Friday, January 14, 2011

The LCA is but a shallow achievement

The good news is that, though it has taken an unconscionable twenty six years, the Light Combat Aircraft has got its initial operational clearance. Hopefully by 2012, it will enter squadron service. We now have a platform that we have developed with considerable difficulty, and through which we have gained extensive new facilities located in the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd and the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA). These can be exploited to further advance Indian military aviation industry.
The bad news is that both the HAL and ADA are the same old organisations that have given us what one expert has termed as a “stunted” design, not particularly well suited for further exploitation. As it is, the Indian Air Force probably does not know what to do with it. Air Chief Marshal P.V. Naik’s left handed compliment described it as “a Mig 21 plus plus”.
Considering that the Mig-21 joined service in the mid-1960s, that does not quite look like a resounding vote of confidence.
Image: Rahuldevnath

After all, for an Air Force that flies aircraft like the Sukhoi 30 MKI, is in the market for a medium multirole fighter aircraft (MMRCA) and dreams of soon acquiring a fifth generation fighter, the LCA is a poor relative that must be kept far from sight and “out of harm’s way.” So it will be based at Sulur, near Coimbatore. 
 The LCA is likely to be a kind of discontinuity— just like the HF-24— in Indian aviation history. Meaning that it will soon wither on the vine. Yes, there is talk of an Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft to be taken up by the ADA with Rs 100 crores being advanced for preliminary work. But this should have begun ten years ago to effectively enter the cycle of design, development, production and obsolescence that all aircraft must go through.
For this, the DRDO and the Air Force are both to blame, as is the leadership of the ministry of defence which should provide  strategic guidance and directives to our R&D and production institutions and ensure that they are implemented.
The sad thing is that things  need not, and should not, have been this way. From the outset, the LCA project became more of an expression of bureaucratic power— in this case the DRDO—rather than a project that would enable the emergence of an Indian military aviation industry. The DRDO sought to do an end-run around the IAF which, in turn, disdained the project through its key first decade. Ideally, a senior IAF officer should have led the project carried out under DRDO auspices, much in the way the Advanced Technology Vessel programme.
The big problem the government faces is the poor quality of the defence public sector units (DPSU) and ordnance factories. In their work culture the producer is the king, not the consumer. Over the years the DPSUs have perfected the art of skimming the cream from defence contracts. They will compel the MoD to canalise orders through them, and then, instead of absorbing a particular technology, simply buy kits and assemble them and sell it to the armed forces at a higher cost than would be paid to import the same equipment.
Perhaps the worst offender in this category has been the HAL which has failed to absorb technology from projects such as the Mig-21, the Jaguar, the Advanced Light Helicopter, and the Sukhoi-30MKI. Because had it done so, we would not have had to go hat in hand to the Russians for an FGFA, or for that matter, buy an MMRCA. The latest example is the Sukhoi-30MKI which the HAL swears is being made from “raw materials” in India. The facts, as my colleagues in Bangalore tell me, are otherwise. Besides some localisation, the aircraft still comes in sub-assemblies  from Russia. In the case of the aircraft’s engines, there is not even a pretence of indigenisation, all of it— and it is 40 per cent by value of the aircraft— comes from abroad. Yet, the project was sold to the country as one which would give a massive boost to indigenisation of the Indian aviation industry, and the country paid for the transfer of technology.
Allowing HAL to remain a monopoly military aviation producer is bad for the IAF and the country. There is need to split it into two or three separate and, ideally, competing units, with their own design bureaus.
Aviation is not the only high-tech area that has been grossly mismanaged. The story is the same when it comes to the government shipyards. While the absorption of technology has been better, the costs and delivery schedules are simply unacceptable. The Navy’s acquisition programme has been hamstrung by the dog-in-the-manger attitude of the defence shipyards which lack the capacity and the quality consciousness to take up high-tech projects such as the construction of advanced warships and submarines.
The new defence procurement and production policy seeks to open up the defence industry to the private sector, but it does not go far enough. On paper there has been a policy of getting the private sector into defence production since 2001. But the realities are more complex. There is, the well known way in which ordnance factories are being kept on life-support by allowing them to obtain kits from Tata and Ashok Leyland for assembly into trucks that are passed off as their own product. Then there are genuine problems—private sector companies cannot afford the stop-go approach of the ministry of defence where orders come in piece-meal, depending on the budgetary commitments which are annually determined.
A private producer with a contract to make five ships, would like to buy the steel, cabling, and other components in bulk from the cheapest quality vendor. But in our system, he will be told, you make one of a class, and we will decide on follow on ships later. And later often never comes.
Unlike the aviation sector, there are already a number of top quality shipyards in the private sector in Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, some of them better equipped than their military counterparts. They would be happy to participate in the ship-building projects, provided the government displays some sensitivity to the manner in which businesses run, as compared to ordnance factories and PSUs, which take a cost, and an arbitrarily high “plus” method, to fix their prices.
It is no secret that many of the problems of defence procurement arise from good, old fashioned, corruption. The elimination of middle-men or agents has done little to check the underhand games that take place. In 2009, a retired head of the Ordnance Factory Board that supervises 39 factories across the country, was arrested along with three other persons for alleged bribery. The recent mysterious loss of a file relating to offsets in the MMRCA competition gives a hint at the processes that are at play when a big buy is undertaken. The 2010-2011 CAG’s report has brought out small instances where “shadow” companies work in tandem with ordnance factories in such a brazen manner that tenders purporting to be from different firms have the same telephone and fax numbers.
Few in the country would grudge spending money on defence of the country. But they would be astonished if they knew the full story of the bureaucratism, egos, incompetence and plain corruption that characterises the Indian defence R&D and production system. Defence Minister A.K. Antony is trying to change the system, but his efforts are too little and too late. The man who needs to wield a big broom to clean up the system, has only a flimsy feather duster in his hand.
Mail Today January 14, 2011

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