An objective analysis would indicate that India is truly not an aerospace power. We have as yet, not become a substantive aerospace power primarily because of two reasons. Firstly, the lopsided and flawed Defence Procurement Policy and secondly, near total absence of any worthwhile R&D from the 1960s to the 1980s. Merely establishing defence laboratories and ordnance factories was not enough. Had we continued with the HF-24 programme and taken it to higher levels, we might have had indigenous force multipliers, fighter aircraft, heavy lift helicopters, transport aircraft, radars and Surface to Air Missiles of proven operational capability matching in performance with the best systems available.
The Indian subcontinent witnessed exponential growth in the acquisition and/or development of conventional aeroplanes as early as the 1950s. Immediately after independence in 1947, both India and Pakistan began acquiring aeroplanes from the Western nations such as France, UK and USA. China too was busy acquiring vintage but still airworthy variants of the MiG family from the erstwhile USSR.
Moment of Glory
India took a giant leap in the design and development of fighter aircraft when the first indigenously produced HF-24 flew on June 24, 1961. The HF-24 was a twin-engine, swept-wing design fighter with powered controls that could fly at speeds in excess of 900 kmph despite being somewhat under-powered vis-à-vis its overall weight. Notwithstanding the numerous shortcomings, the HF-24 raised quite a few eyebrows in the developed and militarily advanced nations such as USA and USSR. These nations considered entry of a third world country in the exclusive domain of production of state-of-the-art fighter aircraft as a threat to their continued primacy, not only in the sphere of military aviation but also in the economic arena. After the end of World War II, sale of military hardware had been and continues to remain the most prominent money churner for the advanced nations of the world.
Military and political leadership led by less-than informed bureaucrats opted for acquisition of military aircraft from foreign sources…
By any standards, it was a crowning achievement of scientists and engineers of a fledgling nation within 14 years of getting independence. India was well on its way to becoming a formidable air power in South Asia. Three successive wars in 1962, 1965 and 1971 changed the scenario of indigenous development of aeroplanes. Military and political leadership led by less-than informed bureaucrats opted for acquisition of military aircraft from foreign sources. On the face of it, such an option might not appear to be wrong because the nation needed military hardware including aircraft in large numbers almost immediately. The domestic aerospace industry was in no position to meet the demands. But what is incomprehensible is the fact that we deliberately opted to slow down and finally stop indigenous development, which is what we did by consigning the HF-24 to museums in the late seventies/early eighties.
An Opportunity Squandered
Closure of the HF-24 programme would perhaps rank as the worst ever decision taken collectively by the Indian Air Force (IAF), the bureaucracy and the political leadership, a decision that was clearly against national security interests. Without doubt, foreign vendors must have popped the champagne to celebrate their unbridled primacy in the field of aeroplane manufacturing. Had we continued development of further variants of the HF-24, we would indeed have become an aerospace power in the 1980s itself.
Perhaps our decision to discontinue the HF-24 programme was also influenced by an equally myopic decision by the UK in opting to discontinue the TSR-2 development programme around the same time. Duncan Sandys, a British Member of Parliament (MP), was instrumental in discontinuance of TSR-2 development programme. The learned but ill-informed MP argued that due to the advent of Heat Seeking Air-to-Air Missiles, the days of manned fighters were over. Rest is history.
Ballistic missile threat has become the most feared situation in the event of hostilities…
India – An Aerospace Power?
An objective analysis would indicate that India is truly not an aerospace power. We have as yet, not become a substantive aerospace power primarily because of two reasons. Firstly, the lopsided and flawed Defence Procurement Policy and secondly, near total absence of any worthwhile R&D from the 1960s to the 1980s. Merely establishing defence laboratories and ordnance factories was not enough. Had we continued with the HF-24 programme and taken it to higher levels, we might have had indigenous force multipliers, fighter aircraft, heavy lift helicopters, transport aircraft, radars and Surface-to-Air Missiles of proven operational capability matching in performance with the best systems available.
A nation does not become an aerospace power on imported hardware. Over the years, the nation’s defence establishment, consisting of defence ministers, defence secretaries and the service chiefs, has not exerted itself as it should have. The euphoric victory of 1971 and the almost self-defeating decision by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to keep the Defence portfolio with herself led to the ‘Prime Minister as Defence Minister’ becoming inaccessible to the executives of the defence establishment. Everything related to defence affairs slowed down. Her autocratic style of functioning made matters even worse. Service Chiefs could hardly find the ears of the Prime Minister as the Defence Minister.
