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Why IAF must convince Centre to ensure import substitution with indigenisation programme

Quality human resources have never been an issue for the Indian Air Force (IAF) ever since it started operating under the British, post-First World War Paris Peace Conference 1919-20. From ground engineering to logistics to maintenance to flying missions of all types, in all weather and from tarmacs—from the swampy jungles of Burma to the rugged, barren and hilly terrain of the North-West Frontier Province’s rudimentary air bases of Quetta, Drigh Road and Kohat—Indian fliers accomplished their mission with élan and ingenuity, proving their British rulers that, given a chance, they were second to none. In fact, the British could not have had emerged victorious in the Asian theatre without the steely resolve and sterling flying skills and qualities of the Empire’s pilots, navigators, gunners and ground handlers.

The foundation laid by the rigours of training and flying Spitfires seamlessly transformed the IAF into an institution of awe, inspiration and envy post-1947 operations—J&K in 1947-48; Indo-Pak War of 1965, 1971; and Kargil 1999. From the early-day Lysander and Tiger Moth to De Havilland Vampire, Ouragan, Mystere, Canberra, Hunter, Marut, Gnat, Ajeet, Sukhoi Su-7, MiG-21, 23, 25, 27, 29, Jaguar, Mirage 2000, Sukhoi Su-30MKI to now Dassault Rafale, it is a saga of glory that culminated with the celebration of completion of 85 years of the IAF on October 8, 2017.

With time, however, the operating environment of the IAF has changed, as things have become more challenging with the possible two-front air combat created by an aggressive Sino-Pak axis. What makes things more complex for the IAF is the traditional slow reaction of the government to address, among other things, the urgent hardware equipping and replenishment owing to its inability to develop steady and sustained indigenous air assets’ production. Virtual 100% imported foreign-origin fleet can neither give enduring confidence nor the ability to a force to face conflict of a long duration. The possibility of loss, attrition, delay and ‘sanction’, all become real-time ‘non-battlefield threat’ as seen in the past when foreign suppliers were pressured to either reduce or switch off the flowing supply tap in accordance with the big brother’s wishes—1965 War and post-1998 Pokhran nuclear test come to mind. Indigenisation, instead of import, has to be the foremost priority for the IAF—the sooner, the better.

This is because both China and Pakistan appear to have made considerable progress in air assets’ indigenisation vis-a-vis India. Instances galore can be cited. However, only a few would suffice to make a point. On January 11, 2017, came Jane’s Defence Weekly report “China’s twin-engine, fifth-generation, second FC-31 fighter prototype makes maiden flight.” Accordingly, the fighter made by the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation has “better stealth capabilities, improved electronic equipment, and a large payload capacity.” Interestingly, and not impressively, simultaneously came the Jane’s report that “India approves purchases worth over $1 billion.” For “materiel acquisitions worth `71.84 billion ($1.066 billion) and sanctioned the procurement of a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft for the Indian Air Force.” Not a very happy news for an Indian citizen surely. China indigenising. India importing? Both for national security!

Hardly a week passed and came three news items. One, “Russian Sukhoi Su-35 may be China’s last imported fighter.” Two, “China’s H-6K bomber shows new strike capabilities.” Three, “India seeks to make spare parts for licence-built Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighters.” Obviously, the contrast between China’s “last imported fighter” and “India seeks to make spare parts…” is too glaring to comment on.

Nevertheless, purely to take a lesson for India’s future air force programme, it must be noted that “China had been trying to acquire the Sukhoi Su-35—along with its Saturn 117S jet engine—from Russia for several years.” Once acquired, Beijing’s reverse engineering (which resorts to unethical commerce) nevertheless makes it ‘indigenous’, thereby helping it to be self-sufficient in defence preparedness. Clearly, not-too-friendly a power may also, at times, help learn and improve economics and defence.

It must be admitted that the ‘Chinese weapons designs’ have been ‘boosted by US experience, tech start-up companies’ in Beijing itself. As reported in April 2017, “Chinese nationals who previously worked for the NASA and other US research institutions have returned to China and used their training and exposure to the latest US high-tech R&D. This experience is then being applied to the development of a new generation of future Chinese weaponry.”

One has to concede here Beijing’s clever move to assign high priority to these non-resident Chinese (NRC) who now can “count on funding for their projects—consistent funding from year to year with no fears of looming budget cuts, as was the case back in the US.” “This combination of ‘job security’ plus their elevated status proved to be the powerful motivators” for the NRC, who now appear to be an engine of growth for Beijing’s weapons system indigenisation.

The latest situation, however, emerged from/in the May 2017 information that the single-engine Sino-Pak “twin-seat Pakistan Aeronautical Complex/Chengdu Aircraft Industry Corporation JF-17B Thunder/FC-1B Xiaolong combat aircraft has made its maiden flight,” which emphasised on increased payload and combat radius.

It thus speaks volumes about the IAF’s professionalism to maintain its glorious record and try and upgrade its assets in a complicated and deteriorating security environment of the 21st century. Although the IAF is neither the final decision maker nor the industrial policy planner, yet it needs to advise the government of the supreme importance of using indigenous air operation assets for future eventualities and maintain combat readiness without any possibility of supply disruption from foreign vendors in times of crisis. Surely, the IAF has both expertise and experience to navigate the Indian establishment.

The short of the long 85-year story of the IAF is that India must devise ways, means and methods to implement import-substitute with indigenisation programme for aircraft on which it should be embossed ‘Made in India’. The need of the hour is quiet confidence and cool, cold, calculated planning; without chest-beating. All leading powers make their own aircraft—the US, Russia, China, France are shining examples. Although other European powers have ceased to make their own aircraft, yet the four-nation Eurofighter Typhoon is still the torch bearer thereof. Against this background, continuous dependence on imported air assets will not take India forward. It is time for the state to act. And act fast. At 85, it is the bounden duty of the IAF to take the initiative to navigate and make a strong indigenisation case to convince the government. Surely, the government will listen.


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