good cargo plane and start engine testing with 100 millions to micro and small companies giving smaller supply components so that they can bump up the production. In 350 million another assembly line can be created and keep 150 million to spend in engine research and testing on the cargo plane.
3. Ask some companies to devlop 60, 90 , 150 and 280 seater planes with local engines and then only after being successful you can achieve high end military engines.
4. Start the prototype of tejas MK 2 soon and try to fly two prototypes so that further changes can be made in the preceding versions.
5. Start building the AMCA with a time frame of 44 months as that is all we get plus a bonus 1 year.
6. Try to get Kaveri and Ganga certified as that would be helpful to keep healthy the Russian fighters as Russia at present does not have reliable proven engine technology.
7. Try to fly the HTFE 25 on the new refurbished Dakota that you got the way they used jet pack on Fairchild packet.
8. Failures are bound to happen but be scared of them and not try something risky with well calculated risks are worth taking and can be game changers.
9. Numbers do count and it is extremely important to bump up the numbers of planes and try to achieve a production of 40-45 LCA and have 500 tejas fighters in its different modes.
10.there has to to be somebody very firm who can force these decisions as there is no endless money.

TIMBAKTOO

Anonymous said...

Well written.. This brings about a question in my mind- "Are the programmes for indigenous development of fighters delayed on purpose?". All of such programmes have been running for decades and final product have not seen light (except for Tejas which is functional but has taken more than 2 decades to develop). The state owned firms take their own time, has no accountability or timelines. The scenario should change into a capable indigenous industry that develops and delivers within timelines ranging not more than 5 years..

Jean Luc Picard said...

The govt has to wake up to the writing on the wall. I.e.
"RAISE DEFENCE BUDGET"

There is no other way out. Cutting costs beyond a certain point only causes inefficiency and damages capability.

We cant match chinese infra structure on border, at least give us a decent chance in the air. Else be prepared for a Doklam every business quarter every time the economy shows progress.

Anonymous said...

Spot on.
The only way to replace hundreds of locally built low cost MiGs is to buy 100s of locally built Tejas, not buy 100s of Rafale/F-18/F-16 etc.
We should be able to increase Tejas production to some 36 per year by spending a fraction of 15 BUSD.

Tejas when improved improved incrementally will be more than enough to take on PAF, who have no 2 engine jets at all !

I think you need to publish orbat of PAF too, that will show up why this MMRCA needs to scrapped with 36 Rafale ordered or maybe after adding another 36.

Anonymous said...

If the IAF is to get its fighters, it must move away from foreign procurement and, instead, ride the government’s wish for job creation and skills development and indigenisation. Like the navy, it must tread the long, arduous route to indigenisation. Starting from the top, its officer cadre must internalise this goal. The air marshals must divert effort and personnel to an aerospace design bureau and a directorate of indigenisation.
It took you an awfully long time to get here Ajai. Sigh.....wonder how long the IAF will take to realise it!

Ashwin Baindur said...

Ajai Sir, no way that AMCA will be ready for at least 20 years. Again there is no word of Air Force championing for it. The Air Force continues to hanker over purchased fighters.

Sitaraman once again proves that the MOD is the graveyard of defence procurement.

Anonymous said...


Why in 2018 we donot question the 42 squadron myth developed with Cheap rocket with a Man plane MIG 21 in early seventies. MiG 21 was cheap Russian plane that was commissioned by USSR with a strategy of overwhelming NATO defences with shear numbers.

Today with BVR missiles, Ground based systems like S 400, the AWACS where does one see a need for a air to air combat other that in IAF, an organisation that is for the Combat pilot of the Combat pilot at the peril of Indian Tax payers.

On Chinese Boarder for 2000 miles form Indian Boarder I see no strategic target. Also for next 20-30 years wrt China we need a detrent and Agni V and Naval version of Bramosh are far more cost efficient that the Rafael that Modi was conned into buying by IAF. The Chai wala was done in by his own megalomania of 56 inch chest and Air Force lumped him with Boys Toy and a costly BVR and a Helment who’s integration cost Indian tax payer must pay to the French.

Sir just cancel the Rafael and all other conversational fighters. Look a few (may be 36) Stealth Multi Role options may be F35 plus Good AWACS. Deply 100 plus Agni.

Also, prductionise Tejas in limited numbers with a Proper BVR and Radar. However start point needs to be reassurance of Number of Squdrans need with much more capable planes and missiles than was available in 1973 accesment with MiG 21....