Lockheed F-21, SAAB JAS-39 & Boeing F/A-18 – IAF Veteran Calls For Testing All Jets In India Before Acquisition: OPED

OPED By Gp Cpt TP Srivastava (Retd)

Indian society at large, the government establishment, in particular, has little time to promote constructive dissent. The Indian military establishment (MoD, Service HQs) leadership is the worst offender because they believe “out of box thinking” by subordinates/superiors is injurious to their existence. Unfortunately, the military establishment is not capable of differentiating between constructive dissent, disobedience, and disloyalty.

 First, A Few Facts:

  • In the foreseeable future (at least until 2035), India’s defense industry is unlikely to produce a world-class fighter/transport/multi-utility helicopter, an aircraft carrier (other than air defense ships), force multipliers, viz. midair refuellers, AEW aircraft, world-class armored vehicles, and artillery guns.
  • Notwithstanding the claims made by various agencies, no big-ticket weapon platform is even in the final stages of being used operationally in the next ten years. The idea of a fifth-generation fighter aircraft entering the IAF in a decade is a mirage.
  • Our indigenous production will continue to be marred by bickering between the military/DRDO/HAL and ordnance factories. The ‘User’ military has the least ‘say.’
  • Our military leadership will continue to seek the ‘latest’ technology that it will pick up from glossies published by foreign vendors and will continue to insist on the inclusion of all possible features in a single machine.
  • Even if we can produce a world-class fighter airplane, the production rate will be so low that we will be forced to import to meet our requirements. The question of exports will not arise for the next 30 years.
  • Bureaucracy and the military leadership will continue to mess with induction costs and timeframes, almost entirely due to their unprofessional approach and decision on imaginary timeframes for induction. Cost and time overruns during induction of the INS Vikramaditya, artillery guns, and fighter aircraft are perfect examples of absolute profligacy in matters related to induction.
  • In the prevailing/likely to exist geo-strategic scenario, conventional forces will continue to play a major role in national and internal security matters.
  • Upgrading and extending the life of existing platforms will cost the nation a huge package.
  • We do not manufacture any Precision Guided Munition, Airborne Radars, ECM systems, etc.
  • The military leadership will continue to look at an indigenous product with suspicion, even contempt. Their failure to induct even a first-generation indigenous weapon platform is the biggest impediment to further development/refinement. On the other hand, inefficient and dishonest ordnance factories and military establishments, viz. BRDs will continue to gloat over supposed indigenization, e.g., nuts, bolts, PCBs, hoses, etc.
  • The Indian Navy can be justifiably proud of the fact that indigenous ships of different classes have been manufactured in the country. But when it comes to potent platforms required to project maritime power, viz. aircraft carriers, submarines, etc., it is the same old story.
  • Even before we fought the first war after independence in 1962 (historians count the 1947-48 war against Razakars as the first war), a nascent aviation industry had produced a world-class twin-engine fighter: the HF-24. Instead of continuing to refine and develop more modern machines, the military establishment (read IAF leadership and MoD) opted for the closure of the project. Sworn enemies of the state may not have been able to do as much damage as the ignoramuses of the Indian defense establishment did to the country.

The nation owes a debt to our then decision-makers led by VK Krishna Menon (the much-denounced Defence Minister for the 1962 debacle), outstanding civilian and military designers who produced the HF-24.

Future generations proved to be eminently unsuitable successors. The entire Western world and defense exporters must have uncorked the champagne bottle to celebrate the event.

This single insane decision has ensured that we continue to equip the IAF with imported hardware. The other Services are no better off. We have become the single largest arms exporter in the world and have kept the cash registers of Western powers overflowing for the past more than 50 years. The situation will remain the same for the next 50 years, i.e. at least till 2074.

The situation that we face now is that the Indian Armed Forces will continue to stand in front of the Western nations (in fact, now even in front of Israelis and South Koreans, too) with the proverbial ‘begging bowl’ to keep our operational preparedness in conformity with the existing/likely to exist challenges to national security due to the geostrategic situation.

Acquisition from foreign vendors is the only option. To most people, ‘dependence’ on others is seen as a weakness. Prima facie, it is so, but should we not look at it differently?

The first and fundamental requirement for dependence to be seen as a strength would need an ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking and approach. After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1989 — the Cold War, a catalyst for arms exports the world over — came to an end.

A weapons manufacturers’ nightmare had begun due to a substantial drop in the demand for weapons. All manufacturers, without exception, need a buyer to sustain their industry. Should we not take advantage of this situation by contracting for exports on our terms because the demand from us would work as the ‘oxygen’ to their industry?

Weapon acquisition is a complex process, no doubt, but it is equally true that some of the most complex issues have a very simple solution.

Take the case of the current Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) acquisition process. At the moment, six variants are competing to sell their machines. Should we not ask each one of the manufacturers to position 10 to 12 aircraft in IAF airfields and train our pilots for one year or assign 1000 hours of flying by each type?

On the face of it, this option might appear to be outlandish, but is there any harm in making this stipulation to prospective vendors? In the worst-case scenario, we will receive a negative response, but my sixth sense tells me that a few vendors might agree to this condition, keeping in view that, at present, we are talking about 114 aircraft.

The advantages that will accrue to the IAF will be immense. We would evaluate the machine in our environment and provide the opportunity for even a rookie pilot to fly these machines. After each machine completes the planned task, our decision-makers will have access to well-defined parameters to decide the best ‘buy’, both operationally and financially.

