A modern combat aircraft is a demanding design, development and management challenge on whose success or failure rests not only the future of the organization developing it, but also the operational potential of the sponsoring air forces. Not surprisingly, aerospace industries by and large prefer to keep away from the public gaze till completion of the task. Observers of the Indian aeronautical scene are by now accustomed to periodic publicity blitzes concerning the light-combat aircraft. The ceremonial roll-out in 1995, engine start in 1998, first flight of the technology demonstrator in 2001, brief fly-pasts during Aero India shows of 2001 and 2003 and the latest christening of the aircraft as Tejas, are some occasions that come to mind.
As milestones in the development of modern combat aircraft therefore go, the recent christening was no more than symbolic. Coming from the hands of the prime minister, however, observers were eagerly anticipating much more than symbolism, particularly as the geo-political, security and economic environment at home and abroad have undergone a sea change since the LCA was first conceived two decades ago. Today Indian aerospace in particular and the defence industry in general find themselves at a historic crossroads. Whether the Indian aerospace industry becomes a key player in the burgeoning and fiercely international aerospace market or continues to play a peripheral role depends largely on the strategic importance Indian security-planners place on this vast human and infrastructural asset.
The birth of the LCA programme was the coming together of two parallel interests. One was the Indian air force’s desire for an indigenous replacement to its vast fleet of Mig-21 aircraft, which were to commence a progressive phase-out from the mid-Nineties. The second was the desire of the scientific community to integrate efforts towards a prestigious aircraft programme; peeved as it was at the scuttling by vested interests of the aerospace group’s proposal to set up an integrated management system for the development of missiles and aeronautics. Today, while both objectives still remain somewhat distant, much knowledge and experience have been gained and a last window of opportunity to make amends may not last much longer.
While it is to the credit of security-planners of the time that they displayed vision in sanctioning the project, the complexity and management challenges that a programme of this magnitude would entail were not fully appreciated. The project was to be overseen by a society through tiered committees; a model of management not attempted anywhere else in the aeronautical world. In the event, the programme came to be controlled solely by the defence research and development organization, a department in the ministry of defence, and neither tasked nor equipped to handle such a programme.
It needs no corporate guru to tell us that such projects need dynamic and result-oriented management models based on decentralization and accountability as against staid bureaucratic control, which is the very opposite. The tremendous achievement of our designers and engineers in reaching even the present milestone, therefore, is all the more praiseworthy when one considers this management infirmity. Ironically, once the programme got under way, the spirit of an integrated management system that the aerospace group had visualized seems to have evaporated under the very stewardship of the community that had sponsored the idea.
While there is much to celebrate now that two technology demonstrator aircraft are flying, the euphoria must be tempered. It’s still a long haul to a stage when an operational weapon system will be in the hands of our frontline IAF squadrons. If this can happen by 2015, we should pat ourselves on the back. Those who talk of a few years are deluding themselves and the nation. Indeed, if our security-planners desire this Herculean objective to be achieved, then there are urgent lessons to be learnt. It is in this context that the defence minister’s statement during the christening ceremony that the government “will set up a separate department to ensure that no further hurdles come in the way of manufacturing Tejas” is disappointing and appears self-defeating.
So far the programme has been controlled solely by departments within the ministry of defence and hurdles that the minister talks of are both systemic and endemic. They cannot be wished away. Creation of yet another department will entail another centre of authority without consequential accountability, and problems will merely multiply.
Unless our planners recognize that the design and development of a modern combat aircraft need not just technical talent but also a host of allied specializations which contribute to efficient project management, and that freeing such projects from our bureaucratic style of working is a prerequisite for success, the LCA programme may continue to limp to oblivion. Along the way, there will be plenty of photo opportunities for cutting ribbons and public relations pronouncements just to keep the adrenalin flowing and egos on a high. It is precisely because we have attempted a flawed management model that the LCA programme has failed to achieve its potential. If we still chose to press on regardless, then we are missing the last chance for aeronautics in India.
Much has changed in the international arena from the time the LCA project was first conceived. While there are denial regimes by industrial nations towards specific strategic systems, today many of these countries also consider India as a strategic ally. Globalization of the economy introduces its own dynamics and opportunities. The erstwhile Soviet industry on which the IAF was almost totally dependent has downsized and reorganized to meet challenges of the international marketplace. Their aircraft are internationally priced and even fitted with Western systems of customer’s choice, but no more are they available at “friendship prices”. The age-old buyer-seller relationship is now graduating towards joint programmes, of which the prime minister mentioned the Brahmos. Today, the government has invited the private sector to be partners in defence production and there is an enthusiastic response.
On the other hand, the development and production of modern high-technology weapon systems, more so combat aircraft, is a hugely capital-intensive exercise which straddles security, economic, diplomatic, commercial, trade and other vital national interests. It must therefore fit into the larger national strategic canvas. Press reports talk of joint development of a fifth-generation fighter with Russians. One wonders whether such a major programme fits into any strategic aerospace or security plan of the nation or indeed if such plans exists in the first place.
Amortization of design costs and economies of scale for production demand international collaborations and partnerships not only by aerospace industries across countries but also by user air forces as well. As aero India shows demonstrate, aerospace industries of many countries would like to forge partnerships and joint ventures with Indian aerospace. One recognizes that such interest is by no means charitable, but based on the hard commercial realization that partnership with Indian aerospace and defence can lead to mutually beneficial ventures. These are issues that need deliberation and direction at the apex security level.
While slogans of self-reliance hold good for specific strategic weapons and systems, some of which are covered by denial regimes, our effort in the past at blindly trumpeting self-reliance has merely meant licence production and using imported systems in indigenous platforms. Overseas dependence has remained. Production of the Mig-21 aircraft from raw materials in India was hailed as a beacon of self-reliance. Yet when the Soviet Union collapsed, the IAF product support dried up. This example alone must drive home the reality of a modern aerospace industry.
Today aircraft manufacture is a multi-dimensional venture. Manufacturers source engines and systems from across the world. Even the Russians have adopted this practice and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited regularly provides components to international programmes like the Airbus. The secret is to blend the best from possible sources into a superior and competitive aircraft. The Indian aerospace industry has many areas of strength, but a desire to be macho and do everything on one’s own is not the answer.
What concerns students of security and aeronautics in this country is the absence of a clearly defined vision for aerospace in our national strategic consciousness. Alongside atomic energy and space, aerospace is one area that involves application of latest technology and its technological and economic spin-offs for the rest of the economy are substantial. It is also an area where India has considerable expertise and infrastructure built at great public cost. If the nation is serious about capitalizing on this vast potential, the answer does not lie in more government control.
On the contrary, a broad based, permanent and accountable aerospace board with executive and financial authority should be tasked to deliver on a national aerospace plan and to put Indian aerospace on the world-map. International recognition will then deservedly follow without the oxygen of frequent public relations exercises.