Whether it was a scheduled visit, or happenstance, India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh was in Moscow, in June 2020 within days of the alarming sanguinary encounter between Indian and Chinese soldiers in Eastern Ladakh. It was reported that, on arrival, the minister made an urgent request to his Russian counterpart to expedite the supply of certain numbers of MiG-29 and Sukhoi-30 combat aircraft. The request possibly originated from a worried Air Headquarters, but its timing did not convey a reassuring message, and led one to wonder about the state of India’s defence-preparedness.
The brief 1999 Kargil War, too, had seen desperate import of ordnance items, midway through the operation, and not so long ago, another RM had confided to the press that days before the army’s (September 2016) cross-border ‘surgical strikes’ on Pakistan, he had to send a team of officers abroad, with “…authority to carry out on the spot emergency purchases.” It is a regrettable fact that such last-minute panic purchases have now become standard crisis-response. This is, obviously, a manifestation of the political mind-set, often articulated in Parliament, via such phrases: “When the time comes, all resources will be made available to our gallant armed forces.”
The irony of such statements seems lost on our political elite, because “resources,” whether weapons, ordnance, or protective gear are of no use “when the time comes.” They must be positioned well in advance, to enable assimilation by training and maintenance organizations and distribution to units. That is the reason why the Service HQs issue a Long-Term Perspective Plan, reflecting their needs for the next 15 years. It is a matter of regret that none amongst our post-independence political leadership showed the vision or foresight to launch a long-term programme of defence-production that would have made our military self-sufficient in weapon systems.
India’s continuing dependence on imported arms, coupled with a dysfunctional acquisition system has eroded the combat edge of our armed forces. Nowhere is this lacuna more acute than in the cost-intensive and high-technology field of military aviation where the IAF is faced with the double-jeopardy of declining numbers and unaffordable foreign replacements. In this bleak scenario, this article undertakes a brief review of India’s aeronautics industry.
In 1940, with the United Kingdom in the throes of a life-and-death struggle against Germany – the Battle of Britain – Prime Minister Winston Churchill formed the Ministry of Aircraft Production, with media mogul Lord Beaverbrook at its head. Under Beaverbrook’s dynamic and imaginative leadership, fighter and bomber production increased so much that Air Marshal Dowding, the head of Fighter Command, stated: “…the RAF lacked the supply of aircraft necessary to withstand the Luftwaffe’s onslaught. Lord Beaverbrook gave us those machines.”
Today, the paucity of aircraft finds the Indian Air Force (IAF) in dire straits too, but there is no Lord Beaverbrook in the sight on the political horizon. Left in the hands of a lackadaisical Department of Defence Production & Supply, and lacking a roadmap as well as guidance, the huge potential of our aeronautics industry has remained unexploited. The exponential growth of HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) has not been accompanied by a corresponding growth in skills, technology, or capability. A glimpse of this giant corporation’s history is instructive.
Visionary Indian industrialist, Seth Walchand Hirachand, established Hindustan Aircraft Limited (HAL) in Bangalore, in December 1940, with capital and land provided by the Mysore government, using American technical assistance. Soon after the outbreak of World War II, the Government of India (GoI), realizing the strategic significance of this enterprise, bought a one-third stake in HAL. With a retired, RAF Air Marshal, as its first Director, HAL had barely started licensed production, when it was nationalised, in 1943, and handed over to the US Army Air Forces (USAAF).
Functioning as an Aircraft Maintenance Depot, HAL repaired and serviced hundreds of flying-boats, fighters, bombers, and transport aircraft for the USAAF during the war. Bangalore, thus, became the hub of the aviation industrial support to Allied forces deployed in the South East Asia Command, and produced thousands of aeronautical technicians.
Soon after independence, HAL’s Chief Designer, the eminent aeronautical engineer Dr. VM Ghatage, boldly embarked on three aircraft design projects: Each of them attaining a substantial degree of success. Thus, over the next decade, HAL manufactured more than 400 Ghatage-designed aircraft, namely: the HT-2 basic trainer for the IAF, the Krishak observation aircraft for the Army, and the Pushpak light-aircraft for civil aviation. Dr. Ghatage’s last outstanding achievement was the design of the HJT-16, Kiran, jet trainer, of which 190 were built and served the IAF for nearly three decades.
The crowning glory
HAL’s crowning glory, however, came in June 1961 with the flight of the HF-24, Marut, the first jet-fighter, designed and built in Asia. The GoI, in a rare flash of inspiration, had acquired the services of WW II German designer Dr. Kurt Tank, in 1956, to help HAL design a jet fighter. An aerodynamically elegant design, the Marut had huge potential as a supersonic fighter, but the two Orpheus engines, chosen to power it, delivered insufficient thrust and the fighter’s performance remained sub-sonic and sub-par. By mating the Orpheus with the Marut, HAL had chosen the easiest option, since this engine was already being assembled by HAL for the licence-built Gnat fighter.
