The reported request to the government by the Indian Air Force to nominate Air Vice Marshal M Matheswaran as the Chairman and Managing Director of Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) is not as revolutionary a proposal as it appears at first, though it is an eminently sensible one. Actually, barring the last couple of heads of the HAL, it was the IAF that provided the talent for the top job. A measure of the importance of the position is that at least four of them— Aspy Engineer, P.C. Lal, OP Mehra and AM Katre subsequently went on to head the Indian Air Force itself. Matheswaran may not reach there, but he has rarer commodities—brains and an uncommon go-getting touch. He is highly regarded in the service as a person who has the ability to stem the stagnation in HAL and make it a genuinely excellent aerospace company, something that has been overdue for decades.
There is a very important spinoff from any decision to hand the HAL to the IAF—it will free the country’s aviation industry from its military thralldom and help the emergence of a genuine civil aviation industry in the country. As of now HAL is the only aviation design and manufacturing set-up in India and since its focus is overwhelmingly towards servicing the IAF, it has not developed its civilian divisions. Given the enormous expansion of the aviation sector in the country, and the huge offsets that will come with the current multi-billion dollar IAF purchases, there is a good opportunity for us to establish a broader aviation industry. All these years this process has remained stunted; the result is that we buy hundreds of civil aviation jets, and the only payback we get are trivial—making doors or seats of some of them.
The biggest malaise of the HAL has been its failure on the score of production engineering. It is one thing to get someone to design the HF-24 Marut or the Tejas LCA and make a few full-scale engineering models, but quite another to have them on an assembly-line basis to make hundreds. HAL has been spoilt from the very outset when it received the production lines of the Mig-21, the Jaguar and the Sukhoi 30 MKI from abroad, and has basically gone on to make aircraft whose indigenous content is casually fudged, because it is well known that all important assemblies and sub-assemblies are imported.
This is a particularly opportune moment for the government to push for an IAF man to head the outfit. There is no internal candidate of the calibre of Krishnadas Nair or Ashok Baweja. Indeed, the government short-list, mostly of civil servants, points to the lack of talent—S.N. Mishra, a former Joint Secretary looking after HAL, Pawan Hans chief R.K. Tyagi and MSTC chairman S.K. Tripathi. They’re hardly the kind who could be asked to oversee an aerospace giant that is so vital for our country.
The most telling compulsion for the government to go the air force way is the experience of the Indian Navy. Most of the naval shipyards in the country are run by serving or retired naval personnel. The Indian Navy is also the one service which, through effective coordination between its warship design centres and the dockyard, has indigenised India’s surface warship production. All the stealth frigates, the aircraft carrier and the smaller craft with the Navy are Indian designed and manufactured. If there is a lacuna somewhere it is in the area of making weapons systems and submarines, and for this there have been different factors at play.
In terms of military aviation, the air forces of the world are on the threshold of a revolution, even though, sadly, the Indian Air Force leaders have not quite recognised this. But there are younger elements in the air force who cannot but see that they are headed for a big crash if they go the way things are going. In a recent interview, Air Chief Marshal P.V. Naik boasted that with its 126 Eurofighter or Rafales (the MMRCA), the 214 fifth generation fighters (the FGFA) and some 310 SU30 MKI the IAF will become one of the most modern forces in the coming years. But it will also be a top heavy force. Even while claiming to have effective radar coverage of the medium to high levels, he acknowledged that there were gaps at the lower levels. There are also serious gaps in the missile-based air defence that he did not quite dwell on.
This is important because of the threat posed by short-range nuclear-tipped missiles like the HATF 9 and the Babur cruise missile. Expensive long-range aircraft such as the ones the IAF will have, will not be suitable for the quick reaction—perhaps of the duration of ten to fifteen minutes—required to deal with these threats. Indeed, what we need is a large number of cheaper high performance aircraft based forward to deal with this. Because of a surface-to-surface missile threat it would be folly to base our $100 million plus per copy of MMRCA or FGFA closer to the border. At the cost of one Eurofighter or Rafale, India can acquire two or three cheaper, but very modern fighters like the Jas 39 Gripen, or the Mig-35.
The IAF also needs to seriously think about the challenge from unmanned combat aircraft. More than any other force in the world, the IAF still lives in the era of the Battle of Britain and the image of swaggering men in the fighting machines bringing down the mighty Luftwaffe. Actually the nature of air power has become much more complex as indicated by the combination of drones and manned fighters the United States is using in conflicts like Afghanistan. The US Congress mandated report Aircraft Procurement Plan 2012-2041, notes that while in all other categories—fighters, transports, electronic support aircraft, the United States military will retain roughly similar numbers in the future, in the category of medium and large drones, the numbers will double within the next nine years—they will go up from the current 340 to 650 in 2021.
The limits of conventional air power of the type Air Chief Marshal Naik is thinking about have become apparent from the fate of the NATO campaign in Libya where complete air superiority and bombardment of the Libyan forces by NATO has not been able to clinch the war in favour of the rebels. Note there was not a word on robotics in Naik’s interview.
This is the challenge which the Indian defence design and development industry must confront in the coming decades. As it is the HAL record in meeting the conventional requirements of design, development and production engineering has been poor. Considering the fortune we are expending in buying expensive and heavy fighters from abroad, there is need for not just introspection, but a restructuring of our defence industry, led by the military aviation complex. The industry must come up with products which will meet the demands of real air power, one that is effective and useful, rather than the one that is displayed on Air Force or Republic Day.
Mail Today June 30, 2011