A beam of light by Arun Sharma Posted: Mon Jan 17 2011 The writer, a former Chief of the Naval Staff, is currently chairman of the National Maritime Foundation ----------------------------------------------------------------------- The formal induction of the light combat aircraft (LCA) Tejas into the Indian Air Force on January 10 is not just a historic landmark for our aerospace industry, but also a significant step forward in Indiaâ€™s quest for the status of a great power. Not more than a handful of countries can claim the ability and competence to successfully bring a project of such complexity to fruition. It would therefore be churlish not to acknowledge the achievement of our aircraft designers, scientists, production engineers and the flight-test team for having delivered â€” albeit belatedly â€” a state-of-the art combat aircraft to the IAF. With the accord of initial operational clearance (IOC), the Tejas is, today, at the same stage where Indiaâ€™s first nuclear submarine, Arihant, was, on its launch, last year. Both these strategic and prestigious platforms are on the threshold of entering service, but with a fairly arduous road to traverse before attaining fully operational status. The LCA project attracted maximum criticism because of the time it took and the cost overruns it had. Obviously, the DRDO over-estimated its own competence. This led to the ambitious claim that they had the capability to develop, in-house, not just the airframe and engine, but also the radar as well as a complex fly-by-wire (FBW) flight control system required for an â€œagileâ€ (or aerodynamically unstable) fighter. This blunder was compounded by trotting out hopelessly optimistic cost and time estimates, on the incorrect premise that since India had earlier designed and built the HF-24 Marut, we possessed the design skills and manufacturing expertise. The Marut, putatively Indiaâ€™s first indigenous fighter aircraft, was, in fact, designed by a contracted German team led by Kurt Tank, designer of the famed World War II fighter, Focke-Wulf FW 190. Inducted into the IAF in 1965, the Marut was only a qualified success, since its advanced airframe was a mismatch to the under-powered Orpheus engine. The assumption that the advanced LCA would benefit from the expertise acquired from the 30-year-old Marut project was, therefore, largely fallacious. The second contributory cause was the decision of the DRDO, typically, to pursue this strategic project without ensuring adequate involvement of the end users: the armed forces. The IAF, understandably, more concerned with extant problems of meeting its operational roles and missions took a detached view of the LCA and remained focused on looking abroad for its needs. This, arguably, deprived the project of impetus, moral support and funding. The last and most crippling impediment for the project was posed by the denial of crucial technologies by the West. Post-liberalisation advice and consultancy in certain key areas of the LCA design, notably the FBW system, was obtained from aerospace firms in the US and Britain. Unfortunately, the sanctions imposed after Pokhran II brought this crucial cooperation to an abrupt halt. This is where our scientists showed their true mettle and went on to develop and qualify the incredibly complex flight control algorithms, almost entirely on their own. Apart from this, the electro-hydraulic actuators for the controls, the pumps, motors, instruments and many of the major systems have all been developed by scientists working in dozens of DRDO laboratories, and produced by industrial units across the country. The seeds of an aerospace ancillary industry have been planted, and will, hopefully, be nurtured by a long production run of the Tejas. For all its good work and achievements, there remain two critical areas in which the DRDO has sadly disappointed the nation, and contributed to delays in the LCA project. One is, of course, its failure to deliver the fighterâ€™s primary sensor; a multi-mode radar, which, eventually, had to be imported. The other is the long-awaited Kaveri aero-engine, which has remained, for 40 years, in limbo, nowhere close to attaining its promised performance parameters and yet, inexplicably, being kept alive to justify the existence of its parent R&D establishment. Having missed all deadlines and targets, the DRDO has now sought foreign collaboration to assist in its development. The US-origin F-414 engine now contracted for the Tejas barely meets its thrust requirements, and the heavier LCA Navy will need an even more powerful engine for carrier operations. It can only be hoped that the Kaveri will eventually emerge in time for Tejas Mark II. Twenty-seven years and Rs 17,000 crore down the line, the LCA experience has generated a number of important lessons for India. Firstly, DRDO should not be permitted to undertake any major project whose staff targets have not originated from the Defence Acquisition Council or Chiefs of Staff Committee. Once the project is approved, the sponsoring service must associate intimately with the DRDO to refine the staff requirements, and contribute uniformed personnel as well as funding during development. It is, perhaps, time for the IAF to create an establishment along the lines of the navyâ€™s Directorate of Naval Design to conceptualise future aircraft. With globalisation, the quest for attaining autarchy in every aspect of technology has become a counter-productive activity. A conscious and early decision must be taken in every project regarding the technologies we need to develop in-country and those that we can acquire from abroad.Developmental projects undertaken by the DRDO should have fairly rigid time-frames, after which they should become candidates for review and abortion. The DRDO practice of in-house â€œpeer reviewsâ€of projects by scientists must be replaced by hard-nosed audits and progress-checks by independent experts, as well as end users. Six decades after independence, 80-90 per cent of our military hardware remains of foreign origin, and India has the dubious distinction of being among the top arms importers in the world. The comprehensive capability to design and undertake serial production of major weapon systems and ordnance is an imperative that has, so far, eluded us. Our claims to big-power status will ring hollow as long as we remain dependent on imports for major weapon systems. For all the scorn and criticism that we often (justly) heap on the DRDO and our PSUs, the fact remains that, properly restructured and synergised with Indiaâ€™s innovative private sector, both these national institutions have the capability to rescue India from the unending arms-dependency trap. First Arihant and now Tejas have provided tangible proof of this.