The procurement of Intermediate Jet Trainers for the Indian Air Force has once again crashed into the shoal of an inadequate engine, an inherent asymmetry in the superstructure, and the proverbial monopolistic instincts of the sole aircraft manufacturer, the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited.
Once again, for the umpteenth time, a foreign engine was acquired to build the urgently required Intermediate Jet Trainer.
A French Snecma engine was chosen. It proved to be under-powered. A more powerful Russian replacement was acquired after some delay but then it turned out that the ‘inherent asymmetry’ of the airframe made it difficult to practice the life-saving manoeuvre of inducing a stall and tailspin and getting out of it with constant practice.
The designs have been sent back to the drawing board for rectification. That, it turned out was outside the competence of the HAL design bureau and foreign help had to be sought to rectify the asymmetry.
The NDA government in its eagerness to project its ‘Make in India’ program as a shining success has to be informed about what STRATEGIC AFFAIRS had suggested to the UPA government that first produce an indigenous engine with the requisite thrust.
Time and again the absence of an indigenous engine has forced changes that had delayed the projects by decades.
It happened with the first indigenously designed fighter aircraft the HF-24 Marut created by German aeronautics expert Dr Kurt Tank.
It was a joint venture with fellow Non-aligned Nation, Egypt, which was to produce the engine while India did the airframe.
Egypt failed to produce the engine so India had to turn to Britain for the Vickers engine.
In the end the IAF judged that the aircraft was underpowered and could not properly execute certain manoeuvres.
It did not take long that shining sleek Maruts began adorning the gates of IAF stations around the country.
The same thing happened with the second attempt to produce an indigenous fighter-the light combat aircraft.
The indigenous Kaveri engine was sought to be created simultaneously (instead of first) with the airframe and once again there was a mismatch between the engine thrust and airframe weight.
India had to buy American engines for the nine prototypes and continue with the foreign engine in the so-called indigenous aircraft into the limited serial production phase.
The initial operational clearance has been obtained but the final operational clearance is in limbo for the same old reason and the engine has to be changed.
Given such a repetitive and deleterious phenomenon that has afflicted nearly every major weapons platform there is every reason why successive governments learn some lesson from it.
Now that the defence sector has been opened to the private enterprise the government of the day should create core groups of industries with requisite experience in metallurgy and associated technology required for the creation of engines for specific requirements-in the first instance for aero engines.
India needs propeller driven engines for its trainer aircraft, it needs jet engines of differing capacities for the transition from propeller to jet propulsion training and jet engines of a higher caliber for the transition from basic jet training to the greater sophistication and speed to bridge the capabilities of actual fighter aircraft-the Intermediate Jet Trainer aircraft.
The DRDO must play the lead role in assembling such core groups incorporating Indian technologists and foreign experts in respective fields of aeronautic engineering.
Visualise with clarity what type of aircraft the user, the IAF, wants inclusive of every kind of possible requirement that the aircraft be required to fulfill and seal the final specifications.
With the clear diktat that there will be no midstream changes-a bane that has afflicted every project for the IAF and the Army because few personnel from these streams have shown much interest in the indigenization of weapons platform to the extent that the Navy has done.
Once an engine is produced preferably with a kg or two of additional thrust over and above the specification then the design team should be asked to produce a airframe that must be strong enough yet light enough to make for a favourable thrust to weight ratio with weapons hard points on the wings and centerline in anticipation of a future requirement.
India needs a joint venture on the lines of the Indo-French collaboration in the creation of an engine for helicopters even as the core groups become disseminators of the acquired aero-engine technology.
The Make in India program will acquire valuable content only if a conscious effort is made to put the horse before the cart and not try to juggle them around in the hope of being able to speed up the project.
It has not worked as DRDO’s dismal record in aero engines and tank engines bears witness.
Mistakes and errors will be made but they will be part of the learning curve and will, hopefully, lead to incremental growth and product improvement instead of the abandonment of a project because another foreign equipment has been bought as replacement.
It is true that the Kiran jet trainer-the second rung in the training process-is now aged and decrepit but it is not as yet useless. It should be upgraded to fill the gap till the new project fructifies.
In the meanwhile, Indian companies already working on military simulators should be asked to produce more simulators for training in all the three stages of flying.
These should come with all the new adjuncts like glass cockpit for head up operations, missile approach warning system, helmet cueing system and other modern avionics to give the budding pilots a feel of the real warfare conditions well before he/she enters the cockpit of a modern-day fighter aircraft.
More simulators will have a cascading effect in reducing air accidents, saving valuable lives and expensive aircraft.
Within a couple a decade India will have a bank of technology in these aero engine research and development laboratories.
It will become that much easier for the nation to absorb new technologies. It is only when all this has happened that shortcuts and ‘simultaneous development’ of the tank and light combat aircraft kind that occurred when Dr V S Arunachalam was Scientific Advisor to the Minister of Defence in the early 80s.
His policy of development of new weapons platforms using foreign engines to prove the feasibility of the project has led India into the dark alley of continuous dependence on foreign engines for our premier projects. It is time to break the vicious cycle.