A Commentary on the Tejas Programme (based on the DRDO’s recent book- Radiance in the Indian Skies: The Tejas Saga)
Several years ago, Air Marshal Rajkumar (PR) and Mr. Srikanth (BRS) had written a smaller book with a similar sounding name.
Though the present book “Radiance in the Indian skies: The Tejas Saga” is authored by Air Marshal Raj Kumar and Mr Srikanth, this present avatar of the book appears to be an effort by DRDO to explain the Tejas Aircraft Project, its achievement and its delays. Just for that the book is welcome. The criticism of severely delayed projects is inevitable and necessary; criticism acts as a goad. The Tejas Project deserves criticism. In the US where engineering development is professional, criticism is jackass raucous.
The book is reasonably well produced if one goes by the Indian Public Works Department standards. The square format of 280mmx280mm is not quite coffee table nor a regular book. The printing is on glossy paper but some of the pictures are blurred. It is unacceptable as to why the identical picture heading Chapters 6and 10 in which one is quite sharp and the other is blurred! The other irritation is the contradictions in the narrative. The first flight date of the NLCA NP1 is given variously as November 26 2009 and as April 27 2012- on the same page! This may sound like nitpicking but quality is a culture and it walks on a slippery slope; Quality must be seen in each every “product” of an organization. It is sure that the Chinese and the Americans will be reading this book with more than usual interest. They will find the quality of the book somewhat reassuring that DRDO is not quite “there” yet.
The other irritants are that gross distortions of facts such as a Government Secretary level official claiming the Tejas was developed in fourteen years i.e. from 1998 when the sanction was imposed to IOC. This is an insult to the intelligence of all those aviation people who have been eagerly following the Tejas ab initio but it is precisely this kind of stubborn self-justification that delays correction. Honest confession expedites correction. It also shows the pressure ADA is currently under and that the present Government’s interest is producing some results.
In discussing the Tejas which was an attempt to develop a fourth- generation fighter it is inevitable that comparison must arise with the F 16 which was the aeroplane to beat- particularly for India since the PAF had F 16s. The core “Fighter Mafia”-did I not say that the US critics are raucous- that created the F 16 comprised of Harry Hillaker, Pierre Sprey, Everest Riccione and Maj. Boyd. Two were engineers and two were the “Customers” being Air Force pilots which mean that to engineering experience was blended customer knowledge and wisdom acting in trust. I do not have the details of the others but Hillaker, the Chief Designer, was just a BS in Engineering from Michigan- no Ph.Ds.- but he had worked on Convair GD for forty years including the gigantic B 36, the supersonic B 58 Hustler and that ultimate “folly” the F 111 which convinced him that official specifications were often wrong. He found, for example, that the on an average the Hustler designed for supersonic dash to target had a total eight hours supersonic flight over its entire life time which questions the specifications itself because supersonic capability compromised the design so much that the B 58 had a particularly short service life.
Digressing, this present craze for “supercruise” will go the same way when people “discover” that even without A/B super cruise @ M 1.6 burns four or five times the fuel of M 0.8 i.e. it slashes range! These anomalies in specifications set him dreaming-for ten years- about the F 16 whose fly off against the YF 17 took place in 1974. It is interesting that for the first project studies Hillaker received $ 147,000 in 1969 the equivalent of Rs 1.47 lakhs going by the astounding claim in this present book by another very senior DRDO official that at PPP $1=Rs.1! One would put it at$1= Rs7-10 i.e. 7-10 lakhs by PPP. This point is to be noted because lack of funding is often cited as a reason for slow development but this is used to mask the slow rate of progress in Engineering. The Americans seem to be doing well with fairly frugal funds. Our question should be “Did lack of funds hold up development or lack of development hold up funding?”
There was a lot of informed argument even within the “Fighter Mafia” group, an illustration being whether the F 5s small radar the APQ 153 would be good enough for the F 16. It was much later that Hillaker conceded that the bigger APG 66radar prolonged the marketability of the product but the point to note was that the design team had both the comparable depth knowledge and the courage of conviction to argue out various options with the customer. It is only when the designer can convince the Customer that the designer is also an expert with almost equal knowledge on many aspects of operations and better knowledge in design does a feeling of mutual respect and kinship grows and the customer feels that he has come to the right place- an advantage enjoyed by our foreign vendors.
It must be pointed out that during the course of development of the F 16 the wing area was increased from 280 to 300 sq.ft (320 sq ft. was demanded but shot down!), the weight went up by a thousand pounds, chaff and flare had to be added and the tail plane grew in size-all in the course of five years. It was taken as all in a day’s work. The aggrievedness that still is vented and the excuses made when a specified missile had to be changed needs no repeating here. With its DRDO lab siring, ADA (Aeronautical Development Agency) is too steeped in the “we are scientists- we don’t deal with production problems”culture; which is why ADA puts the blame on delayed production on HAL. No engineer will walk away from the fascination of “his” or “her” brainchild. “Let’shave a look at that bloody clock” was the reaction of the Rolls Royce engineers when a David Ogilvy had claimed that sixty m.p.h. the loudest noise inside the RR Silver Wraith was the clock!
