Indian Air Force: The Case for Indigenisation

Indian Air Force: The Case for Indigenisation

by Jasjit Singh (Editor)


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ISBN-13: 9789381904497
Publisher: Sun Links Ltd
Publication date: 03/15/2013
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.75(d)

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Indian Air Force

The Case for Indigenisation

By Jasjit Singh

KW Publishers Pvt Ltd

Copyright © 2013 Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-93-81904-49-7


The Challenge of Indigenisation: The Case of the Aircraft Industry


No country is really independent unless it is independent in matters of its armament.

— Jawaharlal Nehru

It appears curious and inexplicable to most students of national security and defence that in spite of an aircraft industry that has expanded enormously since 1939 when it was set up, India has been forced to import almost all types of complete aircraft from foreign sources. A small degree of self-reliance was achieved by licensed manufacture of some of the aircraft. But the high-technology systems and components for these also were imported. At one level, this can be explained by the reality that the country was deindustrialised during the two centuries before independence. The Industrial Revolution had started in England three centuries before India's independence. As industrialisation grew and expanded geographically to Europe and North America, muscle power gave way to machine power for economic productivity.

Growth and advances of technology, especially in its military application, as the natural consequence of the industrialisation of England and Europe, also provided significant military advantage over the local and regional regimes and became the source of capability to establish empires in the rest of the world. The colonial powers of Europe did not set up any industry in the countries they ruled, and focussed on military technological superiority and further advancement of their own industries with resources and raw materials from the colonised countries. Japan, however, did create numerous industries in Manchuria when it invaded China. China had also grown with massive transfer of military and civil industries, lock, stock and barrel by Stalin's Soviet Union in early 1950.

While some "sunset industries" like textiles had been transferred to India by the British (after British labour costs began to rise), India's industrialisation really began after independence. In fact, there was serious difference of opinions among the leaders of the Indian National Congress which had spearheaded the struggle for independence, on whether India should adopt a village-based cottage industry or try and invest in heavy industries like steel, cement and power generation, etc. Perhaps both strategies could have been followed if financial resources and techno-economic aid had been forthcoming. Nehru's vision of a modern industrialised India with village-based development appears to have provided the mixed economy which over the years has succeeded in moving the country toward substantive socio-economic development. From our perspective of indigenisation of military weapons, especially aircraft and their peripherals, we have lagged behind perhaps due to the Indian mind emphasising on "cutting edge" technology. But the Indian mind also tends to focus much more on the theoretical rather than the practical application of that theoretical knowledge: for example, there is great emphasis on political science and very little on international relations, etc.

We need to constantly keep in mind the reality of the centuries of deindustrialisation which had the country way behind the developed countries and even behind China, which got significant infusion of industrialisation. Hence, India has had to condense into decades, its industrial technological revolution, which the developed world achieved in centuries with the added benefit of resources from the colonised countries. Contrary to conventional wisdom, India did/does not possess any significant natural resources. Its only asset for two centuries has been its human resource which was fully exploited by the British in areas ranging from transportation of labour to work in plantations as far as the Caribbean, Fiji, South Africa, Kenya, Myanmar (then Burma), Malaya, etc., though the greatest exploitation was of Indian soldiers in the Imperial Wars. The raw materials produced by the country like cotton, iron ore, etc., were exported to run textile mills in England. Hence, we need to judge our ability/inability to achieve self-reliance in armaments keeping in view the handicaps that our history placed on us in the past when the developed industrial countries enjoyed the benefit of unlimited access to resources.

It is also true that HAL (now Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) has manufactured many hundreds of combat aircraft, and overhauled thousands of aero-engines for combat and transport aircraft. But, more important, after independence, it started on the ideal vector which would rely on three parallel processes: (i) indigenous design and development even if it required collaboration with foreign expertise; (ii) licensed production of weapons and equipment in the country, presumably including every sub-system and component down to the nuts and bolts; (iii) direct import of urgent and high-technology aircraft and systems to meet operational requirements, with licensed manufacture to complete the full complement of aircraft required. When looked at closely, the last process mostly has become another aspect of the second process, that is licensed assembly and production for an aircraft/system designed abroad in which HAL was not, and could not have been, a party. When the government proudly announced, every time a contract was signed, that this would be accompanied with TOT (Transfer of Technology), what it really meant was that production technology would be available.

The official terminology in the Ministry of Defence was a choice between "buy" and "make," the former without any licensed manufacture and the latter, including manufacture under licence. A typical example is that HAL manufactured around 600 MiG-21 variants. But when HAL designed the "combat flaps" to enhance the air combat capability of the aircraft, it could not introduce that in the fleet. Similarly, when it was finally decided to upgrade the MiG-21, the Russians had to be involved in the process and paid for their labour though they were not really needed.

The Chinese, of course, do things differently. For example, they purchased the Sukhoi Su-27 air superiority fighter from Russia in early 1990 under a contract that specified 24 aircraft outright imported and the balance to be assembled and manufactured in China. It acquired the Su-30MK after that on similar terms and realised that the platform was the same as that of the two-seat Su-27 trainer. It copied most of the systems of the Su-30 and cancelled the Su-27 contract and began to manufacture it modified to the Su-30 standard, and called it the J-11. The Russians were livid; but they needed the hard currency and exports to China, especially of the high-powered jet engines which China (like India) is unable to produce indigenously.

