25 November 2017

Litigating Tejas LCA’s quality & utility

by Bharat Karnad

No pilot who has actually flown the indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft has had anything but the highest praise for the fighter plane. This includes two recent IAF chiefs. ACM Arup Raha called it “a wonderful aircraft” after a sortie in Bengaluru in 2016. The present CAS, ACM Dhanoa, after his LCA flight on the first day of AeroIndia 2017 seemed very satisfied and left, a project a staffer told me, with “a very positive aura”. One can, moreover, imagine that, as a seat of the pants flier, ACM Dhanoa couldn’t have resisted taking control from the back seat of the Tejas, with the National Flight Test Centre head AVM AP Singh in the lead cockpit. After all, Dhanoa is the first air chief to have flown solo — and that too a MiG-21 bis after becoming CAS, after ACM Anil Tipnis in the fin de siecle.

Considering the no-nonsense Dhanoa’s attitude to flying, it is puzzling and a little disappointing that Vayu Bhavan continues to feel the need to talk down the Tejas. Is it, perhaps, to justify the unjustifiable, namely, the import of combat aircraft at a time when the Modi government is becoming very antsy about aircraft purchases given the paucity of financial resources and the controversy fueled by the opposition Congress Party about the humungous costs entailed in the Rafale deal with France (something, incidentally, that I had warned would be raked up, in a post soon after the PM’s announcement of this transaction in Paris in April 2015) for just 36 of these planes? In a recent series of articles in Indian Express ( http://indianexpress.com/article/explained/beyond-the-news-tejas-and-beyond-how-short-the-iaf-is-of-fighters-what-options-it-has-now-4946876/ ) no doubt prompted by IAF HQrs, some very incorrect impressions were sought to be conveyed to the Indian public about the quality of the home-grown Tejas. We’ll deconstruct some of these issues to show just how hollow the charges against this aircraft are, and leave it to the public to judge the intent behind the latest in the ongoing vilification campaign aimed at the LCA 

An IAF fleet strength of 42 fighter squadrons is routinely held up as the standard the government has to somehow meet. The problem is that it is a figure the JRD Tata Committee came up with after the 1962 debacle in the Himalayas, when security insurance was sought in numbers — more of anything is better. Except by the 1970s and the advent of the F-16 the whole concept had changed to thinking about high-technology and commensurately high performance of combat aircraft as the decisive edge, and not numbers. Meaning, the F-16 generation of aircraft were often sold to host governments by saying one F-16 could take out 3 (or more) of the lesser tech fighter planes, so fewer of these were required. It was the time of the great quality vs quantity air power debate. Had a new Committee been constituted then, it would have concluded, in the context of bare minimum expenditure, that with new-gen aircraft 35 squadrons would more than suffice. So the alarm sounded about the fleet strength declining to 31 squadrons seems entirely unwarranted. 

There’s the usual snide reference to the “long gestation” period of the LCA. Actually, the first Tejas prototype flew inside of 25 years not a bad show at all considering the Indian aircraft designers and engineers began from zero baseline with the complete degradation of design skills and competencies after the cold-blooded killing of the Raj Mahindra-designed Marut Mk-II by the IAF in the early 1970s. The IAF then went ahead and bought the British Aerospace Jaguar that was just as under-powered as the original HF-24 and its Mk-II version. It came with the stigma of massive commission-corruption — the first major defence deal to be so tainted and which has become the norm, sullying almost every military import transaction ever since. Ah, to get back to the “long gestation” issue — the US’ latest F-35 Lightning-II has taken over 20 years to get to where it is now and, despite Lockheed Martin’s history of designing hundreds of fighter aircraft and producing quite literally thousands of them, this F-35 by all accounts is a LEMON! It has proved to be inferior to the antiquated F-16 in straight fights; against the Russian Su-30 or MiG-35, what to talk of the FGFA PAK-FA, American aviation experts fear it stands not a spitball’s chance in hell. 

