A pertinent question if ever there was one. But like almost everything else in our country -- especially when it has to do with impossible sums of money -- divergent interests come together violently in a spectacular explosion of possible recourses and eventualities. In the end, it's always the taxpayer on the street who has to wonder why stuff gets more expensive all the time while his taxes fly off to fund uneconomic and ill-advised purchases. I am not suggesting for minute here that spending upto $9 billion on new fighter planes is a wholly dispensable idea. Surely it isn't (and no, I am not referring to the Indian Air Force's only partially ingenuous squadron crisis rhetoric). But for something that's gonna shackle the nation to seven-figure instalments as far into the future as we could care to imagine, it's definitely wondering why the HAL Light Combat Aircraft won't be a contender for India's largest single fighter (or defence) purchase in a very long time.
A commenter on blog, Abhiman, makes an accurate and largely overlooked observation. He says one of the "hardened" positions we, and most defence journalists, take is that the LCA Tejas is strictly a replacement platform to the IAF's still huge MiG-21 fleet. Another hardened position, though one that's truer than the first one, is that India wouldn't have needed 126 new fighters from abroad if the LCA Tejas was delivered on time.
And now, the realities: Former air chief S Krishnaswamy, in an interview to me last year, said, " How long can you keep on developing a product?" In case you're wondering, that is not a loaded question. It is fairly well-known that Krishnaswamy pushed hard for inductions of at least limited series production (LSP) LCAs into the air force as a "sample" squadron to give pilots a sense of what they were in for -- after all, the IAF has in principle agreed to field at least 220 of the fighters in the medium term. This did not happen. The horror stories that gravitate around the development of the F-22 Raptor and other fighters in the West are frequently bandied about as testimony to why HAL and DRDO should not be lambasted for the LCA's singular delays. Here are the facts. Sidestepping engineering phases (not in the least to mitigate their importance), the LCA project began in 1983. So officially, it's been a quarter century of development for a fighter that's nowhere near ready. Sure the programme's made stars of our men at DARE, the creditable IJT programme and a handful of other laboratories, but here's the thing: N-o F-i-g-h-t-e-r. And we're running toward a deadline of a fully cleared batch of 20 LCAs handed over by 2011 to the IAF.
But where exactly are we with the Tejas? I have to admit, at Aero India 2007 last month, as the third LCA prototype vehicle (PV3) roared across the skies along with the Gripens and Super Hornets and Fulcrums, there was a proud poignance that missed nobody. There it was, the country's very own fighter aircraft, tearing across hot Bangalore along with all the purported big boys of modern military aviation. Yet, beneath the hood, there is still work to be done. "Dummy" weapons trials will take place only at the end of this year because in January 2004, DRDO learnt that it had to redesign the aircraft's composite wings for "weapons definition" -- the IAF almost did a back-flip when this was communicated to them. The multi-mode radar (MMR) under development by HAL, with assistance from LRDE, still has deep signal-processing glitches that will shortly warrant a foreign technology bailout. Let's not even begin on the Kaveri turbofan, a wasteful blackhole of a programme that will shortly have France's Safran laugh itself silly while signing on the dotted line of an Indo-French JV jet engine with the well-notorious GTRE in Bangalore.
The reason I don't go here into technical details furnished by DRDO and HAL is that beyond a certain point, they appear as an amorphous and blurred blob of an excuse for decades of real mismanagement. Of course the LCA is still prestigious, but it's now come to a point where that just isn't enough to keep things going.
Anyway, we have a new deadline for the Indian fighter. Clearance by 2010 and deliveries of the first 20 by 2011. It isn't an easy deadline to meet, but HAL has worked things well before, so if one could for a moment ignore the matrix of activity over the last quarter century, there may be be no reason to doubt HAL's ability to stick to this crucial deadline. Just this once.
When the IAF first put forth its requirement for 100-odd fighters in the 1990s, it had unequivocally and candidly said it wanted 100-odd Mirage-2000-5s. Extrapolating this to form what was the IAF's unhindered initial requirement, the IAF clearly wanted a good chunky number of light multirole fighters. The Mirage's performance at Kargil gave the IAF the much needed ammo to fuel recommendations of a single vendor buyout from Dassault. Fairly in the event, the government asked the IAF to draft requirements, not recommend aircraft, and this was duly, if a little reluctantly done. Flash forward a few years and here's what the scenario is: the requirements have been "engineered" to include fighters that fit nowhere in what the IAF initially wanted. Detractors of the MRCA contract as a whole say, and not without an element of truth, that the supremely incomplete and heavy Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale (Dassault prudently withdrew the Mirage after it weighed its options) and Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet now vie for a contract that was initially to have suited aircraft much lighter. In the sweepstakes, the only fighters that fit the original bill, they say, are Sweden's JAS-39 Gripen and the American F-16. And that brings us back to the Tejas. In terms of overall characteristics and stats, the LCA will ultimately be a Gripen-like aircraft.
One last point -- IAF chief Shashi Tyagi (he retires this month) said in an interview to me that the IAF would buy "outright" 40 Sukhoi-30MKIs soon because the MRCA would take 15 years to finish deliveries. Now, that may not be an entirely pessimistic view, but considering 40 fighters aren't going to cut depletion rates in the near term, it brings us all the way back to why the Tejas isn't a contender for the MRCA deal.
If giving RFPs only to completed fighter programmes is a yardstick, then the government cannot defend sending one to EADS for the Typhoon. But imagine what the dangling carrot of $6 billion in orders could do for HAL and DRDO. Send HAL an RFP, but tell them that no good will come of it if they can't stick to their new deadline. By 2011, HAL should deliver a tight, robust and capable little fighter to the IAF, or else. Give them the semblance of spectacular orders in one go. Tell them, it's time they stopped trudging and started moving into the slipstream of global arms manufacture. Who knows what could happen.