THE CAMEL AND THE TENT

A recent article in The Economic Times stated “Air Force RFI surprises everyone” and went on to postulate that a RFI issued by the Indian Air Force projects the requirement for a single-engine light to medium multi-role fighter. As a consequence of this RFI, a rather grim conclusion stares one in the face – “Does this ring the death knell for the LCA?” The conclusion is certainly frightening for the government institutions that form up the consortium involved in the “making” of the LCA and it takes on greater import because for years the PSUs have ruled the roost in providing military hardware to the Indian armed forces and virtually monopolised the business.

Development of an aviation industry, replete with state-of-the-art technology, is no mean matter. There are very few countries who have created the wherewithal for an aviation industry and followed up with international recognition. Aviation found instant acceptance in India. Established in 1940 as a private ltd company with Walchand- Tulsidas-Khatau Ltd as the managing agency and encouraged hugely by the then Maharaja of Mysore, HH Jayacha marajendra Wadiyar, the Hindustan Aircraft Company proved to be a mainstay for repair and overhaul of Allied aircraft operating in the Eastern theatre during World War II. Taken under the wings of the Govt of India in 1947 and renamed Hindustan Aeronautics Limited in 1964, military aviation in India relied heavily on HAL over the years. While the renowned Dr Kurt Tank and his team of18 engineers provided the fillip to our aircraft industry by producing the HF-24 Marut, a contemporary, state-of-the-art fighter-bomber, it unfortunately met its fateful end, a victim of the sanctions placed on India after its first experiment with a nuclear device, which disallowed any progress in further improvement and development.

But the leap-frog into the higher echelons of the aviation fraternity did not pay the dividends one expected. In typical Indian fashion we sat back on our laurels, applauded and patted our own backs and expected the aircraft industry to take off on its own. Sometimes I wonder what happened to the people who worked with or assisted Dr Kurt Tank and his team in the making of the HF-24? Did they harness the knowledge and the technology that went into the creation of the aircraft? 20 years after the HF-24, the HAL once again steeled itself to manufacture a state-of-the-art fighter as the IAF foresaw the draw-down of its enormous MiG-21 fleet in the next 20 yrs. But there was no one of the calibre of the redoubtable Dr Kurt Tank. Bogged down by bureaucratic ankle chains and an insensitive political platform, three decades later the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) is yet to see the light of day in its operational avatar. While it is understandable that manufacturing a high-tech modern fighter aircraft is not an easy task, somehow 30 yrs of production with unconvincing results and nobody held accountable, does not hold much water in the public domain. The resulting compromise in the operational status of the fighter squadrons has led to some introspection and some definitive corrective action to “stem the rot”.

The decision of the govt to procure 36 Rafale jets “off the shelf” put paid to the languishing RFP for 126 MMRCA which never fructified in over a decade. But thevoid remains and in fact widens as the draw-down of the fighter squadrons of the IAF continues unabated. The Modi govt introduced, as the old story goes, the camel into the tent. In other words, private enterprise was given permission to enter the defence market, hitherto a kingdom ruled by the PSUs. The PM’s thrust towards “Make in India” provided further impetus in growth of this sector. While the steep demand in quality and specifications, not to mention the uncompromising Quality Assurance demanded of military hardware, could not immediately be addressed by the private players, Joint Ventures (JVs) and offset partnerships are helping provide the transfer of technology and the financial backing.

Notwithstanding its acceptance by the IAF, the LCA still presents a bleak picture for the IAF. It is no wonder that the vultures in the background are eyeing the hobbling project to pounce on the opportunity to promote their own product as a more viable and costeffective option. Lockheed Martin with its F-16, Boeing with its F-18 and Saab with its Gripen JAS-39 are furtively knocking on the doors, offering tempting propositions to not only meet time lines to stem the draw-down but also offer to “make in India”. Lucrative private JVs are in the offing and HAL has been told to join the competition. Private players are now getting deeply ensconced in the defence industry. The camel is increasingly occupying the tent. It is a welcome guest.

An alumnus of NDA and DSSC, Air Mshl Sumit Mukerji has served the IAF as a fighter pilot with distinction He has commanded three units, a MiG-29 Sqn, a MiG-25 SR Sqn and TACDE (considered the ‘Top Gun’ school of the IAF) and also served as the Air Attaché in Washington DC. He retired in 2011 as the AOC-in-C of Southern Air Command.

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