Needed: domestic aerospace for combat - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 21 February 2011

Needed: domestic aerospace for combat

A test pilot of the National Flight Test Centre (NFTC) readies for a test flight. The NFTC, crucial for future fighter development programmes, was set up for the Tejas.

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 22nd Feb 11

The recently concluded Aero India 2011 air show in Bangalore highlighted the growing success of the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft, or LCA. Stuck for years in a quagmire of funding shortages, international sanctions and the painful accumulation of technologies and infrastructure needed for building a modern fighter, the success of the Tejas provides a positive occasion to reflect on what needs to be done to take India forward towards self-sufficiency in building its combat aircraft.

This is especially so, given the mind-boggling cost of next-generation fighters and India’s growing requirement for more. Adding together the impending purchases of 200-odd medium fighters (the initial tender is for 126 aircraft) for some US $18 billion; another 250 fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) that will be co-developed with Russia and built in India for US $30-35 billion; the fabrication by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) of 200 or so Tejas for US $ 8-10 billion; and the indigenous design and fabrication of another 200 Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) for a roughly estimated US $12-15 billion, India will buy an unaffordable US $75-80 billion (Rs 360,000 crores) worth of fighters over the next couple of decades.

Going forward from there, things will only get more expensive as unmanned combat aircraft --- stealthy, pilotless drones that carry tonnes of smart weapons --- become the norm. While bayonets and boots will continue to determine success on the ground, technology is rapidly becoming the key differentiator between victory and defeat in the air battle. Some of those technologies will simply not be purchasable; others will be unaffordable. India’s need for credible conventional deterrence leaves it with little choice but to develop expertise in designing and producing sophisticated, yet affordable, combat aircraft, which can shape the future battlefield to our advantage.

This involves one simple process and several extremely complex ones. During the development of the Tejas fighter, the complex challenges have, to a significant degree been overcome. Project management skills, and expertise in systems integration, have been acquired by the Aeronautical Development Agency, which has also gathered a stable of aeronautical designers. A network of DRDO laboratories has gained crucial expertise in writing the complex algorithms of fly-by-wire systems; in developing mission computers; in radar technologies; and in avionics software. A world-class flight-testing agency, the National Flight Test Centre, has been set up. Production agencies, in both the public and private sectors, have learned the precision machining that is needed for aerospace components (like spacecraft and submarine parts, aerospace components have to be certified as suitable for use in aircraft); the art of fabricating components from composite materials; and the forging of technology partnerships with foreign companies to quickly import and absorb useful technologies. Creating this complex mosaic of building blocks was the difficult challenge in creating an aerospace industry.

But the easy part remains to be done. This involves creating an overarching structure that can integrate these building blocks into a result-oriented eco-system. The only organisation that is currently placed to do so --- the ministry of defence --- suffers from a lack of expertise. With decision-making confined to the ministerial and bureaucratic level, crucial technological and scientific inputs tends to be given short shrift or misevaluated. The MoD’s other great drawback is that it has no authority over organisations under other ministries, which could play crucial roles in the realm of aerospace design and production. One example is the National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL), a highly regarded laboratory under the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). NAL has made a significant contribution to the Tejas programme with its expertise in composite technologies and is, even now, engaged in developing the Saras light transport aircraft. But, with no formal integration into India’s military aerospace programmes, Dr Satish Dhawan often described NAL as “a beautiful bride, all dressed up and nowhere to go.”

In order to widen the net for expertise, it is time to set up a separate Department of Aerospace, bringing together research organisations on the one side; and production organisations on the other. Heading the department should be a scientist, given the rank of a secretary to the GoI, regardless of the objections that might be anticipated from the IAS community. Whether the Department of Aerospace is placed under the MoD, or under another ministry, it is essential that it be empowered to harness research potential countrywide.

This vertically integrated structure for the Department of Aerospace is not a novel idea. Already, the Department of Atomic Energy and the Department of Space are vertically integrated, a structure that has served them well. Vertical integration will provide aerospace with the same synergies and prevent the dissipation of resources, especially within the private sector where companies simply cannot afford to put effort into R&D unless it is government-funded or directed so precisely that it will almost certainly yield commercial orders.

In consolidating its aerospace resources under a single structure, India will only be following the global lead. Russia, where individual design houses like Mikoyan and Sukhoi once played wastefully with designs that went nowhere, has now consolidated its resources tightly. The Federal Service for Military Technical Cooperation (FSMTC) provides oversight, while the United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) brings together design bureaus and production agencies. It is time for India to bring together its scarce aerospace resources.


