India's Pitch for Self-Reliance: Post NLCA Success, Can Aerospace Be Stepped Up?

As 'historic' deck landing on INS Vikrant is celebrated, Indian aerospace technology's future needs to be reviewed.

4 min read
Hindi Female

It would have been a very tense few seconds of high adrenaline leavened with muted anxiety on the aircraft carrier INS Vikrant on Monday (Feb 6) as the naval version of the LCA (Light Combat Aircraft)—India’s indigenously designed and manufactured fighter aircraft (aka NLCA)—‘plucked’ an arrestor wire on the carrier and made the first deck-landing of the Tejas.

The jubilation on the Vikrant and a sense of pride rippling across the country as the visuals beamed on television screens were fully justified. India’s quest for ‘atmanirbharta’ (self-reliance) had just moved ahead in a small but significant manner.

While being a niche accomplishment specific to the navy, this event marked what Admiral Arun Prakash, former Naval Chief and a distinguished naval aviator who cut his teeth on the first Vikrant  described as “the culmination of many dreams—of naval planners, ship and aircraft designers, test pilots, ship’s crew and many more. Yet, it is only the first step in India’s quest for IAC–2(the second aircraft carrier) and the TEDBF (twin-engine deck based fighter.)”

The Birth of Tejas & Why the Project Took Time To Take Off

The LCA/Tejas was conceived in the early 1980’s with PM Indira Gandhi at the helm of the nation and the ADA (Aeronautical Development Agency) was set up in 1984 under the umbrella of the DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organization). 

This fighter aircraft was envisioned as a replacement for the Soviet-origin MiG fighter that was the backbone of the Indian Air Force and was to be indigenously designed and manufactured. This was an ambitious goal at the time, given that India did not have the necessary technological and industrial ecosystem to steer this project to fruition in a satisfactory manner. The fact that India was under US-led sanctions led to further constraints and the project did not make much headway.

While the air force remained ambivalent about the LCA given the initial hesitation even within the ADA, to its credit, the navy chose to invest in the yet-to-be-proven Tejas and evolved a naval version of the LCA for the aircraft carrier—the NLCA.

At one point, it was the navy that provided the funding for the LCA , since it had already acquired valuable experience in designing and building warships and was convinced that the nascent Indian effort symbolised by the ADA and its affiliates needed institutional support.

Despite Indian Navy's Steady Progress, Combat Aircraft Need Upscaling

Despite delays such as the decision to acquire the Gorshkov aircraft carrier from Russia (which diverted funds to the MiG-29K variant) and a long gestation period during trials— the navy stayed the course and the Feb 6 deck landing of the NLCA is testimony to this resolve. 

While cynics have pointed out that the LCA is still a technology demonstrator and the MiG was not designed as a carrier-borne aircraft—both valid observations, the true value of the first deck landing on the INS Vikrant is the demonstration of the progress made in acquiring substantial expertise in ship and aircraft design as well as in carrier operations.

The Vikrant which was commissioned in September last, was designed by an Indian naval team and built in the public sector Cochin shipyard ; and the NLCA is also the first indigenously designed and built-in India fighter aircraft—albeit modest in size and capability. But this success will provide invaluable experience and considerable confidence to the ADA/DRDO to work on the next aircraft—the TEDBF.

However, even while applauding the Indian effort, the scale of the challenge that India faces in the aerospace sector and its military implications merits objective review.

In relation to the navy and its combat capability, the current status of aircraft carrier capability is below the desired optimum operational level.  The efficacy of an aircraft carrier is derived from the quality of the fighter aircraft it embarks and currently, India is grappling with a complex challenge.

The existing MiG variants are an interim measure and a more modern aircraft is being identified but the acquisition process is complex and remains opaque. There is speculation about the French Rafale but this is yet to be confirmed. 

Indigenous Forays Aside, What Aerospace Industry Lacks

However, the greatest challenge for India is that all its military aircraft—both fixed-wing and rotary, are dependent on imports for their engines and ordnance. Russia, France (helicopters), and the USA (LCA engine ) are the main suppliers and two anomalies stand out.

The first is that despite the fact that India has been ostensibly ‘manufacturing’ Soviet-origin military aircraft domestically for almost 50 years, the reality is that this is more of assembling imported components and little or no design expertise has been obtained from Moscow. Design know-how is rarely transferred and consequently, India has modest aerospace design capability and the Kaveri engine is illustrative of the stasis in this domain.

The second is the lack of institutional support for developing a homegrown Indian aerospace industry, despite the critical importance of air power and related technological competence across every aspect of national endeavour. The higher defence management of the country has been relatively apathetic to this sector and unless this is redressed in a resolute manner—India will periodically claim symbolic success in an exaggerated manner, even while the substantive challenge remains unaddressed.

Sustained investment in R&D that is result-oriented has eluded India and this is not for lack of adequate human resources. The DRDO is hobbled by its sarkari ethos with creativity often being curtailed due to deeply ingrained bureaucratic conformity and the larger ecosystem is unable to nurture budding talent among younger scientists. The contrast with the outside world which recognises and encourages such talent is stark.

For example, the USA and its lead techno-strategic agency DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency ) has invested in many cutting-edge aerospace programs. FLA (Fast Lightweight Autonomy) is one that relates to small UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) that can fly at 65 feet per second and the lead scientist is a Dr Vijay Kumar of Penn University.

India has to acquire this kind of ecosystem that nurtures talent in academia, private sector and government agencies, where proven domain competence is allowed to flourish without being deflected by political and ideological considerations. 

(Commodore C Uday Bhaskar, Director, Society for Policy Studies, has the rare distinction of having headed three think tanks. He was previously Director at the National Maritime Foundation (2009-11) and the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (2004-05). He tweets @theUdayB. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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