India’s Fighter Aircraft Conundrum: Between Policy and Strategy

Given the emerging geopolitical alignments and the strained relations with China and Pakistan and enhanced two-front security threats, the tense situation is unlikely to improve in the foreseeable future. As the role of airpower will be central to any future conflict, the Indian government needs to evolve a well-crafted strategy, with a long-term vision, and shift its gear with bold and impactful decisions to address its fighter aircraft requirements in the context of national security and the Atmanirbhar policy

Indian Air Force

By Air Marshal M Matheswaran (Retd)

The AMCA 5th Gen Fighter aircraft

With the final batch of Rafale aircraft scheduled to reach India later this year, the IAF would have its full two squadrons of Rafales complete. While they add significant strength to the IAF’s operational capability, the service is still way short of its optimum strength. The current strength of the IAF is at a low of 30 squadrons against the authorised strength of 42 squadrons. The new order for 83 Tejas Mk 1A will take 7-8 years under the most optimal conditions. The pending MMRCA that has been rechristened as MRFA is still in the starting blocks and may fall victim to the adverse impact of the pandemic on the economy. Nevertheless, the Indian government needs to evolve a well-crafted strategy, with a long-term vision, to address its fighter aircraft requirements in the context of national security policy and Atmanirbhar policy.

Indigenous Fighter Aircraft Industry: Some Lessons from the Adversary

India-China relations continue to remain tense since the Galwan clash last year and are unlikely to improve in the foreseeable future. China is India’s major adversary along with Pakistan. Given the strained relations and the emerging geopolitical alignments, the conflict between India and China is more likely than before. And collusion between Pakistan and China is very possible. The role of airpower will be central to any future conflict. PRC has been devoting massive resources to enhance the capabilities of PLAAF and PLAN, as also PLASSF. China already possesses nearly 900 4th and 4.5 generation aircraft, along with small numbers of 5th generation aircraft whose production rates are now increasing. These are the J-10 series, J-11 series, J-16, Su-27, Su-30 MKK, Su-35, and J-20. Other than Su-35 all are indigenously produced, inclusive of their sensors, weapons, and in some cases engines. The state of the aircraft industry in India and China till the 1970s was similar. Today there is no comparison. It would be interesting to examine where we have missed apart from obvious reasons of lesser funding and poor management of programs.

The successful completion of the LCA-Tejas program, despite its long duration of development, has energized the Indian aerospace community

The successful completion of the LCA-Tejas program, despite its long duration of development, has energized the Indian aerospace community. Invigorated by this achievement, both HAL and ADA are into the next versions and projects – Tejas Mk 1 A and Tejas Mk 2 for the IAF, and TEDBF (Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter) for the Navy, and the 5th generation AMCA (Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft) project. Given the past track record, these programs are likely to go beyond 2030. In the meantime, the IAF will continue to be seriously short in its force levels while the PLAAF will be largely 4.5 and 5th generation aircraft force. More importantly, it will have its long-range stealth bomber H-20 fully operational in significant numbers, and its operational and expeditionary capabilities will be beefed up by 300-400 numbers of its Y-20 (similar to C-17) variants from strategic airlift to FRA and AWACS. Pakistan is another factor that adds to the complexity.

How did the Chinese aircraft industry accelerate so fast in its capabilities? The answer lies essentially in competition, research, and accountability. Of course, investment in critical areas for rapid growth is equally important. Let us examine in more detail.

Creating Competitive Environment

India’s aircraft manufacturing is exclusive with HAL, and this is in the public sector for obvious reasons of its high capital investment required and its strategic nature. Various divisions have been created under HAL corporate umbrella. The result is a monopoly situation that lacks the benefits of competitive industries, particularly where design and development are involved. In the aircraft industry domain, design bureau and manufacturer should be coupled to create competitive passion. Examples would illustrate this better.

The J-10 develop-ment is illustrative. Three design houses – Shenyang, Hongdu, and Chengdu – competed with their designs from 1981 to 1984. Chengdu design, which looks very much like the Israeli Lavi, was selected in 1984. It became the J-10 and entered service in 2002

The most well-known competition is the one related to the F-16 development. Northrop prototype YF-17 competed against General Dynamics YF-16 for the USAF’s LWF (Light Weight Fighter) program in 1974. YF-16 was selected and resulted in the F-16 fighter for the USAF. YF-17 was chosen by the US Navy and went on to become the F-18. Similarly, the F-22 was the result of the competitive play-off between the prototypes of Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin.