The book in its present form is a government publication and being Government, it tells the truth but being government it does not tell the whole truth. For instance, it rightly maintains that MSD Wollen Chairman HAL transferred 300 hundred engineers to ADA within a few hours. What it does not mention is that an earlier Chairman, BK Kapur, was summarily removed from his post precisely, so the story goes, because he refused to allow the cannibalization of HAL Aircraft Design Bureau personnel to be seconded to ADA. The merit of the decision is not important; the reader is cautioned that the story told has dark corners not illuminated.
This review is confined to what was stated in the book which aroused interest or curiosity or what was thought were anomalous – senior officials often contradict each other when they don’t contradict themselves.
Was the Project a success? This is where the caution of senior officials usually contradicting each other comes along. VS Arunachalam, Kota Harinaryana quite firmly think the project is done and is a success but they are of course what would legally be described as “Parties with interest”; it is noted in the Book that Air Chief Marshal SK Kaul at the rollout in 1995 said with prescience of a sage and the precision of a Lawyer that whilst he was happy to be present at the roll out, the LCA project would be considered a success only when it could be found flying regularly over all parts of the country and in large numbers. There is thus a liberal choice regarding success or failure.
Justifying the removal of the country’s most experienced aircraft designer at that time it is mentioned early in the book that a Member of Parliament raised questions in Parliament about the nationality of our“Hillaker”, Raj Mahindra, who had about forty years’ experience on the HT2, HJT 16 and the Marut aircraft. It was Raj Mahindra (RM) who was “Chief Designer” designate when the project went up for sanctioning. Though RM had worked for forty years in HAL without any nationality problems and was defended in the Parliament by the then Defence Minister R Venkataraman, Arunachalam asked Valluri to ease his Chief Designer out. Valluri who probably saw where things were heading resigned along with RM. It is interesting after Raj Mahindra’s dismissal the “Oh- so- concerned” MP apparently lost all interest and did not raise any questions on the repeated delays and slippage of dates of the project nor did he, even though being an ex-IAF officer, support the IAF’s strong objections to the many technical and design deficiencies in the ADA proposal’s review in 1989 in terms of aerodynamics, equipment space and performance. The same gentleman was later involved in a scam involving Commonwealth Games funds as a cabinet minister. There are people who believe that the RM/MP episode was engineered to ensure that after the project was granted the “show piece” Chief Designer was removed and it was given to a DRDO nominee who may not have passed muster in the first instance. If indeed it was so it was unethical. The loss of RM was a grievous blow and de facto a victory for the import lobby. It is reasonable to expect that with his forty years of experience working for the customer the project would not have suffered many of the mismanagement problems arising from the inexperience of the subsequent incumbent.
Around 1990 Arunachalam himself was attacked in Parliament for delay and threatened with an enquiry for misuse of National funds but strong support by Sharad Pawar (now Chief of NCP – National Congress Party) as Defence Minister had him exonerated. Dr. Arunachalam was later involved in an enquiry about an “American mole” in the cabinet but he was again exonerated. He lives now in the US as a tenured Professor. Recording his above tribulations Arunachalam describes himself as “a poor Engineer”. One has a bee in one’s bonnet about people with engineering degrees calling themselves engineers. A degree is merely a license to walk the shop floor. Onebegs to differ to his self-description only because it has a bearing to the LCA story. Highly qualified, eminent, great organizer, great networker, very able fixer- whatever praise we say is not enough-, but engineer no. To be called an Engineer one needs to walk “the works” in an Industry or a service for decades. The LCA programme’ sabiding handicap was that there was, after Raj Mahindra’s ouster, not one engineer at the top and it made all the difference. At that time forty years ago, we had a fascination for Eminent Personalities who had no idea of urgency the industry has. No one complained that the Dhawan Committee report on the Avro took years when the Indian Airlines was bleeding daily.
The Soviets who had offered to collaborate in the LCA project were as skeptical as the IAF about the proposal but they were blunt and scathing in their remarks. Paint “LCA” on a kite and fly it” was their brusque,typically Slavic, summary of their assessment. The Book also says what they thought of the proposer but that is irrelevant here. They were, of course,intolerant of delays.Though by the time of the LCA project they had stopped the practice of shooting or imprisoning defaulting designers they had sacked Tikhomirov for a two years delay in the Russian KUB programme. Mind you Tikhomirov had accurately predicted this delay and his “chela” (disciple/protégé) finished the project two years after his dismissal. Tikhomirov who was to Soviet radar technology what Zhukovsky was for aeronautics or Korolev was in rocketry. Tikhomirov was posthumously honoured with a Research Institute named after him for his life time contribution in Soviet Radar Technology but he was never above censure and removal for failing to meet targeted deadlines.
