By Cdr KP Sanjeev Kumar (Retd)
Two recent developments in the Indian Air Force (IAF) again brought into sharp focus the ‘indigenous versus import’ conundrum facing the service.
Indigenous LCA Tejas: IAF commissioned the second squadron of indigenous ‘Tejas’ Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) in a glittering, Covid-compatible ceremony at Air Force Station Sulur in southern India on May 27. Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria presided over the ceremony with senior officials from IAF, Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) in attendance. No. 18 squadron, christened “Flying Bullets”, inducted the first four LCA Mk-1 built to Full Operational Clearance (FOC) standards. Another squadron of 16 LCA belonging to 45 Squadron “Flying Daggers” have been operating from the same base since 2016. These aircraft were delivered with Initial Operational Clearance (IOC). That makes it 16 LCA with IOC and four with FOC.
-IAF Chief Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria
Imported Rafale: Two months later, amid a tense standoff along the 3488-km long Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China, the first batch of five Rafale fighters of Indian Air Force (IAF) touched down at Air Force Station Ambala in northern India on July 29. The fighters left Merignac in southern France on Jul 27 with single layover at a French airbase in UAE. On their maiden entry into Indian airspace, they were given a ceremonial welcome by two IAF Su-30 MKIs. For the IAF, this signalled import of a new fighter jet in over two decades (Russian Su-30s were inducted in late 90s). On their first leg between Merignac in southern France and UAE, the boys refuelled with a French Air Force Airbus A330 Multirole Tanker Transport (MRTT) refueler. The skies were clear — sparkling like the crew who, just after their training and few ‘on-type’ hours under the belt, undertook this intercontinental passage with typical fighter pilot panache.
Ambala – a common factor: IAF’s ‘Golden Arrows’ squadron at Ambala is likely to be inaugurated with first lot of operational Rafales latest by September 2020. 36 Rafales will be split between the Golden Arrows and a second squadron at Hasimara in West Bengal. These bases will also house modern training facilities with flight and weapon simulators, mission planning systems and maintenance trainers. In contrast, Sulur-based No. 18 Squadron was first raised at Ambala on April 15, 1965 with the Folland Gnat aircraft and saw action in the 1971 Indo-Pak war. The squadron operated a number of Indian and imported aircraft before it was “number plated” (temporarily retired without assets) in 2016, only to be resurrected with LCA in 2020.
Support from the very top: IAF Chief Bhadauria has been keenly involved in driving both the projects. His support for Tejas goes back to his early stints at IAF’s Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE) and the National Flight Test Centre, both located at Bangalore, where he was involved in developmental trials of LCA. ACM Bhadauria flew a sortie on an LCA from 45 Squadron prior to the induction ceremony of 18 Squadron. The Air Chief paid rich tributes to the history and legacy of the squadron, as well the 30-year efforts by multiple agencies to produce Tejas Mk-1, in his address at the event.
“LCA, in the current form that you are getting, is the best in its class in the lightweight combat aircraft, in the world. Take my word for it,” ACM Bhadauria said in his speech at the ceremony. This is a significant endorsement of product, coming right from top. “Chotu Bhadauria” is an accomplished experimental test pilot who has been involved with the LCA programme for many years in various capacities. He chooses his words carefully, straddling a difficult space between flight testing, national agenda, budget realities, and international pressure. China has been flexing muscle on several fronts, of late. An indigenous LCA or the imported Rafale may well have to defend the Indo-China Line of Actual Control (LAC) soon.
“We are proud to deliver a much lethal aircraft than the IOC block. Apart from all the capabilities of IOC aircraft, the FOC variant additionally comes with Air-to-Air refuelling capability, close combat gun, additional drop tanks, BVR missile capability, updated avionics and flight control software suite”, R Madhavan, CMD, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd said during the LCA inaugural.
More orders for the LCA: On March 18, 2020, MoD cleared the decks for a US$5.2 billion deal for 83 LCA in Mk-1A configuration. This is in addition to orders for 40 LCAs in the Mk-1 configuration that will eventually be shared between 18 Sqn and 45 Squadron. “Four more FOC-LCAs are in the advanced stages of production and testing and expected to join the Squadron soon”, a HAL press note stated. As per reports, HAL expects the first LCA Mk-1A flight by 2022, series production within a year of that, and a sustained production rate of 16 aircraft per year to meet IAF’s timelines. LCA Mk-1A is expected to feature upgraded sensors, including AESA radar, self-protection suite, improved BVR and close combat missiles, and improved maintainability. One hopes these best-laid plans are not held hostage to the “Christmas Tree” syndrome that often delay indigenous platforms because key indigenous sensors or weapon systems are not ready.
Deadlines must be kept: The promised delivery rates of LCA are rather inconsistent with past records. HAL will have to substantially ramp-up production to meet the commitment. They must be held to account by the IAF. Days of unsubstantiated promises must end if India wants to become fair competition in a market dominated by established players like Dassault Aviation, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, etc. Nobody knows it better than ACM Bhadauria himself. ‘Flying Daggers’ & ‘Flying Bullets’ will soon (if not already) face the great Indian ‘cloak & dagger’ and ‘over-promise, under-deliver’ approaches in the face of unprecedented challenges. Their voice must prevail. I wish them the best. This is our only slender chance against unimaginable odds.
