A planned vilification campaign is now underway against the indigenous Tejas Light Combat Aircraft programme. It has been initiated in newspapers and internet sites. It’s now even on television — with TV channel reporters always ready for a joy ride in the Swedisg Saab Gripen NG or the American Lockheed Martin F-16, talking down Tejas as they have done in the past. (See, for example )
This campaign is framed around a briefing by the Indian Air Force (IAF) and demanded by National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, who, supposedly, wanted some clarity on the single-engine aircraft the service is pushing for to, in quick time, enlarge a fieldable force of fighter squadrons.
The Laughable Comparisons
Some of the comparisons of the 4.5 generation Tejas with Gripen and F-16 are laughable but swallowed whole by the press and electronic media that don’t know any better. The IAF is dead set against the antique F-16. And unless the Modi government succumbs to the Trumpian pressure (already evident in Mattis’ and Tillerson’s visits) and compels IAF to buy this wretched old aircraft — and set back the indigenous defense industry by another 60 years, as last happened when the Indira Gandhi government and the IAF bought the Jaguar and killed off the Marut Mk-II in the 1970s — there’s no way the F-16 will sport the IAF roundels.
So, the fight is really between the home-grown and home-designed Tejas and the foreign Swedish maal.
On the notional basis of the performance so far of the LCA operational ‘Flying Daggers’ 45 Squadron at Sulur AFB, Andhra Pradesh, these are the issues and figures given out which will be dealt with here ad seriatim.
Truth is that right now the maintenance time is 14 hrs per 100 hrs of flight. But this is an entirely new aircraft with built-in diagnostic systems that are experience-driven. Meaning, the more the maintenance crews become conversant with the aircraft, the less is the time they spend on its upkeep. Moreover, the maintenance hours put in on the aircraft is also a function of the confidence of the pilots in the fighter plane.
An entirely new genus of aircraft necessarily results naturally in greater wariness of the pilots and their requirement that even the minutest doubts they may have be addressed. In other words, with more Tejas entering squadron service and more pilots becoming familiar with it on the basis of the sharing of piloting experience and technical solutions, the less will be the demand for the kind of thorough maintenance the LCA presently is subjected to, and the maintenance protocol will be adjusted over time to trim the upkeep timeline. This is ABSOLUTELY NORMAL.
Know the Difference Between F-16 and Tejas
In contrast, the F-16 is a 50-year old aircraft whose basic planform/architecture hasn’t changed a whit even as bells and whistles have been added periodically to upgrade the aircraft. It is as comfortable as your old pyjamas. And by which reckoning, perhaps, the IAF can call back the old Hunter aircraft — which was a wonderfully easy aircraft to fly and maintain.
The Gripen, likewise, has logged a huge number of hours and because our military is institutionally inclined to accept anything foreign on faith, the Swedish item apparently evinces no worries.
Even more farcical is the IAF’s griping about ‘endurance’ — one hour for the Tejas vs three hours for Gripen and six hours for F-16. Here, the IAF is borrowing from the Indian Navy’s rejection of the naval LCA.
But the Tejas wing area (storing fuel) is larger at 38.4 square metres compared to 30 square metres for Gripen. So, how to explain the touted figures? Easy — compare apples and oranges!
What is quoted for Gripen is its ferry range, for Tejas the fully mission-loaded operational range at 0.7 Mach speeds. Is this fair?
Further, if aerial refuelers are used, the LCA range can be increased manifold (just as Gripen’s can be and F-16s). This was proven when the Tejas flew to Bahrain for the 2016 Air Show with ONE refueling stop.
Even more ridiculous are the purported concerns about the Tejas’ lifespan – 20 years vs 40 years for the Gripen/F-16.
The fact is that the normal life of planes is 25 to 30 years, or 3,000 flying hours. The Tejas has been designed for four times this span at 12,000 hours. At 3,000 opl hours is when the airframe of the LCA will have to undergo strenuous tests to ensure there is no metal fatigue.
But in 30 years, manned combat aircraft will be fully extinct. They actually already are, as I have repeatedly pointed out.
So whether the Tejas lasts 12,000 hours is hardly relevant, no more in any case than whether the F-16 will be mission ready in its 100th year with IAF.
One fervently hopes the Narendra Modi regime has enough sense to not buy the F-16 museum piece, and Doval to see that the Tejas is not being sidelined just so the purchase of the Gripen goes through.
If IAF wants more combat aircraft quickly, farm out the production of the Tejas to the private sector, which I have been suggesting for many years now. With two aircraft production lines at HAL and two, three, or even four more lines with one each for Tata, L&T, Mahindra, and Reliance Aerospace (throw in the Adanis — if Modi is determined on it) — with each rolling out 18 LCAs per year — the IAF will have a large force of constantly improved and upgraded Tejas LCAs in less time than it will take to get the game up with Gripen/F-16.
It will also once and for all shut down all excuses for looking abroad for “single engine” fighters.
The comparable cost, clean configuration (with respect to weapons, etc): Tejas for $25 million, Gripen $50 million, and the rocking chair-ready F-16 at $100 million. WHERE’S THE COMPETITION?
But the military services have realised that they can meet their craving for imported hardware by simply riding on Modi’s ill-conceived ‘Make in India’ policy, which makes nonsense of it.
Stop this procurement nonsense, madam Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. And as first order of business, instruct Vayu Bhavan to immediately terminate the vilification campaign against the Tejas.
And messengers Modi and Doval better take note.
(This article was first published on bharatkarnad.com and has been republished with permission. Bharat Karnad is a Research Professor in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. You can read other blogs by him here. 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 )