Viewed in the context of the above Soviet seriousness the oft heard comment LCA stood for “Last chance for Aatre” or “Last chance for Arunachalam” (as it used to be when critics started following this benighted project!) causes a sense of astonishment. The surreal development structure of ADA as created could happen only because there was NO risk to life or freedom let alone to pension and perks.Perhaps LCA was not “Last Chance for A…. but Limitless Chances for A…”.
To understand why it happened this way lies in the fact that is at the genesis of the LCA 1983-1991 – India was in a period of political instability. It was a time of five Prime Ministers and ten Defence Ministers. It was a time when there were many groups thinking about the next generation fighter with each group, going by the book, in disagreement on how to proceed. The guiding lights of the successful claimants were a top nuclear physicist, a metallurgical scientist from a Defence Laboratory- both at the level of Cabinet Secretaries, a cabinet minister with a degree in Law and an IISc Professor of fluid mechanics. Whilst eminent and powerful and obviously “having the king’s ear” and well net- worked the sum total of Industrial experience of the four persons combined was three years that too part time. Had they succeeded it would have been a miracle. It would have been a contribution like Operation Flood or the Green revolution-a liberation of India from foreign dependence. Expectedly that did not happen; Domain Experience or more correctly lack of it in this case was the reason. When Kurien was asked to lead “Operation Flood” he had by 1964 over twenty-four years’ experience, had set up AMUL in the teeth of established commercial competition and had what he had forgotten about the Dairy Industry was more than most Dairy Scientists would ever learn.The top LCA team, eminent though it was, I think would not have cut much ice with General Dynamics Fort Worth had they applied for a job. Being bureaucratically seasoned they were able to expand, in a time of political turmoil the DRDO’s “empire” both in Aircraft and Engine design by emasculating the competing design bureaus. To blame the four Scientist Bureaucrats alone would be short sighted. We must look further into unfashionable areas like conspiracy theories if the Aerospace Industry is to find its feet.
If the book was an attempt by DRDO to exonerate ADA’s shortcomings then it has scored several self-goals. Sample these:
The book states that the roll out was in November 1995 and the taxi trials began in February 1998 i.e. after over three years. This is blamed, like much else, on the sanctions. The sanctions came into effect only in mid- 1998 so it means that despite a 1995 roll out the aircraft was unfit to taxi under its own power for over three years thereafter; a few months may be acceptable but over three years is unheard of. Indeed, the aircraft started taxi trials within months of the sanction being imposed! The clever “roll out” event along with similar clever “nautanki” events like IOC 1 and IOC2 have done much to erode the present credibility of ADA to null.
There is mention of Rs. 3 crores spent for a wind tunnel model fabricated in Bangalore in 1991. This was a period when a complete aircraft would have a stencil near the nose stating “this aircraft costs 97 lakhs” etc.To spend 3 crores on a 2.2mts by 1.4 mts by 0.7 mtsscale model fabricated in Bangalorein 1991 meant that the thing’s cost was several times its weight in gold. Prima facie, the sum would be difficult to justify in an audit. One recalls that the CAG reports of accounts not being kept properly in this period.Well managed,the Rs.560 crores initial should have been more than enough to achieve what was stated at the outset to land the project- a flying prototype by April 1990. Interestingly Hillaker in 1975 spent the equivalent of 3 lakhs- $25,000- for TWO similar size models –one for wind tunnel and one for RCS.(Lockheed’s Black World Skunk Works, Paul Crickmore, Osprey Publications,2000, ISBN1 84176 059 5 p.82.) Excuses are made that we do not fund enough but no amount of funding can be enough if, as in this case the apparent wastage is 99%!Misuse of funding can occur even in Government PSUs as the well- known Tatra deal or the Antrix fiasco remind us.
Another very senior official of ADA again in attempted justification of the delay in the Tejas time scales is identified as saying programme timelines was comparable to foreign programmes since the FBW (fly-by-wire) system was first tested on a Jaguar in 1977 the development time of the Eurofighter should be taken to be from that year (sic!).Actually, by that logic,he should use 1957 because it was in 1957 and not 1977 when that FBW was first flown- as the aileron control on a Hunter. So did the Eurofighter take 40 years to develop? This very senior Official has missed the woods for the trees. The real point that the Eurofighter example illustratesis that no engineer uses unproven technology as the LCA team did.In the case of the Typhoon FBW was thirty years proved before being used. It is Tenth class simple probabilities: the uncertainties of the new platform multiply the uncertainties of the new technology reducing testing time availability data generation and data confidence. In the Tejas we used composites and FBW directly instead of trying out these technologies in real “Technology Demonstrators”, may be a disarmed and gutted HF 24, Ajeet or a Mig 21 just to test, separately, the technologies- composite wings, FBW, glass cockpit etc.We are again going to use new fifth generation technologies directly on the AMCA (Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft).The fear is that the AMCA will certainly not run on schedule because ADA has again unnecessarily courted trouble.
