Two major developments within a month of each other heralded a new chapter in India’s latest quest for atmanirbharta: Commissioning of the first Indigenous Aircraft Carrier INS Vikrant on 2 September, and raising of Indian Air Force’s first indigenous Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) unit on 3 October. While Vikrant’s commissioning was presided over by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, LCH was ushered into IAF by Raksha Mantri (RM) Rajnath Singh. Both events received wide coverage in the media and made for catchy headlines. The RM shared a video of LCH with a Bollywoodsy “naam hai Prachand” tweet in Hindi that created a splash with over 49000 ‘likes’ at last count.
The first batch of Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) — christened ‘Prachand’ (“fierce”) — will be operated by newly-raised 143 Helicopter Unit of the IAF, based out of AFS Jodhpur. The baton now passes on to the unit to develop standard operating procedures and tactics while honing their flying and maintenance skills on the helicopter. To my information, the LCH has been tested and evaluated by IAF’s premier Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE) that celebrates 50 years of its own existence this year.
Arguably the only attack helicopter that packs a punch all the way from sea level to super high altitude, the LCH, when fully operationalised, will fill a critical capability void experienced during the Kargil War. It is a significant milestone in the journey of indigenous helicopter development.
INS Vikrant, on the other hand, is a floating testament to what can be achieved if projects of national importance get unstinting support and funding irrespective of which government is in power. Kudos is richly deserved by teams from state-run aerospace major Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and Cochin Shipyard Limited (CSL) who produced and fielded both these products to exacting specifications from the armed forces.
The first batch of Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) — christened ‘Prachand’ (“fierce”) — will be operated by newly-raised 143 Helicopter Unit of the IAF, based out of AFS Jodhpur.
The LCH, when fully operationalised, will fill a critical capability void experienced during the Kargil War.
LCH Prachand, however, misses crucial anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM), imported air-to-air missiles and electronic warfare (EW) suite. Both platforms are propelled by imported engines that India has failed to develop, 75 years after independence.
From a national perspective, development of such critical technologies must rise above numbers or economy of scale.
Devil in the Detail
As I have written before, there are few sights at sea as majestic as an aircraft carrier. Similarly, there are few sights on land more intimidating than a pack of fully-loaded attack helicopters popping up from nap of the earth. When the platform is your own, it adds an afterglow that is hard not to gush over. The devil, however, lies in detail.
Notwithstanding the spectacular commissioning ceremonies, both events miss some seemingly ‘minor’ details. Vikrant was commissioned without its raison d’être being successfully demonstrated — the launch and recovery of deck-based fighters.
LCH Prachand standing on the frontline at Jodhpur misses crucial anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM), imported air-to-air missiles and electronic warfare (EW) suite. Both platforms are propelled by imported engines that India has failed to develop, 75 years after independence.
Talks of ‘% indigenisation achieved’ often misses weightage for key components that decide ‘fly or ground’ status or ‘war fighting ability’ of the platform. Now that the celebrations are over, it is a good point to review some of those grey areas.
In retrospect, the large fleet of indigenous helicopters and fighters (ALH, LCA & their derivatives) represent one of the largest pools for indigenous aeroengine development. It is a prize catch engine OEMs would give an arm and a leg for. But we never had one; that bridge was crossed years ago. In 2022, we are no closer to an indigenous aeroengine powering any of the manned platforms, now or in the foreseeable future. This represents an era of ‘lost opportunity’ for indigenisation, leaving a critical vulnerability, while clearly rendering the numbers for future development even smaller.
In the Indian system of ‘distributed unaccountability’, one will be hard put to lay the blame for this situation at the doorstep of any one organisation or service. It is, nevertheless, a national loss because we hardly had a clear roadmap for achieving this key technology with a budget or driving force to match.
Projects like LCA, ALH or indigenous shipbuilding cannot be held hostage to technological barriers of indigenous engine development only an exclusive club in the world has mastery over. In that sense, the selection of engine for the platforms under discussion in this article were both timely and appropriate.
Can the PMO Push for Course Correction?
From a national perspective, development of such critical technologies must rise above numbers or economy of scale. It should be a matter of national shame that we claim to have ‘arrived’ under foreign propulsion on the tarmac of elite aircraft carrier, fighter and attack helicopter makers. As I see it, this situation is not set to change anytime soon.
It can, however, be corrected for future programs if there’s a push from above (PMO?). One way would be to consolidate all centres of aeroengine expertise in India under one agency, provide them adequate funding and implement deep oversight with strict deadlines. Heads should roll if project targets are not met; each penny spent should run the longest mile. There are engineers in HAL’s Koraput, Nasik and Bangalore divisions who have spent their entire adult life working with aero engines while scientists in GTRE spent theirs trying to develop a scalable jet engine without any field experience. These silos of excellence must be connected with each other for a common purpose.
Atmanirbharta Should Empower, Not Impede
The present regime has shown a remarkable appetite for path-breaking decisions. The signalling of 'Atmanirbhar Bharat' at the height of COVID-19 pandemic must have emanated from reasons best known to those in the highest echelons of government.