It is not clear why the idea of a majorly all Tejas and variants air force is pooh-poohed. Firstly, as regards numbers — other than the 2 lines at HAL, the TOT of the Tejas to 3 or 4 private sector companies each with an assured order of 80-100 LCAs will be sufficient incentive for the Tata, Mahindra, L&T, Reliance Defence, and Adani’s company whatever it may be called, to speedily invest in assembly lines, and begin producing the aircraft in less time than it will take the Gripen E — of the same 4.5 generation aircraft as the Tejas — to be inducted into IAF. Additional motivation would be the permission to these companies to export slightly derated versions of Tejas from Day One. Gripen E is only now undergoing speed taxi trials, and is some ways from even taking to the skies (Versus Tejas which has already clocked over 400 hours of flying without a single incident). Quality wise: If, as is normally done with most aircraft with projected long runs, Tejas is developed in blocks, one block of aircraft followed by a newer, upgraded, variant of it, until the Tejas series goes from 1A to 2 to Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft with all the producers continuously getting TOT on upgrades the, the operational spectrum will be adequately covered at all times. More so because there will still be the upgraded Jaguars, MiG-29s, Mirage 2000s and, to top it all 272 air superiority Su-3MKI fighters — WITH ANOTHER 40 THAT HAVE BEEN NEWLY ORDERED — for a total of some 314 Su-30s — arguably the best fighter plane now flying anywhere in the world, per Dr Carlo Kopp, the renowned Australian combat aircraft specialist. 

Then there’s a certain worthy at the Air HQrs — a “test pilot” no less — who is quoted in the story. He claims to have flown the Tejas in its early days but pronounces, many years later during which time the LCA has been architecturally improved, enhancing its performance manifold in all its aspects, that “It doesn’t meet our expectations”. And where is it lacking, pray? “It needs to be escorted by more capable aircraft to come back alive”, this officer is reported as saying. This line of attack against Tejas is so silly it is surprising a stalwart flier has made it. He should know that the whole “buddy system” arose from multi-role aircraft tasked for strike missions being escorted in these missions with other aircraft of the same type providing top cover. Of course, the top cover can be afforded by a different genus of aircraft flying combat air patrols, ensuring no enemy aircraft interferes with the strike aircraft reaching its target preceded on its bombing run by EW aircraft clearing the path by suppressing air defence radar. This division of labour between strike/ground attack and top cover is routinely done by the MiG-21 bis as ACM Dhanoa (who as Wing Commander led the MiG-21 bis equipped 17 Squadron in the 1999 Kargil ops, and on May 28 this year flew the “missing man” formation to honour the martyrs of that conflict) well knows. So, yes, Tejas will require protective escort if it is on a strike mission into enemy territory. However, if as is more likely, the LCA is assigned short to medium range interception and air defence or interdiction, it will not require escort, and its 8 hard points can easily carry the necessary air-to-air and air-to-ground guided and dumb munitions. 

Then the blatant nonsense is repeated about endurance, range, etc., which I tackled in my Nov 13 “Stop the vilification campaign against Tejas” post (https://bharatkarnad.com/2017/11/13/stop-the-vilification-campaign-against-tejas/ ) and won’t repeat here. 

This raises the question whether Raha (a veteran of the MiG-29 squadron headed by a storied combat flier of the IAF, Air Vice Marshal Harish Masand, VrC) knew what he was talking about when he thought Tejas was “wonderful” and whether Dhanoa was being honest in praising the aircraft and the way it handled. If these IAF Chiefs were convinced about the merits of this aircraft, and impressed by the way it handles and maneuvers in the air, was’nt it/isn’t it incumbent on these CASs to champion the LCA and, given the kind of discretionary power they enjoy, have the Service takeover the Tejas program, and tell the government the IAF will not anymore depend on foreign aircraft? It will free India from being in hock to foreign countries whose aerospace sectors have prospered because of IAF custom, even as an Indian defence industry genuinely capable of design-to-delivery of capital weapons platforms is prevented from emerging in the country, and so deserving and astonishingly fine aircraft as the locally made Tejas is perennially on life support. 

If the “nationalist” Prime Minister Modi and his defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman still don’t see the runaround they are getting from the IAF, and another gargantuan mistake is made this time by buying obsolete F-16/F-18 aircraft just to please Trump or, even worse, to create a few hundred new jobs in the Tata/Ambani/Adani assembly line doing nothing more than what the DPSUs have mindnumbingly done for the past 50 years — screwdrivering aircraft together from imported SKD/CKD kits, then ‘Make in India’ too will join the long series of farces past governments have perpetrated in the name of making the country self-sufficient in arms.

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