Looking back at the triple process of building indigenous capacity while meeting the operational demands of the Indian Air Force (IAF), the third process, viz., outright buy, especially high-technology aircraft and systems, has continued. The second process of relying on licensed production actually received a boost after the Sino-Indian War of 1962 when the IAF was authorised to expand from 25 squadrons to 64 squadrons. The Soviet Union did not demand hard currency payments which it would have been unable to spend given the complete ban by the West on economic and trade relations with it. For an India perennially short of hard currency, trade with the Soviet Union on rupee payment appeared as a boon in spite of the rupee-rouble exchange being pegged on a basket of Western currencies, thus, significantly costlier to India than its face value. But Soviet aircraft and systems rapidly increased in technological quality and served the IAF's (and the other two armed forces') operational purposes.

Moscow soon began to offer even long-term credit at very low interest rates to ensure that the rupees it earned in this trade would sustain for a long time to enable it to use them to purchase consumer items like medicines, rice, tea, hosiery, textiles, etc. from India. HAL set up additional plants for the licensed manufacture of Soviet designed aircraft (at Nasik in Maharashtra) and engines (at Koraput in Orissa) at two opposite ends of the country. Incidentally, Koraput is not even connected by rail (or an airfield anywhere close by) and all engines manufactured and overhauled at this factory had to be moved on hired trucks thousands of kilometres away from Nasik IAF air bases across the country. This inevitably led to increased costs and inefficiency, with an impact also on aircraft serviceability in the operational squadrons. The direct negative result of this process was that licensed manufacture of Soviet aircraft and arms became the dominant part of the three parallel processes we identified above. Above all, successive governments became complacent.

There is no doubt that the efforts to diversify the sources of supply had become a way to achieving a lower level of self-reliance since it reduced the dependence on any one country. But in the ultimate analysis, this had long ago settled down to two-odd countries: the Soviet Union and two European manufacturers (the UK and France) of aircraft and associated weapons and equipment. On the other hand, piecemeal acquisitions (like that of the Jaguar) only led to cost escalations and we denied ourselves economies of scale. But none of them was converted into joint ventures and nor was design data transfer part of the licensed manufacture contracts. So we could not even modify the aircraft we were manufacturing in the country.

The major casualty of this complacency was the first of the three processes identified above: indigenous design and development. It is pretty obvious that indigenous design and development is the foundation on which overall indigenisation for self-reliance can be built. The other two processes could at best serve as an interim step till a country reached self-reliance in design and development capability. Hence, India's march toward indigenisation is at best a one-legged effort and it will be a very long time before Indian pilots would be able to fly a modern Indian designed combat aircraft. I recognise that many people would angrily question the above conclusions at the very start of this study. I can hear loud noises about the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). But this actually proves the central point being made.

The LCA was conceived in 1979-80 as an incremental approach to design and development of a low cost fighter for battlefield support to the land forces to replace the MiG-21 beginning 1985-86 and building 450 aircraft as the "workhorse of the IAF" as Mr Arun Singh, the Minister of State (MoS), Defence, used to say. Three key deficits of the otherwise excellent MiG-21 (which shot down two F-104 Starfighters of the Pakistan Air Force in the 1971 War in low-level air combat) were sought to be removed in the process of designing the new aircraft. The first, repositioning of the air intake (no longer required to be so critically managed as that in the MiG-21 which was to operate at Mach-2 at 22-km altitude) to the side intakes to hopefully make the aircraft less susceptible to bird strikes which accounted for total loss of the aircraft in nearly a quarter of our flying accidents. The second was to install a better modern air interception radar with a head-up display in the nose now freed from the imperatives of the nose intake. Third, there would be space for a cockpit air-conditioning system as compared to the existing MiG-21 which instead has a cockpit heating system needed above 14/20-km altitude. The bulk of our flying was being done at low level and the Air Force was expected to engage the enemy in air combat at very low altitudes and penetrate hostile air space at tree-top level. The MiG-21 cockpit temperatures in the north Indian summer would normally reach over 70 degrees Celsius within two minutes after take-off. Pilots would, on an average, lose as much as 3.5 kg weight in a 40-minutes low-level sortie (I proved it once in 1975)!

Third, the MiG-21 then was flying with 475 kg of ballast weight split into small pieces in most of the front fuselage to maintain the critical centre of gravity of a partially unstable aircraft design. The aircraft had a limited range and payload (like most Soviet aircraft of the 3rd generation in keeping with their defensive orientation) and their low cost allowed large numbers to be deployed defensively. Hence, the penetration range of the aircraft in a ground attack role, or its time for air combat was limited. Utilising 475 kg for internal fuel would have dramatically enhanced its range as compared to the MiG-21.

