(With the Indian Navy rejecting the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft Tejas, The Quint debates whether other alternatives would be a cost effective and viable option. This is the View. You may like to read the Counterview by KP Sanjeev here.)
Trust the Indian armed forces to make it difficult for themselves and the country at every turn. There’s a big muddle ahead – this time because the Indian Navy decided to issue an RFI (Request for Information) from the suppliers of 57 twin-engined aircraft for its indigenous carriers, thereby shunting out, and de-prioritising in its plans, the naval Tejas.
This, because the naval brass decided that the weight problem – some two ton over mark – couldn’t be solved in time for it to grace the deck of the IAC-1 Vikrant, when it is eventually commissioned in 2021-22, and that this requirement, therefore, needs to be met through imports.
Dealing with ‘Weight’ Issues of New Aircraft
The two aircrafts in the fray are the Boeing F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornet — the main carrier plane with foldable wings of the US Navy, until it is progressively replaced by the F-35C. Meanwhile, Maritime Rafale Dassalt, along with Swedish manufacturer SAAB’s Sea Gripen, is also in the fray, as a distant third, and not in the reckoning for reasons adduced below.
SAAB’s offer to jointly develop fighter jets along with India was made in December 2015, at a time when the Navy had committed to the Tejas.
If there’s a problem with a new aircraft, what do more advanced, strategic-minded, navies, not habituated to easy import option, do? Well, take the F-35C.
After repeated take-offs, the US Navy discovered a serious design flaw that made the catapult-assisted takeoffs so rough, and disoriented the pilots, just when the aircraft is getting airborne, so as to potentially prove fatal.
The redesign, it is estimated, will take several years, and the rectified plane won’t be available until 2020 or later. The US Navy tasked its ‘Red Team’ to work on design modification and fast-track trials of the improved aircraft.
Couldn’t the Indian Navy have constituted its own Red Team to work intensively with the LCA (Light Combat Aircraft) design team to trim its weight?
Personal Feud behind Rejecting Tejas?
This was not feasible for many reasons, among them: (1) Personal reasons — bad blood between lead test pilot in the naval LCA program, Cmde Jaydeep Maolankar, and Rear Admiral Surendra Ahuja, Assistant Controller Carrier Project and Assistant Controller Warship Production and Acquisition at NHQ.
By all accounts, Maolankar is a top rated flier dedicated to the Tejas but Ahuja is close to the seat of power and who, perhaps, to spite Maolankar, a batchmate (whose failure to make it to the next rank, however that was managed, according to the talk in naval circles) convinced the naval brass that the LCA was no-go, and that its prospects are bleak.
Rear Admiral Ahuja is a certified test pilot, cleared for catobar flying from carrier deck, and among the first to operate the MiG-29Ks, as well as a number of other combat aircraft, and even transport planes.
Many senior Admirals claim such skulduggery in promotions is not possible because there’s an Appraisals Board, etc to prevent abuse at the level of promotion boards. In that case, how does one explain the Armed Forces Tribunal, in July 2017, holding Vice Admiral PK Chatterjee guilty of passing over many officers with excellent career records – all from the nuclear submarine arm, including Cmdr SS Luthra, who had approached the Tribunal, to clear the path for his son-in-law Captain AV Agashe.
Whence the Navy’s formal rejection of the Tejas. On such personal rivalries hang the fate of nations striving to be self-sufficient in armaments!
And, (2) it would mean giving up on a chance to import another foreign aircraft and forego all the goodies. Probably easier for the Indian Navy to give up on Tejas.
Having desperately hunted for excuses to reject it, Ahuja, possibly driven as much by institutional impulse as personal animus, finally found it in the aircraft’s excess weight and, rather than proposing remedial measures and doubling on the navy’s commitment and investment in an Indian designed and developed carrier aircraft, recommended ditching the naval LCA.
Too Much Reliance on Imports
Should the Modi government and MoD not instruct the Navy to rethink the import decision?
Then again, when have the military services raised objections on expensive foreign imports that push the nation deeper into the military hardware import hole?
Why expensive? Because 57 is not a large enough number of aircraft to interest profit-driven foreign suppliers, and certainly not Boeing, especially not if in trying to service PM Modi’s flagship ‘Make in India’ program it is also required to make it in India, which in terms of economies of scale, makes no sense to anybody. And buying this small lot of aircraft will mean the country paying through its nose for them.
Why Sea Gripen Won’t Fit the Bill
The reason the Swedish SAAB company will be happy to manufacture Sea Gripen in India is due to its confidence about selling some 200 of its variants in competition with the F-16, along with fully transferring to India “all source codes” — the design-wise know-why element. But there’s yet another problem.
Assuming the Sea Gripen is generally of the same size as the air force variant, then this aircraft, as stalwart naval persons will tell you, will barely fit on the lifts in the IACs (Indigenous Aircraft Carrier) that carry the planes on to the deck.
Boeing would be interested too, if the IAF picked the F-18 for its fleet, except Boeing is unlikely to pass on source codes and other ‘black box’ technologies to any Indian private sector company or public sector firm, like HAL.
Dassault Also in the Fray
The joker in the pack is Dassault, which is hell-bent on selling its ‘Maritime’ version to the Navy to complement the initial sale of Rafale to IAF.
This is part of the wedge-in-the-door strategy to sell piecemeal lots at progressively higher prices, without having to go through the rigmarole of transfer of technology under the ‘Make in India’ obligations.
Senior naval persons inform that teams from Dassault and Boeing have visited Vikrant, taken measurements and may come up with few solutions. These will include tilting the aircraft just a bit to get them onto the elevator and the hangar below-deck, for which purpose some re-engineering of the hydraulics in the elevators may be needed.
Iron Rule of ‘No Import’
But Modi government, having taken flak for 36 aircraft Rafale purchase and with 2019 elections looming, will not allow sourcing of the F-18s without the “make in India” component. This option could become available if India is willing to pay a horrendous price for it. So, it’s ruled out. The one and only solution then would be the default option of buying more improved MiG-29Ks for IACs 1 through 3 at enhanced cost — improvements in the aircraft, as Admirals reveal, that have been made at India’s expense, on the basis of enormous and invaluable four years’ test flying data accessible to the Russians.
But why blame the Russians, the Americans, the Swedes, the French and anybody else selling military equipment for taking advantage of India? That’s the logic of the armaments business.
What is hurtful though is how the military services do next to nothing to correct the situation other than justify “immediate”/”urgent” need to line up the next series of imports, and absolutely incomprehensible is why the Govt of India — whatever the party in power — is loath to implement drastic measures to end such abject dependency.
Such as laying down a ‘No Imports’ Iron Rule – which alone will compel the armed services seriously to turn to making indigenous projects successful because they’ll be bereft of other options. To make such decisions will take quite stupendous political will, but that’s what Narendra Modi was supposed to muster. No?
(The writer is Professor for National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research and author of ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet’). He can be reached at @BharatKarnad. This article was originally published in www.bharatkarnad.com and is being re-published with author’s permission. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)