Is India-made fighter possible? It’s never too late to get started

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Abhijit Bhattacharyya

It may be late in the day to think of an indigenously designed and manufactured fighter jet for the Indian Air Force.
Through diligent research, and by taking stock of the successes and failures on the way. If the right lessons are learnt and a course correction is done.
Through diligent research, and by taking stock of the successes and failures on the way. If the right lessons are learnt and a course correction is done.
It may be late in the day to think of an indigenously designed and manufactured fighter jet for the Indian Air Force, as much time has been lost over the decades, but things are still not — yet — beyond redemption. It’s still possible to make up for the time lost. Through diligent research, and by taking stock of the successes and failures on the way. If the right lessons are learnt and a course correction is done.
But in the long run, it would be best to start avoiding acquiring foreign-made fighters at the drop of a hat, in the belief that we are acquiring the “latest technology”, because the entire business of “latest technology” could be a misnomer. A veritable trap. To keep India under a permanent foreign yoke, make the nation a prisoner of its past follies and mistakes, paving the way to conmen in the nation’s capital to dupe our 1.25 billion people.
Ever since 1947, many defence ministers have come and gone, but the permanent fixtures of Lutyen’s Delhi — the conmen, the middlemen and the “fixers” — have just grown and flourished. Had that not been the case, by now India would definitely have produced fighter aircraft of its own, as the new government of Free India under Jawaharlal Nehru had at least made a promising start. How can I say so with such confidence? One just has to turn the pages of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft 1975-1976, indisputably the world’s most credible almanac of global aviation since 1909. India occupied six pages (99 to 104), while China barely three pages (30 to 32). India was on a roll. China was trailing. The Indian Air Force had two types of indigenous fighter aircraft in its inventory — the Marut HF-24 and Ajeet — along with various types of the Soviet-origin MiG-21/F/PF/FL/MF/88/U, which were operating after the victorious war of 1971.
The Marut HF-24, designed by German engineer Kurt Tank, who was responsible for the World War II era Focke Wulf FW-190 aircraft, was the only twin-engine fighter to be developed by a developing nation. India stood out: India’s neighbour Pakistan had nothing; and China had the Soviet-origin MiG-19 (Shenyang F-6) and MiG-21 (Shenyang F-8).
This unfolding scenario was being closely monitored by the United States. Gen. George S. Brown, in a military posture statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee, declared that “the Chinese are developing a new supersonic all-weather interceptor of Chinese design” and that China “has a number of years of R&D effort invested in this aircraft… We had expected the production of the MiG-19 to terminate, but we now believe it will continue until the new interceptor is introduced”.
In contrast, the first series production HF Mk-I (HF-022: BD-844) had already flown on November 15, 1967, and this version equipped “numbers 10, 31 and 220 squadrons of the IAF, which used its Marut successfully, without loss, in the December 1971 war with Pakistan. A total of about 110 Marut had been built by early 1975”.
Compare this squeaky-clean combat performance of the “Made in India” twin-engine Marut HF-24 against the Pakistan Air Force’s foreign fighters, as reported on page 30 of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft 1975-1976: “The capability of China’s aircraft industry has been revealed most openly by a study of the F-6 (which is actually a China-made Soviet-origin twin-engine MiG-19)”. The single-seat day fighters supplied to Pakistan “equipped three frontline squadrons of the Pakistan Air Force (numbers 11, 23, 25) at the time of the 1971 war with India. They were credited with the destruction of 12 enemy aircraft — one MiG-21, eight Sukhoi-7s and three Hunters — for the loss of three F-6s”. How glorious the combat record of the indigenous fighter produced by HAL could be? Does anyone remember?
What happened then? Why did production of the Marut HF-24 Mk I (129 built) and Mk IT (18 built), instead of being upgraded, abruptly halt in 1977? Who was the Prime Minister and the defence minister then?
What was the reason for the indigenous fighter programme being suddenly shelved? No doubt 1977 was an year of tumult, with a new leadership in charge of the nation. But it was also the year where fingers were raised towards a prominent Indian leader being a “foreign agent”!
To make matters worse, soon after the shocking “stop production” order in 1977 under the new government (which fell in December 1979) was concluded with electrifying speed the import contract of 40 (“with a further 45”) Anglo-French Jaguar in 1979. Not that the Jaguar was a bad choice. It was good; but with the end of the twin-engine Indian aircraft arrived a twin-engine European product. What is important is that a new era of mega-corruption had penetrated the Government of India.
From then on, the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd shifted from its pioneering role to playing second fiddle in screwdriver technology — imported fighters, transfer of dated technology, assembly, test, trial and induction of fighters into the operational squadrons of the IAF, which till date continues to be 100 per cent IAF, though with a different connotation: the wags call it “Imported Air Force”!
One feels sorry for the Indian Air Force’s personnel. Despite their thorough professionalism, they all have to wait years to be battle-ready without any timely replacement of frontline fighters. Being totally at the mercy of Lutyen’s landlords, they wait and wait. The Jaguar corruption could be likened to that of the Mahabharat blind king-emperor Dhritarashtra’s “fatal” gripping and groping of the dummy (iron and steel) Bhim, the Pandav prince, identified as the killer of oldest son Duryodhana, the blind king of Hastinapur, the capital of Hindustan.
The new Indian government of 1980, however, tried its best to restore defence acquisitions as the 1977 election defeat appears to have had some sobering effect on governance. Indeed, the 1980-1984 did constitute an era of efficient and effective defence handling. From Kashin-class destroyers to fighter jets, the defence forces saw a trend of positive “capital expenditure” (money spent on equipment) without hiccups.
The 1980-1984 period also saw the most serious and earnest attempt made by the government towards the revival of the indigenous fighter programme (in 1983). Thus was conceived the single-engine indigenous “light combat aircraft”, known as Tejas today. Thirty-five years have gone by since then, and yet the programme faces obstacles from foreigners who will lose India’s multi-billion-dollar fighter aircraft market.
What then is the way out — as unlike China, India today is nowhere near Beijing’s fighter indigenisation variety! The “superior India” and “inferior China” of 1975-1976 have undergone a complete role reversal. Four things come to mind. First, India has the best of foreign fighters in the IAF squadrons. First, take two operational aircraft (of each type) out to be handed over to a research and development team — scientists, engineers, designers and pilots (like China). Second, go for a “full time” Cabinet minister in charge of the “war production” of capital goods; naval ships, warplanes and main battle tanks; with a dedicated combination of experts drawn from all branches of the defence service and civil servants with aptitude. Third, give a boost to R&D. And finally, the IAF’s flight safety and operations wings must get deeper into HAL programme, and set up a joint IAF-HAL command and control structure for each “concept to commission” fighter aircraft mission. India must do it today.