More Rafales with weaponry on the anvil: The over 7000-km ferry of first batch of Rafales with air-to-air refuelling support indicates a level of readiness and proficiency consonant with the MoD statement. Key weapons for these fighters have already arrived in India. It is learnt that initial consignments of MBDA ‘Scalp’ cruise missiles and ‘Meteor’ beyond visual range air-to-air missiles (BVRAAM) for the Rafale are already in IAF kitty. The Rafales are also planned to be equipped with Indian BrahMos NG supersonic cruise missile and indigenous Astra BVRAAM (first tested and qualified on IAF’s Su-30 MKI). When all this comes together, it will give IAF a unique stand-off capability sorely missing from the last skirmish with PAF in February 2019.
It is learnt that the IAF has also exercised emergency procurement powers vested by a recent government order to acquire Sagem’s HAMMER stand-off air to ground weaponry for the Rafale. The IAF had looked at HAMMER as part of Rafale’s weapons package initially, but opted for in-country integration of Israeli SPICE system at a later date – reportedly from cost considerations. The tense situation at the LAC with China may likely have forced IAF’s hand. The HAMMER gives IAF a readily available solution to strike bunkers or hardened shelters in any type of terrain, including the mountainous Ladakh region where Indian and Chinese forces are currently facing-off. When delivery of all 36 Rafales are complete, a new normal could well be established in the sub-continent. India will be a step closer to reaching the required strength of 42 squadrons for the IAF. A long road lies ahead.
Future is a mixed bag: IAF’s future plans include 36 Rafales via import, the Medium Weight Fighter (MWF) that ‘could be’ Tejas Mk-2 with more powerful F414-GE-INS6 engine, a fifth-generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) and another 100-plus fighters – all of which are needed to field 42 squadrons where the IAF has just 30. The 123 LCAs will likely form the indigenous backbone while a host of foreign manufacturers vie for a slice of the pie. Latest announcements calling for increased “atma nirbharta” (self-reliance) adds hope to domestic industry while diminishing chances of large-scale imports.
One thing is certain. The LCA and its variants will likely remain the mainstay for the future. This has been welcomed by many veterans who were involved with the programme. Former IAF test pilot Gp Capt (Retd) Suneet “Soggy” Krishna who flew hundreds of developmental sorties on the LCA before hanging his g-suit had this to say about the LCA:
“Extremely proud to see the IAF showing confidence in Tejas and the new-generation fighter pilots happy with the aircraft performance and pilot-aircraft interfaces. It’s been a long journey from first flight to production and required great amount of resilience, determination, synergy and patience from every stakeholder. Only those who have been part of this journey know how complex and difficult modern combat aircraft design, development, certification and production is. Every time a Tejas takes off, every Indian should feel the thunder in their hearts.”
Coming from a former Mirage 2000 pilot, that’s saying a lot. We will keenly watch and await what the two squadrons of LCA have to say in the coming years. ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ in aeronautical product development is not unusual. Often, we tend to get blindsided to capability gaps in the long march to achieve self-reliance. Indigenous programmes are replete with newer and fancier acronyms, ambitious targets and unrealistic timelines even as technology leapfrogs antiquated programme management systems of DPSUs and OFBs. Without disruptive thinking, firm leadership and resolute action, slow moving state-sponsored entities will increasingly find Indian defence customers difficult to satisfy.
Keep aspirations realistic and timebound: India’s first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Gen Bipin Rawat recently advocated a “realistic” approach to framing SQRs. To tweak an old proverb, the Rafale, like Rome, wasn’t built in a day. In India, we take years to finalise SQRs, grant orders to monopolistic regimes by nomination, and run each local or imported product through the paces believing we have the luxury of time. Recent experience along the LAC should inform us that expecting armed forces to fight with “what we have” or “throw out the aggressor” without getting own house in order will not be without its costs.
It remains to be seen how much the Rafales, Fighting Falcons, Super Hornets, Gripens, or others in fray, will succeed in stealing some of this “thunder” in India. Our small bird has big plans. Indian Navy is also reportedly invested in such plans (TEDBF or LCA Mk-2). All eyes for now are on the IAF, Indian Navy and the CDS for blending, or untangling, the collective requirements for the future MRCA. Nobody wants a repeat of the MMRCA that consumed over a decade and burnt million-dollar holes in many pockets before turning damp squib. “It all depends how the services write specifications and make limited monies work efficiently,” a senior IAF official told this author. The prudence of spreading meagre resources over a number of indigenous and foreign platforms with comparable goals has also been questioned by some observers.
Indigenous versus import Conundrum will continue: For now, arrival of first five Rafales displays the contrast at many levels between India’s peculiar import-heavy situation and ‘atmanirbharta‘ aspiration. Young IAF air warriors, just out of type training overseas, inducting a new foreign jet after two decades, streaking across continents, sipping fuel enroute from a French tanker loaded with Covid-19 equipment ‘gifted’ by France to India, entering Indian airspace with a bang, escorted by two Russian-origin Su-30MKIs, while an indigenous naval warship (D 63) stood vanguard below — all this amid a global pandemic and an increasingly bipolar and belligerent world. This is surely something to cheer about. It will be wonderful if we can have the next batch ushered in by our own beauty – LCA Tejas!
Here’s wishing good luck and Godspeed to the Flying Daggers, Flying Bullets and Golden Arrows! While we celebrate the arrival of the Rafales, let us not forget that the best aircraft is the one made in own country! But we should hold the twain to the same exacting standards and not give an inch. Because the enemy won’t.
-The writer is a former navy test pilot and his blog site is www.kaypius.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda