As the Indian Air Force completes 85 years next Sunday, October 8, it is time to take stock and look to the future. It is remarkable that for the past eight years, since 2009, things seem to changed very little for our warriors in the air. In 2009, the IAF’s combat inventory comprised two types of fighters — the twin-engine MiG-29B Fulcrum and single-power plant MiG-21FL and twin-engine fighter-ground-attack Sukhoi-30 MKI Flanker, various versions of the single-engine Mirage-2000, single-engine Mig-27ML Flogger, the two-engine Jaguar, and various types of vintage single-engine MiG-21 Bis-93. But not a single indigenous aircraft was in the IAF fleet eight years ago. This single factor – the absence of indigenous combat aircraft — should be the sole focus and future concern for the country, its government, the Air Force and all political parties, irrespective of their ideology. Else, stark bankruptcy stares at India owing to its extravagant shopping spree for the “best and latest technology” in combat aircraft imported from the West. To make matters worse, India must also face a rising, aggressive China’s growing strength in the air, backed by an exhaustive production line of indigenous fighters. China’s looming overwhelming superiority in the number of indigenous combat aircraft may lead to a potential conflict situation, perhaps even without any shorts being fired.
We must face the stark reality that despite five decades of efforts to develop a capable domestic arms industry, India still heavily depends on the import of several categories of weapons, the foremost of which are combat aircraft. France, Russia and the United States are the mainstay of our aircraft imports. Why? SIPRI 2016, by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, spells it out: “India’s attempts to design, develop and produce its own advanced major weapons remain beset with delays, spiralling costs and quality problems. A key reason for India’s high level of imports is the failure of its industry to consistently produce indigenously-designed weapons that are capable of becoming real alternatives to the equivalent designs from other countries.” The words “real alternatives to equivalent designs from other countries” is the crux. In a way, it implicitly concedes that India is capable, but incapacitated, in producing capable aircraft for long. Why? Successive political parties that have been in power since 1947 need to answer that question.
Military Balance 2017 notes that the IAF inventory now includes the MiG-29 Fulcrum; fighter-ground attack Jaguar IB/IS; MiG-21 Bison and M/MF; MiG-27 ML Flogger; Mirage-2000 and Sukhoi-30 MKI Flanker and a “few Tejas” – the last produced by HAL Bengaluru. Some consolation prize at last, and perhaps not even that. The influential Jane’s Defence Weekly recently reported that “HAL aims to double the production of light combat aircraft (LCA) over next three years”. That is doubtless good news, but there are still doubters and naysayers and also the powerful import lobby pushing the “latest and the best”. HAL at present produces “eight platforms per year, which will go up to 16 from 2019-2020”. It is, however, interesting to note that HAL is involving private entrepreneurs in a partnership programme, in line with Western and Japanese systems of collective development of industrial capacity. Thus, for the first time in India’s defence industry, there will be a “local aerospace ecosystem around the LCA”.
The cacophony, however, refuses to die down. A Western analyst noted that “envisaged as a replacement for the IAF’s ageing fleet of Soviet-era MiG-21 fighters, India’s LCA has been handicapped by technological challenges, cost overruns and delays over a decade” since the programme began in 1983. But what some tend to forget is that cost and time overruns have afflicted many other well-known projects too, including a few in the West. It is undeniable of course that the LCA was beset by “delays in formulating the aircraft’s flight manuals and other essential documentation… (which) further deferred its induction into squadron service until January 2015, 32 years after the LCA programme began”. Let’s now examine the best fighter programmes of the West – the time taken from conception to commission, and the teething problems and glitches faced. There was a time of course when the US could do things in record time. The twin-engine Boeing F-15 Eagle took four years, 10 month and 10 days from the official go-ahead on February 24, 1984 to entering service on December 28, 1988. The twin-engine Boeing F-18 Hornet too took eight years from the “requirement issued” in 1991 to being inducted into service on November 17, 1999.
But the times have changed, with quite “un-Western” performance at times these days. Consider the single-engine Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning multi-role fighter, which is yet to stabilise its performance and the cost and time overruns thereof, along with recurring technical glitches, have caused embarrassment to the manufacturer. Thus, from the “requirement issued” in November 1994 to the IOC (initial operational capability) of the F-35B on July 31, 2015 has been 21 years, and the legendary Lockheed Corporation is still struggling. Should novice India then be castigated so sharply 24/7? No one knows better than the West on what it takes to manufacture the “latest and best” fighters. China too has of course managed to do it, but the methods adopted by Beijing have always been dubious, questionable, unethical, corrupt. Even the Chinese are reported to concede now, when they approach the West to obtain technology, that “we have improved now”.
Today, in India’s case, the main challenge is fighter engine development. First, engine-fuselage interfacing, and second, the power of the engine. There are, at present, five prominent single-engine fighters in the world. Two American (F-16 and F-35); one Chinese (J-10); one Swedish (Saab JAAS 39 Gripen) and India’s Tejas. The bottomline is: no single-engine fighter can be less than 25,000 pounds in static thrust to be effective in operations. The US F-16 has 29,100 pounds thrust; the F-35 power plant is 28,800 pounds static and 43,000 pounds thrust with full afterburner; the Swedish Saab 39 Grippen is 18,100 pounds static and 22,000 pounds afterburning thrust; China’s J-10 stands at 17,857 pounds static and 27,558 pounds afterburning thrust. In comparison, the Tejas needs to enhance from its 19,100 pounds afterburning several notches higher. In short, the more the engine power, the better are speed, service ceiling, range, endurance, combat radius, armament payload, avionics and systems. It is time to concentrate fully on developing a suitable fighter engine in India for the Air Force. Start indigenisation and look for import substitutes, else the nation is looking straight at penury.