For the doubting Thomases,’ it is unthinkable that a vendor will accept such terms. I dare say that even if a few vendors were to accept our demand, the omnipresent ‘security buffs’ would not approve the proposal on flimsy grounds of foreign pilots flying from our bases for prolonged periods.

I have no doubt that if we were to ask and insist that vendors who are willing to accept this condition will be considered for further process of acquisition.

Lockheed (F-21), Boeing (Super Hornets), and SAAB (JAS-39 Gripen) will almost willingly accept the proposal, perhaps with modifications. But the moot point is: Has the military establishment considered such an option as a viable course of action?

SAAB Gripen
SAAB Gripen

Can we not tell the vendors that our trial criteria will be met only if they are willing to operate their machines in the Indian environment for sustained periods and/or stipulated flying hours? Showcasing these machines during air shows or performing some aerobatic maneuvers cannot be considered operational trials.

We should be looking to acquire weapon platforms that will meet our needs. We have already done something similar in the past. Submarine INS Chakra, for example, operated with the Indian Navy for over two years.

The process and reasoning for the INS Chakra to join the fleet may have been different but the training and evaluation philosophy was the same as proposed earlier. Similar standards should be applicable for the acquisition of Tanks, Artillery Guns, Ships, Radars, etc. We have the opportunity to ‘arm-twist’ the manufacturers, and I am certain they will fall in line.

Russian hardware will continue to grab the lion’s share in the foreseeable future. We are, in fact, in a near-ideal position to demand and get cooperation for inducting LCAs in large numbers. Under no circumstances should the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) program be either slowed or stopped due to new acquisitions.

The IAF must place orders for at least 200 LCAs, if not more. The IAF leadership, present and past, has been inimical to indigenous development and has invariably concentrated on finding deficiencies in the system and trying to compare it with platforms operational elsewhere.

The development of new weapon platforms equipped with modern technology can be accomplished only if we spend adequately on research and development (R&D). The defense establishment is unaware of this elementary fact. Statistics will spill the beans and highlight the apathy with which we have looked at expenditure and budgeting for R&D. We are nearly the largest importer of weapon platforms in the world but barely spend 1% of total global investment in R&D.

Over the years, the gap between revenue expenditure and capital expenditure has reduced. Currently, CE is nearly 45% of the total defense budget. The startling fact is that over the years, the military establishment has failed to utilize the budget allocation repeatedly.

The point of using 3% of GDP as the defense budget is not to merely resonate like a broken record. The military establishment is incapable of spending even 2.4%. The reason lies in the establishment’s lack of knowledge of what it wants, when it wants it, and from where.

The current acquisition program of all three Services holds a few revelations:

  • The Russians raised the spending on the Goroshkov deal.
  • World-class armored vehicles and artillery guns for the Army remain a mirage.
  • The IAF’s fighter induction process, which began in 1996, is still in its early stages. We have inducted 36 Rafales instead of 126.
  • Witness the slippage and cost overruns of the Su-30 MKI induction program.
  • Nobody in the military establishment is ever held responsible for delays or cost overruns to the tune of billions of rupees. Officials merely complete their tenures and go on to yet another green pasture.

The acquisition process must undergo radical organizational changes to improve. Simply publishing newer editions of defense procurement rules will not resolve the issues.

The Following Is Recommended

  • Considering the size of each Service and its requirements, the post of Defence Secretary should be abolished. Instead, posts of Secretary Army, Secretary Navy and Secretary Air Force should be created. The Secretary of the Navy may look after the Coast Guard requirements.
  • As per the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP), the executive body deciding/deliberating over acquisitions is headed by the Defence Secretary. Instead, it should be headed by the respective Service Chiefs, with the Secretary of that Service as the deputy.
  • Accountability criteria must be fixed to ensure that inordinate delays and/or indifferent negotiations are not the order of the day. For example, the cost of the Goroshkov acquisition rose from USD 900 million to USD 2400 million. Who is accountable for such a huge loss? In the present dispensation, no one.

Our military establishment has to wake up to its problems over the years. We must look at our shortcomings in getting the right design, development, and production of big-ticket weapon platforms. We must flex our economic muscle, not defiantly but firmly, because our orders for major platforms act as a lifeline to arms vendors and generate huge profits.

Our dependence on foreign vendors must not be projected as our weakness. While finalizing contracts, we must extract/demand our ‘pound of flesh’ to import top-of-the-line equipment from the vendor. The stark reality is that our bureaucrats are unable to exploit this strength.

Service HQs must be proactive in deciding and freezing the QRs of weapon systems and shift their focus from seeking more ‘star’ vacancies from MoD and inconsequential issues such as the primacy of one service over the other.

The Ministry of Defence’s mere cosmetic changes, viz., renaming Service HQs as Integrated HQs, do not change the outlook, which remains myopic. The only change is additional expenditure on printing new stationery. There has to be a perceptible shift in thinking; time frames have to be pre-decided and adhered to, and clear accountability/responsibility/culpability has to be fixed for every lapse, always and every time. National security is far too serious a matter to be left without any organization accountable to the nation.

  • Gp Cpt TP Srivastava (Retd) is an ex-NDA who flew MiG-21 and 29. He is a qualified flying instructor. He commanded the MiG-21 squadron. He is a directing staff at DSSC Wellington and chief instructor at the College of Air Warfare. 
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