The half-hearted attempts made to find a suitable engine, compatible with the Marut, produced no results, and both the Ministry of Defence (MoD) as well as HAL failed to display the zeal necessary to salvage this important national endeavour. The IAF, too, remained a mute spectator, as HAL shut the Marut line after delivering just 147 aircraft.
Apart from the Marut, HAL has, since the 1950s, undertaken the production of (an estimated) 3000 military aircraft, including types like the Vampire, MiG-21, MiG-27, Jaguar, Sukhoi-30, and Hawk. The company has also built a few thousand aero-engines of British, French, and Russian origin to power these aircraft.
Even though these statistics refer to ‘kit assembly’ or ‘licenced-production’, the experience accumulated by the 12 divisions of HAL must have been unique and invaluable. The layman is, therefore, astounded to note the lack of initiative which prevented HAL from harvesting technologies and imbibing skills for its personnel, related to aircraft and engine design and production. No wonder, that when the time came for modernizing 125 ‘HAL-built’ MiG-21s, India had to approach Russia and Israel for the up-gradation.
The LCA saga
This brings us to the well-known saga of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), Tejas, designed by Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO’s) Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), and now under production in HAL. A CAG report of 2015 reads, “LCA was required to be inducted into IAF by 1994…the programme was riddled with delays right from the sanction of 1983, and even after three decades, it is yet to be inducted into IAF.” Further, it says, “Though ADA claimed achievement of 70% indigenisation; half of these sub-systems are developed with imported electronic components and accessories etc.”
The Tejas was ‘notionally’ inducted into IAF service in 2016, with limited flight clearances but no lessons had been learned from the aborted Marut project. Once again, all agencies involved – the GoI, DRDO, and HAL – showed a lackadaisical approach, by failing to resolutely address hurdles that cropped up, and the prestigious LCA programme languished. As for the IAF, this 2015 CAG comment was significant; “User involvement right from inception is essential for effective and efficient completion of any project. However, active Air HQ participation in the LCA Programme started only 23 years after inception.”
The navy’s involvement and, financial as well as personnel, support for this programme bore fruit when the LCA (flown by a naval test pilot) successfully carried out landing and launch trials from the aircraft carrier in January 2020. Having proved the concept, Naval Headquarters (NHQ) declared that performance limitations, in terms of range and endurance, precluded the induction of LCA into naval service.
Finally, it was in January 2021, that the Cabinet accorded approval for the MoD to place an order for 83 LCA ‘Tejas’ on HAL. The Rs 48,000 crore deal will be the biggest ever for India’s military- aviation sector, and as the RM declared on social media, “…it will be a gamechanger for self-reliance in Indian defence manufacturing,” adding that, “the LCA-Tejas is going to be the backbone of the IAF fighter fleet in the years to come…Equipped with augmented infrastructure, HAL will steer LCA Mk 1A production for timely deliveries to IAF.”
According to ambitious HAL projections, the LCA Mk 1A will be followed by a 5th generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), while on the naval side, a ‘twin-engine deck-based’ (TEDBF) is on the drawing-board for carrier operations.
An indigenous turbo-jet engine?
Historically, all major aerospace powers have possessed the capability to design airframes as well as power-plants. Until India can design and produce its own aero-engines, the performance and capabilities of any indigenously designed/built aircraft will be seriously limited by the technology that we are permitted to import. India has already had two bitter experiences in this regard. As already mentioned, the HF-24, Marutfailed to achieve its huge potential as a supersonic-fighter for want of a suitable engine, and in a stunning display of myopia, the government closed this programme.
Similarly, many of the performance limitations of the Tejas arise from lack of engine thrust. Even as the Kaveri has failed to make an appearance, US-made alternatives, the General Electric GE-404 and GE-414, do not deliver adequate thrust for the Tejas Mk 1, to meet all its missions. For the Tejas Mk IA, the AMCA, and TEDBF, India will need turbo-jets of even greater thrust. Thus, it is vital for India to develop a family of home-grown jet-engines, to power indigenous combat aircraft and re-engine imported ones.
The design and production of a functional turbo-jet engine is, no doubt, a formidable technological (and financial) challenge for a country like India. Nevertheless, in 1986, in a bold decision, the DRDO’s Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE), was tasked to develop an indigenous power-plant for the LCA, which would replace the US engines being used for the developmental phase of the aircraft. Having, by then, developed two experimental engines, GTRE took up a turbofan design, designated the GTX-35VS “Kaveri” for the LCA. Full-scale development was authorized in 1989 for 17 prototypes at a cost of USD 55 million.