In the Russian industry, design houses are funded by the sales of successful designs. Russia’s FGFA, the Su-57 originally known as PAK-FA was also the result of a competitive process. In the mid-1990s the Russian Air Force initiated the requirement for an advanced fighter. In 1997-98 two competing design prototypes were evaluated – the Mikoyan 1.42 and the Sukhoi PAK-FA. Although the Russian Air Force preferred the Mikoyan 1.42 design, the Russian government forced the PAKFA on the Air Force. The reason was financial. In the 1990s Russia was in serious financial condition. Industries needed government support to survive. Mikoyan was in a state of financial insolvency. Sukhoi, on the other hand, was becoming very profitable thanks to its Su-30 contract with India and the Su-27 contract with China, both of which were signed in 1996. The Russian government safely backed Sukhoi. But the essence is about the competitive process. The Mikoyan is back in play and the Russian aircraft industry is booming.

The Sukhoi Su-57 5th-generation multirole fighter

China follows a similar model. The J-10 development is illustrative. Three design houses – Shenyang, Hongdu, and Chengdu – competed with their designs from 1981 to 1984. Chengdu design, which looks very much like the Israeli Lavi was selected in 1984. It became the J-10 and entered service in 2002. Each of the design houses is coupled to the manufacturing unit. A total of 468 J-10 aircraft have been produced in all variants from 2002 to 2020.

Indian Aircraft Industry and the Design House Concept: Time to create synergy and Competition

A competitive process will also strengthen the export culture, raise the quality benchmark, and bring in accountability and efficiency. Atmanirbhar will remain a mere slogan if radical changes are not adopted. Additionally, such structural changes in a capital-intensive sector like the defence aircraft industry needs huge investments. India has always been guilty of slow and incremental investments, which creates slow death

India is now at the crossroads of deciding the right strategy for its aircraft industry. The IAF’s requirement of 114 MRFA is long overdue. If one goes by the past statements of various Chiefs, the requirement in the MMRCA category has ballooned to 400 or more. Whatever it is, the 114 MRFA is an opportunity for restructuring the Indian fighter aircraft industry. The various factors that demand restructuring decision are as follows:

• HAL is a monolith. It needs to be restructured to create two competitive design and manufacturing entities.
• While both can remain as PSUs, private investment and management must be brought in to create efficiency and competitive culture. Government interference should be removed.
• Design houses should be integral to the industry. ADA need to be part of HAL.
• To accelerate the AMCA program, foreign partnership with risk-sharing investment in the project is necessary. Consultancy is a waste of time and money.
• IAF’s 114 MRFA acquisition winner should be linked to the above AMCA requirement.

In the context of the above, the following restructuring strategy will pay rich dividends:

• Bangalore Division should be focused on the manufacture of the Tejas and its derivatives, including the TEDBF.
• ADA as the design house should be coupled to the Bangalore Division.
• HAL Nasik Division should be separated as an independent fighter aircraft industry. Private investment is a must.
• It should have its own coupled design bureau. Its small design element will need to be strengthened by transferring the AMCA design team that can be expanded with new recruitments.
• The 114 MRFA project should be done at Nasik. This would enable its linkage to the AMCA.

The government must fund Nasik to have its complete infrastructure for design and development. Simply put, ADA must be replicated at Nasik. It is worth studying the Chinese model and adopt it with suitable changes.

A competitive process will also strengthen the export culture, raise the quality benchmark, and bring in accountability and efficiency. Atmanirbhar will remain a mere slogan if radical changes are not adopted. Additionally, such structural changes in a capital-intensive sector like the defence aircraft industry needs huge investments. India has always been guilty of slow and incremental investments, which creates slow death. It’s time to shift gears and take bold decisions in this area. To paraphrase a common idiom – “if you pay peanuts, you will get monkeys” is as relevant to the state of India’s aircraft industry today.

–The writer is a former Deputy Chief of Integrated Staff at IDS. He is now the President of The Peninsula Foundation at Chennai. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda

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