However, if left unbridled, open-ended, or worse — politicised, this campaign can run amok, especially within our armed forces where the question of ‘urgent versus indigenous’ often blurs and “in my watch” syndrome spawns 24-36 month arousal cycles.
Long-gestation projects of national importance need a steady helm and years of hand-holding. The prevailing frenzy, particularly driven by iDEX in its various tri-service avatars, to my mind, incentivises jugaad innovation rather than enabling cutting-edge technologies. Also, inter-service drag-racing for scoring atmanirbharta brownie points can have potentially detrimental effects on quality, costs, and last mile connectivity in the long term.
Strengthen Institutions; Don’t Short-Circuit Them
The air chief flying the LCA or HTT-40 prototype and giving it a ringing endorsement, or vice chief taking a joyride in prototype LCH in operational area before the platform is yet to mature makes for good optics and cross-border signalling.
Such photo ops can be dialled up by anyone in the system with a smartphone and the right contacts — it is a low hanging fruit, meant to create a flutter among the uninitiated. But it can have the deleterious potential to strip test crew of agency in matters clearly in their domain.
Flight testing is an exacting science that is process-driven. Conventional channels of testing and the lure of flash bulbs or big bang announcements are almost always at complete odds. Yet, in my experience, these lines have frequently been transgressed through needless intervention from senior echelons, often choreographed by the forces or the mandarins of MoD themselves. Usually in such cases the penny falls in favour of the PSU/DPSU, not the user.
DPSUs and the armed services have always enjoyed a close partnership, marked by trust deficit at lower levels and handshakes and bonhomie at higher levels. Under the present diktat of atmanirbharta, such equations should not weaken the arms of test crew or silence critics, users and maintainers. They are our greatest sounding boards and the true catalysts of self reliance in defence. It will be a sad pass if atmanirbharta becomes a ‘holy cow’ testers are reluctant to critique.
Negative Import Lists Do Not Help India's Defence Goals
One shudders to think of a “what if” scenario should the Europeans, Russians or Americans issue a ‘negative export list’ matching our ‘negative import list‘. For those ready to diss such an eventuality, do consider that the Indian government did not exactly consult other countries before issuing our list of banned imports; neither were these decisions taken to spite some or the other country. Nations act in their own national interests. It need not always align with others.
There was a time, long ago, when sanctions imposed by the Americans forced ADA to develop flight control laws for the LCA indigenously (in retrospect, a boon for the program).
Two decades later, are we any better off having signed up for thousands of imported engines and tons of subsystems? Sanctions from the west or east, today or a decade from now, should not ground the entire frontline. It is vital to identify such key technologies and re-energise their R&D while developing new pathways to arm for future conflicts.
That is true atmanirbharta. Diplomacy or allowing differing ‘perceptions’ alone cannot shift these ‘lines of actual control’.
Big Bang Announcements
Another disturbing trend, accentuated in recent years, is the propensity to make big bang announcements with unrealistic deadlines thus leaving the man on the ground to work backwards and prepare the stage for an ‘event’ rather than an ‘outcome’. INS Vikrant commissioning without a single fighter launch or recovery preceding it is an example. Process is as important as the outcome. While one understands the occasional need to crack a whip to remove sloth in the system, fixing dates before fixing process & product is doomed to fail in a high-technology race. Spectacle can never replace substance.
Sadly, because of high penetration of internet, social media and ‘Yes Man‘ syndrome (5G and “haan ji“), backed by ever-dwindling eye for details, this weakness can be exploited by those eyeing short-term or selfish goals. Once again, 2022 is a good point in history to introspect — are we arming for the next war? Or are we arming for the next election / post-retirement sinecure?
Where Do All Roads of Atmanirbharta Lead To?
Lastly, if all the main roads of ‘Make in India’ and atmanirbharta in defence lead to the same few gates in Bengaluru’s HAL 2nd Stage or leafy DRDO campuses in Hyderabad, very soon we may have a ‘tail wagging the dog’ situation where agencies dictate to the services how staff requirements must be written, wars are to be fought, or who is to be posted where.
That would be the “thousand mile screwdriver” nobody wants — almost “Putinesque” and must be avoided at all costs. How? I don’t know.
Maybe by spreading the losses and distributing the gains among a bouquet of competent and committed OEMs, prime contractors and system integrators, all of whom compete on a level playing field for contracts on competitive not cost-plus basis. As of now, we seem to be drifting ever so far away from that.
Here’s wishing the Prachand and Vikrant early operationalisation and many happy launches and recoveries. In closing, I must quote an old NBCD maxim: ‘to float; to move; to fight’. Let us not rest on our laurels till we “move” and “fight” on our own power.
The best time to start that campaign in Young India was the last millennium; the second best time in New India is now. Don’t declare victory too soon.
(The author is an ex-navy experimental test pilot. He is dual ATP-rated on Bell 412 & AW139 helicopters and a synthetic flight instructor on ALH Dhruv. He can be reached on Twitter @realkaypius. Views are personal. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)