Thursday, June 18, 2015

Flights of Utter Fancy

In all the confusion that hangs over the Modi government's decision to procure 36 Rafale fighters `off the shelf ', we need to focus on the real issues.First, the imperative of plugging the shortages in the Indian Air Force (IAF)'s combat strength. Second, to once again kickstart the decades-old effort to develop a fighter of our own. We started to design and build our own combat aircraft in the late 1950s.The HF-24 Marut programme was a spectacular, though limited success.The country failed to build on it and allowed the capabilities built up through the programme to rust. Over the years, India has licence-manufactured or assembled the MiG -21, the Jaguar and the Sukhoi Su-30 MKI.Yet it has picked up little by way of an aviation design and manufacturing capability . Whatever we have is, unsurprisingly , the progeny of the HF-24 programme.
Many institutions, primarily the IAF itself, must share the blame for the current state of affairs. As Admiral Arun Prakash has noted, had the IAF assumed `ownership' of indigenous projects like the HT-2, HJT-36 trainers and the LCA (light combat aircraft) Tejas early enough, it would not be seeking advanced fighters or even trainers from abroad today .
But is there is a way forward? The first challenge is to deal with the crisis in 2017 when four MiG-21 and five MiG-27 squadrons retire. This amounts to some 200 aircraft. Al ready , there are some eight `number plated' squadrons -formations without aircraft. This amounts to another 150 aircraft. The remaining six squadrons of MiG-21 Bisons are soldiering along, but are in the last stages of their lives.
More to Come?
The IAF brass seems to be insisting that these far-less-capable machines be replaced one-on-one by advanced fighters, which is simply not economically feasible. Even so, 36 Rafales will not do the trick. So presumably the government will go for another tranche, when it has the money . As of now, the statements of defence minister Manohar Parrikar have resulted in more confusion than clarity .
Plugging gaps is one challenge. Developing indigenous design and development capability is another.Here, all is not lost. Today we have the LCA Mk 1 flying and the engineers and designers who have worked on it remain with the Aeronautical Development Agency . Despite its limitations, brought on by a flawed design, it is a good flying machine and perfectly capable of delivering close air support and functioning as a lead-in fighter trainer (LIFT).
Some years ago, a well-known German company had offered to assist HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd) to industrialise the LCA's production and market it abroad, as it felt there was definite market for 250-odd LCAs in this role. The German company did not even merit the courtesy of a reply .
There has been a lot of talk about a Mark II version of the LCA aircraft with a slightly better (GE414) engine. However, the structural changes it requires will add weight to the existing design and negate the advantage of the new engine.
We need to cut to the chase and go straight for the design of a twin-en gined fifth-generation fighter, the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) which is on the drawing board. The government needs to give it a determined push.

Action is in Asia
The US has the F-22 fifth-generation fighter in combat service since 2005 and is now developing the F-35. China has two fifth-generation fighters -the J-20 and J-31 -under development with Pakistan as a potential customer. Russia has its T-50 FGFA.The French, Germans and British seem to have dropped out and want to develop unmanned aircraft like the Neuron.
The action is in Asia, with Japan (Mitsubishi ATD-X), Turkey (TAITFX) and South Korea (KF-X) having fifth-generation fighter programmes.All of them have understandably sought deep design and development expertise from established companies like Lockheed Martin, Saab, BAE Systems and Boeing.
There are formidable technological challenges in such an enterprise and we need the help of established players to hold our hands. We have got little by way of R&D spinoffs and we will simply end up amortising the development costs of yet another fighter like the Mirage 2000 and Su-30MKI and, perhaps now, the Rafale.
At the heart of the problem is the dysfunctional defence management and planning process. The IAF -and the Indian Army's -inflated assessment of their requirements are related to the defence minister's operational directive to the armed forces that they prepare for a twofront war. This has led the IAF to claim that it needs 42 fighter squadrons and the Army to raise a new Mountain Strike Corps.
The chance of an all-out two-front war with nuclear-armed Pakistan and China are near zero; local skirmishes are always possible.
The difference between planning for all-out war and a limited one is hundreds of thousands of crores of the taxpayer's precious money .What the country needs is much sharper assessments of the threats it confronts through a document which is based on expert assessments and approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security.
Economic Times April 25, 2015

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