Unfortunately, the decade of the 1980s was spent on one side in hyping the standard of preparation and Air Staff Requirements (ASR) to make it the dream of a fighter pilot! But someone forgot to increase the weight to accommodate everything that would make it a 21st century combat aircraft at par with the best in the world. On the other side, a vicious tussle raged as to who would head the new national project in or outside HAL? Ultimately, the proverbial Indian compromise was adopted and an ad-hoc organisation (more of it later) called the Aeronautics Development Agency (ADA) was set up as a registered society (to make financial management easier) but under the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) by milking HAL of designers and engineers. The critical point is that three decades after the design of the first and so far the only HAL designed multi-role combat aircraft, the HF-24 Marut, was commenced, the LCA finally started to move ahead with design feasibility that the IAF had major difficulties with. During those three decades, aviation technology had advanced exponentially and our early designers who formed part of the HF-24 design team, led by a German group under Dr. Kurt Tank, had retired. In the absence of institutional memory, the mistakes committed during the HF-24 were repeated in the LCA. In short, in 2013, the LCA has yet to reach its Initial Operational Capability (IOC) although the IAF has placed orders for 40 aircraft to demonstrate its commitment to the programme. And with a new engine, the GE 414, the aircraft would have to undergo significantly extensive development processes.

What lessons can be drawn from the above sketch? Some of the ones relevant to our present study can be briefly outlined as follows:

• Design and development form the critical foundation of indigenisation and self-reliance.

• The Design Division of HAL set up after independence has been emasculated over the decades. So much so, that the country is importing a basic trainer for ab-initio training from abroad after a lapse of four years.

• The final marginalisation of HAL's design and development capability was achieved by establishing the ADA under DRDO management, increasing the stakeholders and decision-authorities in the government and sidelining the IAF.

• The combat force level of the IAF is facing an unplanned 24 percent drop. It has happened when both our potential adversaries have pursued a massive modernisation of their air forces.

• What was true at the time of independence is true today. The Indian Air Force is the primary stakeholder in the aircraft and systems that it acquires and employs in defence of the country and its air warriors keep ready for the worst in peace and war.

• The Indian Air Force is expected to increase its force level to 42 combat squadrons by 2022 and possibly 49 squadrons by 2030 or so.

If this is so, should not the IAF play a greater role in the critical area in the processes of design, development and acquisition of the tools with which it has to function even at short notice perhaps against immense odds and yet win the wars of the nations? If the answer is yes, then the question is, how can that be achieved within the norms and parameters of Indian democracy?

Indian Navy Model

The most simple and efficiently workable approach to indigenise design and development up to, and partly including, the manufacture of aircraft and weapons systems besides their integration with the platforms is to adopt the model that the Indian Navy has followed since independence. It needs understanding that this policy was inherited from the British since the Admiralty had directly controlled warship design and construction to meet their operational requirements over the centuries. Hence, the Naval HQ now has a Directorate of Naval Design under the Chief of Naval Staff (CNS) and also the Controller of Warship Construction which allows it to direct the construction also. Most of the dockyards constructing and refitting warships are headed by naval officers. The third element is the WESEE (Weapons and Electronic System Engineering Establishment) notionally under the Ministry of Defence though managed under the Chief of Material in Naval HQ in close cooperation with the Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister. It has highly qualified technical experts from the Navy and the scientific community on its strength. The Indian Navy's advanced capabilities in information warfare, cyber capabilities and warfare, etc. are all due to the enormous design and development work being carried out in WESEE. One possible reason for its success is that the electrical and electronic branch officers have very few vacancies at the top ranks; and WESEE provides professional challenges and satisfaction, besides the potential for employment in the corporate sector in later years. The IAF used to rely on a similar institution called the Directorate of Technical Development and Production (DTD&P). Two dedicated DRDO laboratories work in close cooperation with the Indian Navy beside a large number of qualified naval officers being assigned to a number of DRDO laboratories.


Excerpted from Indian Air Force by Jasjit Singh. Copyright © 2013 Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi. Excerpted by permission of KW Publishers Pvt Ltd.
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Table of Contents


1. The Challenge of Indigenisation: The Case of the Aircraft Industry Jasjit Singh,
2. Forecasting the Trends of Aerospace power and the IAF: 2025 P.K. Mehra,
3. Desirable Mix of Platforms in the IAF: 2025 N.V. Tyagi,
4. Major Hurdles in Force Modernisation and Indigenisation A.K. Nagalia,
5. Force Modernisation: Indigenous Focus A.K. Nagalia,
6. Ignoring Organic R&D in the IAF and its Consequences A.K. Nagalia,
7. Technical and Operational Requirements of Joint Operations: 2025 S.S. Sharma,
8. What Ails Indigenisation of Air Launched Weapons? S. Bhanoji Rao,
9. Price of Ignoring Organic D&D Capability A.K. Nagalia,
10. Strategic Directions: Indian Air Force Research to Operationalisation T.M. Asthana,
11. Building Resource Efficiency: Case Study Armaments Manoj Kumar,
12. Air Intelligence in Future Wars Shiv Ram Krishna Pande,
13. Emerging Missile Threat Debalina Chatterjee,
14. Future Trend of MRO and the Indian Air Force A. Agarawal,
15. Building Air Dominance T.M. Asthana,

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