  1. Yo! Shukla :

    Keep the military's flea pickin hands off NAL and IISc , IITs and other genuine R&D orgs. When your MoD babu's were enamored with whole sale imports of Russian equipment from 1972 to 2000 (planes, subs, ships, tanks.. nearly everything), the only place where even a flicker of competence and expertise in crucial areas such as materials, design, electronics and everything was in those places and that is precisely because it was outside the thick headed MoD monkey's purview. The MoD /Military systematically killed every R&D in the orgs under it (HAL, BEML, all the defense shipyards) and elevated screwdriver giri to the "beholden queen" status.

    Guess what will happen if MoD monkeys get their hands on NAL. Simple, it will get killed of course by those Babus. The NAL and other places developed whatever they have until now only because of the funding (meager, but funding all the same) from outside the military. If you want to use it, go with hat in your hand, be nice, smile, be polite and go on your knees in front of them and get it. It doesn't cost you much, only the ego comes down a couple of notches, which is good anyways.

    Get NAL /IISc/IIT /CSIR orgs under the miliatry, you will see retired Admirals, Air Marshalls , Lt Generals and others who are totally clueless in the matters of working and running anything outside the military running those organizations. If HAL, HSL and other orgs are any indication of that kind of thing when they were staffed by such folks, you know where that will end.

  2. Very nice and important things mentioned here.
    Hope that Indian govt( at least some responsible and able person) read this blog and improve themselve at earliest.

  3. Yo Shukla,

    The earlier Soviet/Russian style model was what was adopted by the MoD earlier. Now you are advocating to go to similar Russian model with even the civilian and independent labs and orgs under it. What it will do is kill even things that they couldn't kill earlier.

    Your's is a master plan (wittingly or unwittingly) for the final extermination of the Indian Aerospace industry and even it's remnants.

  4. Ajai sir

    chances of that happening are rare to minimal as the thought you propose will bring in professionalism and enhance expertise and work process.

    But mind you if that happens the bulls named bureaucracy, middle men and political parties will see red cloth. As that will reduce the chances of kickbacks, under the table deals, commissions and of course other side benefits for them.

    The same can be said for the other sections of MoD also.

    We will need someone like APJ Abdul Kalam at the helm of MoD affairs to make these things happen.

    Joydeep Ghosh

  5. Unless and until we introduce compulsory research desertation and thesis for 8th-12th and graduates, respectively, we cannot expect the babus to understand the meaning of research.
    From my understanding the decision makers, from babus, armed personals to politicians, of India are fools.
    If I was a babu, I would have invested in well managed research as I know, tomorrow, I would be able to milk trillin dollars from other nations.

  6. To Anonymous 09:59. You missed the entire point Col. Shukla made. If you did observe he said that the Department of Aerospace must be headed by a scientist and not MoD officials/military. If the person is really from a research organization then come what may you cant beat research out from his head.
    And being from one the academic research organizations you have mentioned, I think such a move would help research organization to focus their strengths in a single direction. Currently our research does not have direction other than meeting yearly objectives. What use is research spending if it does not have a purpose for the country.

    Your fear that this will kill the research spirit might be true in the corporate culture. But it cant be true in a country, since a country does not declare profits and is not governed by the Dalal Street.

  7. Thanks for the article sir. We should invest more on Indian R&D. Any update on IAC?

  8. "...NAL as “a beautiful bride, all dressed up and nowhere to go.”

    Question is, with China raising its defense budget to US$91.5 billion for the current year, up by 12.7% from last year, and its known capability to deliver on development objectives, can India afford to continue to under-deliver??
    Yes, the Tejas 'experiment' worked in that it instilled confidence in India's fledgling aerospace industry. If China can change its work ethic in a matter of decades to become World-class in a whole host of fields, then India can and must do the same. There should be no doubt in our minds as to our capacity to develop a world-class system of education, trained minds, infra-structure, industry and technology. Failure will mean losing the one opportunity in history, that may not come again, to a nation to allow itself to rise to the platform that is accorded to a select few. There is more than that. Indians need this and need this now. We need to become visible in the World; not as poverty stricken but seen as bold, creative, innovative as well as compassionate. No other entity except a country, its culture (society and work) and its achievements can support this elevation to respect and stature.
    So what the Nation needs is what the average Indian needs. A strong dose of commitment and an awakening to the reality of the fast progressing (faster than any other country in history, yet) Dragon in our immediate neighborhood. The people of India may be forgiving of our failure, but don't count on the Dragon next door to do the same!

    Coming back to the quote at the top of the comment. Why is it that the beautiful bride has no hero willing to take her hand? Shortage of men?? ;) I don't think so. Its just that the men need to get their minds off petty squabblings and focus on, what else, the bride.


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