Sustaining act: Aerospace industry

With the arrival of a whole new set of medium multi-role combat aircraft, the joint creation with Russia of the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft, and the operationalization of the Tejas the Indian Air Force would have acquired the latest flying platforms but what would be the effect of their induction on the professed intention to create a largely indigenous aerospace industry to bolster national security well into the 21st century?

Will India finally break out of the mould of licenced production of foreign aircraft entered into with the laudable objective of competence building and move into a self-sustaining, self-regenerating aerospace industry?

Will it be able to create weapons platform capable of delivering a lethal load of weapons for the combined roles of air-to-air combat and ground attack given that there is a definite shift away from dedicated aircraft for these two specific roles?

It could be argued that with the design and development of the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft the Indian aeronautics industry is competent enough to product-improve the Tejas and eventually create a next-generation fighter very much on the lines of how the well-established firms in the US, France, Britain, Russia and even China move from generation to generation creating dozens of variants along the way.

Foreign dependence

To put it bluntly, it is not necessarily so. India has once earlier designed, developed and produced the Marut HF-24 fighter under the guidance of German expert Dr Kurt Tank but went no further in product improvement because of the nature of the infirmity of the Marut-it was underpowered.

The Tejas suffers the same disability and that is why it has had to shift from the General Electric F404 engine to the more powerful the GE F414 as it moved from prototype stage to limited series production.

Any aircraft that is so dependent on a foreign engine will throughout its lifetime cycle have to depend for servicing and backup spare-parts support on the foreign source. What is ‘indigenous’ about such a situation?

The Kaveri engine created to power the Tejas has suffered in that it has not been able to produce the thrust required to make the Tejas totally competent in both air defence and ground attack roles.

Foreign engine manufacturers have been asked to help co-develop an improved engine. One major foreign assistance would be that the licence to produce the single-crystal technology for the compressor blades which in the case of the Kaveri have been breaking off.

This brings India to the distinctions that are being drawn between licenced production and transfer of technology (ToT). For one, if technology is not transferred can there be licenced production?

India has labored with licenced production of nearly every major weapons platform and, because it has not been able to improve the product, either by fiat ingrained in the contract banning any attempt to add new characteristics into the product without the consent of the original equipment manufacturer, or one’s own inability to master the technology and move on to improving the product.

In fact, India has had to move from one licenced arrangement to the next without being able to produce a new generation of weapon without foreign assistance. In either case licenced production and transfer of technology can become an opiate.

Joint development

There is hope for India in the joint development of weapons platforms. For one, the whole architecture of the new weapons platform will be based on the experience and accumulated competence of the original equipment manufacturer which has produced new generations of proven platforms over several decades.

Indian engineers, technicians, and workers can imbibe the skills and assimilate the technology and then move on to improve the product very much as Mazagon Docks Ltd has stretched the original Leander class frigate design to produce the Godavari class with two helicopters on board and gained confidence to produce the stealth characteristics in future warships.

Much the same opportunity has been presented to India by the joint development of the Brahmos missile and now the Fifth Generation fighter. In the missile project Russia was constrained by its commitments to the multilateral Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) not to part with technologies that would enable any country to produce a missile capable of traveling beyond 300 km with a five hundred kilogramme warhead.

But what stops India from making a better missile - longer range, heavier warhead-on its own by building on the experience earned in the Brahmos project? In fact, the next generation Brahmos should have been on the drawing-boards even as the first test flights were being conducted.

It is now an accepted fact that some features like active electronically scanned array (AESA) have drastically changed the way wars for airspace domination could be fought.

India has been fortunate in being able to acquire it from Israel but the Defence Research and Development Organization must assemble laboratories and manufacturing units both within its own large network of institutions or in conjunction with private companies with high-technology vision and willingness to invest in the required infrastructure to design, develop and manufacture this kind of critical state-of-the-art optronics equipment.

Having an indigenous source will help India break free of clawing restrictions and embargoes put in place to protect monopolies.

AESA is but one game-changer within the aerospace architecture. Others that are entering the battlefield are the Gorgon’s Glare an all-seeing eye-in-the-sky that can detect movement in low-light conditions in a township sized ambiance.

Given the malignancy of low-intensity conflict, proxy war and the use of terrorists as tactical tools for destablising India, this nation-state if it is to protect itself adequately will have to adopt a two-track system-one engaged in creating platforms with carrying capacity and range and the other entrusted with developing the sensors, long-range surveillance and target acquisition equipment that are part of the avionics package.

The tendency of farming out critical components to foreign suppliers will, as experience has shown, leave the nation at the mercy of the suppliers and their restrictive clauses.

This brings India back to the MMRCA contract. A person who lobbied hard for the American products on offer-the Boeing Super Hornet and the Lockheed Martin F-16 Super Viper -in his capacity as adviser to the American Ambassador in New Delhi has made the point that by rejecting the US products “India had settled for a plane but not a relationship”.

That is the kernel of truth in arms deals-they carry with them the baggage of ‘relationship’ either as being part of a military pact or as a perennially dependent appendage that will sustain the host nation’s military-industrial complex.

India has done well to avoid the pitfall it perceived in the American offer but it cannot any longer afford the luxury of moving from one licenced production arrangement to another as has happened and is happening in aerospace requirements, in the failure to capitalize on upgradation clauses, in suffering from malignant stasis in creating its own 155 mm caliber howitzer once it became clear that the Bofors deal was dead in the water, etc.

If it is to be able to control its own regional aerospace ambiance India will have to build on the competence gained by the Tejas and the Fifth Generation fighter projects and create new platforms that will fulfill the demands of national security as they are perceived from mid-century and beyond.