Most of the Ordnance Factories have merely attained the status of money guzzlers with hardly anything to show for such massive infra-structure and investment in place. The Ordnance Factory Board, the controlling apex organisation has been worthless and has done immense disservice to the nation. Most of these factories deserve to be shut down and an entirely new techno-management organisation should be created. The Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) is yet another bureaucratic behemoth with nothing spectacular to its credit. All projects, without exception, have never met the declared timelines. Even the quality of the finished product continues to be questionable.
Indeed, there has been a silver lining in an otherwise bleak military hardware development programme. The Surface-to-Surface Missile (SSM) programme under civilian control led by our erstwhile President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam has become a world class SSM programme. We have already perfected technology to mass produce SSMs of 5,000 km range. However, we still have to perfect cryogenic engine technology.
Possibility of an armed conflict between nations is slowly but surely receding…
Satellite fabrication technology has also achieved many landmarks. Our scientists have manufactured sensors installed on satellites for multi-dimensional uses such as weather monitoring, education, TV transmission and agricultural information. At the same time, few of these could even monitor ballistic missile launch. It might appear to be irony of sorts; the SSM and satellite development programmes have been totally civilian with hardly any military control. Indian military leadership, past and present, may like to ponder over this.
Our capability to produce force multipliers such as the Airborne Early Warning/Airborne Warning and Control System (AEW/AWACS) platforms, Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA), Electronic Counter Measure (ECM) Systems, reliable Cryogenic Engines and Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs) remains woefully inadequate. What is worse is that it is not likely to be any better in the foreseeable future.
Air Power and Aerospace Power
Before entering into the domain of what constitutes an aerospace power, the difference between air power and aerospace power must be understood. Except in the case of the erstwhile super powers, USA and USSR, almost all other nations have acquired air power components based on regional threat. Conventional air power consists of three elements – the strike element (fighter aircraft and attack helicopters), the logistics element (transport aeroplanes and utility helicopters) and ground-based elements such as radars.
A fourth element has been added in recent years in the form of force multipliers such Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA), Airborne Early Warning and Control Systems (AEW/AWACS), Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPVs), Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and Surface to Surface Missiles (SSMs). Relatively more expensive component of air power, the strike element, has little or no use for the nation during peace time. Indeed it remains as the most effective deterrent as a ‘Force in Being’ that must remain operational so that if the need arises it can be brought to bear upon the adversary almost instantaneously. The logistics element of air power is the most important component during peacetime. Aid to civil authority becomes a major commitment during peacetime and in times of natural calamities and civil disturbances.
The strike element of Indian air power has been used only twice during peacetime – once during the Nagaland crisis led by Phizo when Mystere aircraft were used for strafing the hideouts of Naga rebels and the second occasion was during Goa operations, when Canberras were used for bombing.
Aerospace power, on the other hand, has numerous other functions to support national requirements related directly to economic development and is constituted keeping in view the global scenario. Other than support to the military, aerospace power contributes to the following areas, which cannot be taken care of by conventional air power:
- Weather Monitoring
- Monitoring Bio-diversity
- Soil Conservation
- Forestry Management
- Land Cover for Wild Life Sanctuaries
- Agricultural Produce Estimates
- Flood Inundation Mapping
Thus, air power is actually a constituent of aerospace power. Global militarisation on a very large scale, induction of sophisticated weapons has led to an uneasy state of peace. The situation is almost akin to the Cold War period when the two superpowers could not risk escalation of tensions and wage a nuclear war. Consequences of such miscalculation were bound to be disastrous for the entire world. “Mutually Assured Destruction”, a term coined during the height of the Cold War is applicable in modern times more than ever before. Even with the use of conventional weapons, conflict of any kind can result in crippling damage.
Rapidly changing global world order has moved from conflict between nations to conflict-based on ideology and religion coupled with misplaced/irrational beliefs of a few nations about their right to interfere in governance in the contiguous region. For instance, the birth of ISIS, Russia’s unilateral action in Ukraine and China’s continued attempts at throwing the gauntlet in South China Sea emerging as one of the foremost maritime challenges after World War II. It is in this context that it becomes imperative that India move towards becoming a substantive aerospace power. But for that to translate into action, the Indian political and military leadership must adopt a doctrinal approach.