Despite the still dubious experience in developing its own weapons systems, India should march ahead with developing indigenous systems and exporting them.
The light combat aircraft program (LCA) is 15 years behind its original plans. However, according to the various governments that came in, the project was non-negotiable. Our experience shows that foreign companies are reluctant to part with critical technologies. There are delays in delivering necessary spare parts and an exorbitant price rise. Equipment maintenance also shows that we cannot constantly depend on foreign suppliers and platforms.
The Tejas project was set up in India in 1983 as successors to the British Folland Gnats fighters in the Indian Air Force (IAF) service. Called Ajeet fighters in the IAF, the Gnats proved to be nimble fighters and slayed the North American F-86 Sabre and F-104 Starfighters in air combat during the 1971 war with Pakistan. While the concept has not changed yet, the LCA project began when Gnats were already on their way out and by the time Soviet MiG-21 fighters filled the IAF fleet. As a result, LCA was tasked with entering service to replace the Mig-21s. However, the LCA project and the plans to replace the Mig-21 have dragged on. LCAs are on their way in, and Mig-21s are on their way out. The intended goal will be met after the Mig-21s are phased out by 2025, and LCA squadrons are replacing them.
Another important aspect of the LCA project was to build an aircraft industry in India. This objective is also achieved as the spin-offs of the LCA project infrastructure have resulted in many projects, including the fifth generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).
If all the three objectives, a fighter like Gnat, replacement of Mig-21 and aircraft industry development, have been met, then what is the criticism about?
Of course, one can say that the Kaveri engine is a failure and the indigenisation percentage is also not achieved. This is a valid criticism, and there are hits and misses in the project. But, the Kaveri engine is finding other uses, and the critical avionics, including the Uttam AESA radar, is close to achieving. A new generation engine project is being discussed with foreign manufacturers, and India is discussing closing the technology gap instead of commissioning a foreign company to supply the complete engine.
Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) produces the LCA, and the company is also under criticism for its delays in delivering the fighter plane. While HAL is ultimately responsible for the fighter’s manufacture, the IAF has not been a proactive client. IAF dithered to induct LCA a decade back when it was clear it had already surpassed the Mig-21 capability. Constant criticism is that the Mig-21s are falling like flies, and the HAL does not deliver them. The question is if IAF has ordered them at all. Now since the IAF has ordered it, each LCA being built has a difference from its previous model. The design cannot be frozen unless the LCA Mk-1A has been frozen. Even if LCA Mk-1A is delivered, it is scheduled to have a replacement of parts which are import substitutes. Some of the LCA Mk-1 ordered are not being delivered as it lacks the radar which Israel is supposed to supply and is delayed due to the pandemic induced breaking of supply chains. Why don’t we see criticism of Elbit? Did the pandemic hit Elbit alone? I am leaving out criticism of HAL as others have been successfully doing it, and I need not repeat it.
The HAL and LCA project has progressed. So has the criticisms. The criticism has moved from whether LCA can be made to if HAL will deliver LCA and, finally, if HAL can export LCA. Recently the Minister of State for Defence (MoS Defence) said that LCA has been either pitched to or has interests from foreign countries, including Argentina, Australia, Egypt, the USA, Indonesia, and the Philippines. LCA falls in the category of defence products that take a long time to materialise. The decision is not strictly taken n the merits of the aircraft but on the political climate too. The sale of LCA will not just depend on the merits of the HALs pitch alone but also on the government of the day to back it up. Selling weaponry has geopolitical implications that HAL, as a manufacturing firm, cannot address on its own. Even if the US and Russia have vacated the light fighter aircraft space, they supply components to the rivals of LCA in a more significant percentage than what they sell for LCA. Especially in the United States, corporations can influence their government to lobby for certain manufacturers in other countries.
HAL is one of the world’s oldest and largest aerospace and defence firms in the world. But it does not have a Chairman as of today. The last one it had retired on July 31. Is it HAL’s mistake or the government’s mistake? We do not know. Till then, the finance head is doubling as the Chairman. The finance head is a good person, and I have only regard for him. But a part time Chairman is disastrous for the company at this critical juncture. Hope a Chairman is appointed and HAL gets on with its good work.