By Bharat Karnad
Congratulations, Team Tejas! This is a historic day for the Indian Air Force as the first two Tejas Mk-1 light combat aircrafts, which had been inducted in the ‘Flying Daggers’ No. 45 Squadron, were handed over to the Indian Air Force in Bangalore. The 45 Squadron will be home-based at the Sulur AFB in Tamil Nadu. Since the late Seventies, this is the first time that an indigenous aircraft will be featuring the IAF roundels. The last time this happened was when the HF-24 Maruts were in the air order of battle; these were retired in the late Seventies. The Tejas formation will be headed by the experienced Group Captain Rangachari, who had put the plane through its paces at the Bahrain Air Show earlier this year. The two aircraft fleet will grow to four then to twenty. This is how aircraft fleet grow in air forces. Considering the step-motherly treatment meted out to the Tejas by the air force, it is a surprise to many that this Indian aircraft survived at all. It will now thrive.
Many recall that the MiG-21 fleet started with just two aircrafts flown in from Russia in late 1963 or thereabouts, grew to squadron strength around the time the hostilities broke out with Pakistan in 1965, eventually peaking to some 750-odd MiG-21 fighters in the IAF. For those hyperventilating about the initial small numbers of Tejas, they need to be reassured that this is normal. The US Air Force, which is considered gold standard by some, had just two JSF-35 Lightnings-IIs to begin with.
It is unfortunate though that Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar restricted the production of the Tejas to the DPSU — HAL, instead of also farming its manufacture, as advocated by me in this blog, out to private sector companies such as Mahindra Aerospace and Reliance Aerospace. Once these private sector companies get rolling, they will be far more efficient than HAL. In the process, it would have established a competitive production scheme, helped in getting a larger number of Tejas’ in the air fast and speedily enlarged the Tejas’ force fraction in IAF. Such a scheme would have gotten the best out of both the public and private defence industries. That’s the way to integrate public and private sector production.
Parrikar should also instruct the IAF to get the growing numbers of this aircraft to not just train in-squadron at Sulur, but also to various bases all over the country, including forward bases, to exercise the air defence component against Mirage 2000s, Su-50 MKIs, and Jaguar aircraft in the aggressor role.
It will speedily familiarize the rest of the IAF to the high-performing indigenous Tejas fighter, and sharpen the skills of the Tejas pilots by helping them to test, extend, and push its operational envelope.
And to ramp up its export potential, MOD and IAF should right away begin carting air attaches especially from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Maldives; and from the embassies of other countries of Asia such as Vietnam, Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia; and from Central Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Delhi to Sulur to begin with, and later to other air bases where the Tejas will be exercising with other combat aircraft, to see this Indian designed, developed, and built aircraft in action, and to naval air stations to watch the navalized Tejas in operations.
However the IAF naysayers are already cribbing. (See retired Air Vice Marshal Kapil Kak’s lament at http://www.thequint.com/opinion/2016/07/01/celebration-over-lca-calls-for-reforming-defence-sector-too-mig-21-indian-air-force-hindustan-aeronautics-ltd.) They say the Tejas took 33 years to get into full-scale production. It did, but that is starting from a zero baseline. Lockheed Martin JSF-35 took over 25 years and has problems galore. It is in fact rated a “lemon” by aviation experts. It is also said the Tejas will take another 15 years to be “combat worthy”! This is the kind of utter nonsense IAF often voices to dishearten the Indian citizenry and government in order to strengthen its case for continued import of combat aircraft. Parrikar better throttle this sort of bad mouthing in the crib, as it were, and tell the IAF brass in clear terms — no more imports after the Super Sukhois and FGFA! — and to get flying with the Tejas.
Bharat Karnad is a Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. He was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group.He is the author of, ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy’, ‘India’s Nuclear Policy’ and most recently, ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’.
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