The first complete prototype Kaveri began tests in 1996, and by 2004 it had flown in a Russian flying test-bed; albeit unsuccessfully. Over the past 35 years, the Kaveri has made sporadic progress as GTRE struggled with serious design and performance issues. With the Kaveri missing successive deadlines, the case for the imported US engine has, unfortunately, grown stronger.
Given the DRDO’s penchant for secrecy, the true story of the Kaveri’s halting progress has never been revealed to Parliament or the taxpayer. However, two details, available on the Internet, are revelatory of the organization’s modus operandi. It has, at least, on two occasions, approached French aero-engine manufacturers, SNECMA and SAFRAN for advice and consultancy related to design, performance-enhancement and technology-transfer. On both occasions, negotiations, have stalled – reportedly on cost considerations. It is also interesting to note that in 2014, this project, was arbitrarily shut down by DRDO; only to be subsequently revived for reasons unknown. The current status (as of February 2021) of the Kaveri project remains unknown.
The ALH success story
A lesser-known HAL project, which has also seen (and overcome) its share of headwinds and turbulence, is the Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) ‘Dhruv.’ Development of the ALH commenced in 1984 and a sound design was evolved with assistance from the German firm, M/S Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm (MBB). Despite delays imposed by budget restrictions, US sanctions, and design changes, the first prototype flew in 1992.
Overcoming initial design and production-engineering problems, the Dhruv has proved itself a rugged and reliable machine. It currently flies with the three services and coast guard, in the transport, utility, reconnaissance, and medical evacuation roles, operating from seal-level to high-altitude areas. Using the basic ALH airframe, HAL has also evolved a number of variants that will fulfill the light-attack, utility, and observation roles. With over 300 of these, indigenously designed and produced, machines having been delivered to Indian and foreign customers, the Dhruv, and its derivatives that follow can certainly be counted as a major success story for HAL.
The way ahead
One cannot emphasize, strongly enough, that the Tejas fighter, Dhruv helicopter and the Kaveriturbo-jet constitute the vital core around which India can build a strong and dynamic aeronautical industry. Their design, development, and flight-testing programs (including the LCA Navy’s carrier landing trials), have generated priceless data which must be fully exploited for further development. Steered to their logical conclusion, these projects could spawn a family of fighters, helicopters, and jet-engines. A proven Kaveri gas-turbine could also have applications in commercial aviation as well as in the fields of marine propulsion and power generation.
The main reason why most DRDO/DPSU projects have experienced insufferable delays or even failed is prevailing myopia amongst our political leadership whose time-horizon is limited only to the next general election. Given the extended gestation periods of aeronautical projects, it is vital that a 25-30 year ‘perspective plan’ be drawn up, for India’s aeronautics industry and accorded approval by a parliamentary committee, so that it can withstand political vicissitudes.
The politico-bureaucratic establishment must also bear its share of the blame for not exercising close supervision of, and monitoring vital aeronautical projects with a bearing on national security. Repeated ‘heartbreaks’ have demonstrated that rapid decision-making and imaginative project-management are not the forte of scientists and bureaucrats and that adequate guidance should have been provided by the MoD.
Rather than continue its dependence on a pool of ‘generalist’ bureaucrats and PSU cadres for selecting CEOs, the Government of India should bring about a paradigm shift and look for the best available talent in-country for such challenging assignments. The expanded ‘gene pool’ to find suitably qualified persons in the driving-seat of strategic undertakings (like HAL) could encompass industry and business, but preference also needs to be given to demonstrated technical expertise, managerial skills and leadership-talent readily available in the armed forces.
There is a need for realisation that today, a vast majority of the aircraft and helicopters operated by our armed forces, as well as their engines and ancillaries, are produced, overhauled and supported by different divisions of HAL. Even as the private sector is, grudgingly, being allowed entry, the health, efficiency, and growth of this aeronautics giant is not just vital for the combat efficiency of our military, but also for the future of our aerospace industry. Unless we make a success of HAL and its various projects, India will forever remain in the backwaters of aeronautics, and import-dependent.
Fifty years of bitter experience should prompt the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to initiate a major paradigm-shift in India’s defence-industrial programmes. The user services must be placed in the driving seat of such projects and duly qualified personnel (civil or military) positioned in management positions. In 2014, it seemed that India’s comatose military-industrial complex would be jolted awake by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s exhortation to ‘Make in India.’
Seven years on, this hope has proved to be vain, but we now hope that, professionally managed, the LCA, ALH, and Kaveri projects will become the torchbearers of the new ‘Atma Nirbharta’ (self-reliance) campaign.