One could carry on but there are brighter aspects also.
Reading the book was something like reading the Henderson Brooks report (still not available to the Indian“hoi polloi”). There was great heroism at the “paltan” level; it was lack of requisite domain “cooking” knowledge at the Chief Designer level plus appalling manipulations at South Bloc that caused delays.At the detail level every technological challenge was met and within reasonable time be it in electronics, materials, manufacturing or planning for the flight testing which was meticulous and the NFTC must take a lot of credit for the crash free programme that is often mentioned. The contribution of the Navy team deserves particular mention. Started in 1993 the first prototype was delivered in 2009/2012 (as above) but once they had the prototype the Navy/NFTC (National Flight Test Centre) got the system going and by 2020 we were almost there which is not at all bad. The Navy spirit is admirable. They feel the LCA is unsuitable for carrier operations for several reasons but they have mastered many technicalities using the imperfect means. Talk about “if life hands you a Lemon… make lemonade”.
The same goes for Test Flying. Heartwarming was the fact that when the designated responsible official balked at signing documents to release the aircraft for the first flight there was always someone who stepped in to take up the responsibility. To be noted was that the first prototype was ready for first flight in early 1990; BAC had advised ADA in June 1990 that screw up your courage and fly the Tejas yet it was not ADA officials but the then Head of NFTC-an Air Force Officer (PR) – who bit the bullet and cut through sessions of technical vapourings to announce that the prototype would be flown. He recalls the hushed silence that followed. This lack of “venture” in ADA culture is to be noted. If it persists even today AMCA is in trouble.
A chapter on the limited series production by Yogesh Kumar makes the very important point on the lack of cooperation between HAL and ADA something he emphasizes in bold letters. It is not that the tailless high composites FBW aircraft could not be developed within ten years and 560 crores but it required a level of design engineering experience and wisdom the team leaders at ADA simply did not have. As if that was not enough,they interposed a “Rahu” (“head with no body” satellite in Indian astrology) as a Design organization, emasculated HAL to provide the conscripted troops which then had to detail and manufacture someone’s i.e. ADA’s design (Bad IR 101) after ensuring the only man who could have done something was removed by a parliamentary objection.Used to dealing with Directors, Secretaries and Cabinet Ministers their contacts with the troops and ground realities were of the level of the late Gen BM Kaul of ’62. Results were, not surprisingly, similar.
What was the achievement of these eminent personae? What they set up was what someone inimical to technology development would have done to set back Indian Aviation by decades i.e. Set up an Organization apparently functioning but structurally unable to deliver, shut down other organizations which had years of experience in the field, bring in internecine strife, bring the process of development more under the control of the Bureaucracy and take no interest in the delays.
Despite all the above in a strange way the book gives cause for hope and the reason can be put succinctly. The “mistakes” made by DRDO were so fundamental that delay was guaranteed. Aircraft Development is not rocket science but it is a knowledge Industry where the knowledge changes rapidly. As TS Eliot said “Information processed becomes knowledge and Knowledge processed becomes Wisdom”. Hillaker had it. RM had it. ADA team did not. What we had attempted to do with the Tejas was that a group with zero Industrial/ service experience and no engineering maturity or domain knowledge were allowed, without political oversight, to micromanage a state-of-the-art fighter project.Delays were inevitable.
If that is stopped we will definitely have better results. Leave the business of weapons development strictly and only to the engineers and the Services people and those who will be directly affected by the results. Scientists and Bureaucrats can be supports, not pillars and “part time multi hat” wearers are simply too busy with too many things. Aviation requires day to day and intense and detailed care.The present structure centralizes decision making; it is too bureaucratic for that.
Much is made by various protagonists that the Tejas programme has set up an infrastructure for future development. This is, going by present readings, wishful thinking. However the timely execution of the AMCA project –with a scheduled roll out in 2025- will settle any arguments in this matter. Strong action will be needed or else the IAF will be led up the Garden Path- yet again!
by Air Marshal (Retd) Phillip Rajkumar & BR Srikanth
DRDO Monographs Special Publication Series © 2021
DRDO New Delhi 110011, ISBN 978-81-86514-78-8, PP 194