In the ongoing perennially profitable game of supplying arms to India, foreign vendors follow certain invariable procedures, in cahoots with the three armed services (with air force in the van followed by army — the navy is more selective!) to maximise their take and ensure a competitive Indian defence industry simply doesn’t grow (detailed in my 2002, 2nd ed 2005 tome — ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy’):
• The QRs (qualitative requirements) of items are put up by the individual Services (and are usually collations of best features picked from foreign arms brochures, etc).
• The vendors scrutinise the QRs and offer lesser technology item in the genre.
• DRDO offers to mount an indigenous effort to produce it. • MOD tasks DRDO.
• Depending on if it is a platform (such as Tejas), the concerned service keeps modifying the QRs thereby delaying the agreed upon time lines and screwing up the cost estimate.
• The services pounce on the delays caused by their repeatedly changing/”updating” QRs to demand import of items to meet “urgent need”. • Should a tech development program somehow get going and succeed in reaching the designated QR level, the vendors who were previously unwilling to part with the high technology now suddenly realise they actually can deliver it, immediately!
• The concerned service sides with the foreign vendors and the indigenous project — absent MOD benevolent intervention, which is the norm — spirals into peril. Case in point: DRDO’s UTTAM Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar project has achieved fruition, developed within good timeframe a proficient AESA for fitment on combat planes, including Tejas for instant performance upgrade. AESA radar permits the aircraft to switch missions mid-flight from ground attack to air-to-air and back. With UTTAM AESA radar on the point of availability to IAF, the Israeli company ELTA that was developing an AESA radar with the US-supplied 2032 computer because the US had earlier denied the superior 2052 computer for Indian use does an instant turnaround and informs IAF/HAL/MOD it can now produce the higher performance 2052 based AESA. So, MOD/GOI has to decide whether to go with the all-Indian UTTAM, or do the predictable, opt for the Elta 2052 AESA — favoured by, who else, IAF. This decision is pending. Any bets which way Parrikar will go — buy, buy 2052 AESA and bye, bye UTTAM, or UTTAM and bye, bye Elta?
If past/present is future, UTTAM will be dumped.
Another such but slightly different, decision may soon be on MOD’s table. It involves the jet power plant for Tejas. The original General Electric F-404 capable of 80-85 KiloNewtons of thrust equipping Tejas is to be replaced by the GE 414-INS6 engine capable of 98KN or 22,000 lbs of thrust, turbofan, with afterburner. This was an indent for the navalversion. IAF, always the laggard, fetched up later to demand the same engine. In 2010, India contracted to buy 99 of the 414s for the Tejas Mk-2 program, with the delivery begun in 2013. With the total requirement of 500- 600 engines for the Tejas (with each 414 engine estimated to pull 3,000 hours of flying, and 3.5 engines for the lifetime of each aircraft), HAL is seeking to license produce them in Bangalore, in its wellhoned SKD-CKD assembly mode that guarantees HAL continues to learn nothing about ingesting and innovating technology, and even less about designing and making aircraft engines.
The incorrigible IAF, meanwhile, reconsidered the up-powered engine for the Tejas, and decided that because the heavier S6 power plant would require a heavier rear fuselage and hence a redesigned Tejas, it was in too much of a hurry and couldn’t wait for this modification to be engineered into Tejas. So, could it have 44 more Rafales (beyond the 36 of these French items PM Modi so kindly, and w/o much forethought, approved for purchase) please!
Russia, after being disappointed with India turning down offer to coproduce the FGFA Su-PAF FA engine, is now offering to collaborate with the GTRE (with experience of designing and developing the indigenous Kaveri engine for Tejas that attained 81KN on its testbed before it was abruptly ended) HOW CHOICES GET MADE: Develop Indigenous Vs. License Produce Bharat Karnad OPINION to design and develop an engine exactly to fit the redesigned Tejas Mk-2 to accommodate the larger 414 engine to meet the heightened performance standard of the GE 414 EPE (enhanced performance engine) able to produce 26,400 tons or 120 KN of thrust and a 11:1 thrust-weight ratio. Incidentally, the 414 EPE is powering the Super Hornet F-18 and the advanced Gripen the US and Sweden respectively are offering India should it ditch the French Rafale. Thus, up-powered Tejas would be an extraordinary all-INDIAN combat aircraft. In fact, the imported old 414s (in the 99 unit lot) could exclusively equip the export version of the LCA for which many countries are already lining up as potential customers, among them Sri Lanka and Egypt (both friendly states dropped their interestin the Chinese-Pakistani JF-17 Thunderbird after their representatives saw the Tejas put on a show in Bahrain a few months back). Neighbours and friendly states such as Vietnam, Philippines, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and states in Africa will not need much persuasion to buy it.
So the GE 414 EPE equivalent is what Russia is offering to design and build from scratch in India at GTRE, and get Indian jet engine designers and engineers in on its development from the start. The choice is then between a Russian-assisted Indian advanced engine or HAL license-manufacturing an American engine that is already 25 years old. Russian-assisted projects — Arihant SSBN, for instance, have not turned out badly, have they? It would be preferable to GE even permitting HAL to screwdriver the EPE, which is the likely offer the American company will make to counter the Russian proposal. Because, insofar as one is able to confirm, the combat aircraft engine parameters the US has offered to codevelop with India (one of the projects on DTTI’s “doable” list the recently visiting US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter mulled over with the Defence Minister Parrikar), are below the 414 EPE level.
Bharat Karnad is Professor of National Security Studies, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, India. One of the foremost national security strategists of India, he has been a member of the National Security Advisory Board, The Nuclear Doctrine Drafting Group, and Advisor, Defence Expenditure, (10th) Finance Commission, India. Author of India’s Rise and Why India is not a Great Power (Yet), Mr Karnad lectures widely in India and abroad, and has been involved in Track-II dialogues with the United States, China, Taiwan, Pakistan, and Israel