For all the piles of files and numbingly endless process, who said there’s no drama in Indian military procurement? While the interrelationships of government leaders, diplomats and bureaucrats regularly fuel press room banter, it’s a rare occasion when an alleged ill-feeling between serving military officers is alleged to be the driving factor of a proposed armament purchase. Especially when that allegation flows from the pen of a well-recognised strategic affairs scholar and columnist.
Bharat Karnad, whose own blog describes him, perhaps a touch immodestly, as ‘India’s foremost conservative strategist’, wrote a blog post this week that his audience and those who track his writings on defence matters would have interpreted as pretty typical Karnad fare — sardonic, aggressively argued, generously infused with details, and eminently readable. Take a moment, if you will, to read Karnad’s column.
The thrust of what Karnad argues is that the Indian Navy likely dumped the LCA Navy light fighter program last year as a result of a personal hostility between two serving officers: Commodore Jaideep Maolankar, who heads the LCA Navy flight test unit, and his batchmate, Rear Admiral Surendra Ahuja, who oversees the aircraft carrier and warship production/acquisition projects at the Naval Headquarters. Now here’s the operative crux of Karnad’s column which he says is the reason why the Indian Navy decided to walk away from the LCA Navy instead of ordering a crack team to fix the aircraft’s problems and stay committed to seeing it fly off India’s next carrier:
“This was not feasible for many reasons, among them : (1) A personal mountain of reason — bad blood between the lead test pilot in the naval LCA program, Cmde Jaydeep Maolankar, and Rear Admiral Surendra Ahuja, Assistant Controller Carrier Project and Assistant Controller Warship Production and Acquisition at NHQ. By all accounts, Maolankar is a top rated flier dedicated to the Tejas but Ahuja, with no flying experience, is nearer the seat of power and who, perhaps, to spite Maolankar, a batch mate, whose failure to make it to the next rank — however that was managed — was the talk in naval circles, convinced the naval brass that the LCA was no-go, and that its prospects are bleak.“
Those are heavy-duty allegations to make, and one would have perhaps expected a formal rebuttal from the Indian Navy to set the record straight as it sees it. But before we get into what Livefist has heard from top officers in the navy, a quick disclaimer. Livefist has been an unwavering proponent of the LCA program — and your correspondent shares Karnad’s considered view that the LCA Navy doesn’t deserve to be shelved. However, the columnist has chosen to swing a very heavy bat — a practice usually advisable when you’ve got a force field of fact.
Let’s start with the ludicrously inaccurate claim that Rear Admiral Surendra Ahuja has ‘no flying experience’ — a claim that Karnad appears to gamely rest his argument on. Not only is Ahuja the Indian Navy’s first “new mould” tailhook trapper, he also became the first pilot to land on the INS Vikramaditya in 2013. That Ahuja’s credentials as an aviator even needed burnishing after such a preposterously false attack from an individual widely seen as a respected member of the strategic community is unfortunate in itself. A senior Indian Navy officer who has worked with both Ahuja and Maolankar told Livefist that the Naval HQ had considered formally contesting Karnad’s suggestions, but finally decided not to.
The officer told Livefist, “A damaging attack has been made. It is therefore very important clarify on these comment made by the author on the professional competence of Rear Admiral Surendra Ahuja. The officer in question is an Experimental Test Pilot and a Flight Instructor, having got the former qualification from the reputed Test Pilot School of the Indian Air Force and the latter from the US Navy. He has flown some 20 odd aircraft, has experience of flying from aircraft carriers, has commanded an Air Squadron and also the prestigious air station at Goa, INS Hansa. He also did the flight evaluation of the MiG-29K in Russia for the Indian Navy and was the founding leader of the Navy’s erstwhile formation aerobatic team ‘Sagarpawan’. It is shocking and surprising that the author has attempted to sully the image of one of the finest naval aviators of the Indian Navy.”
As you may have noticed, Karnad has ‘augmented’ his column inserted an ‘errata’, apologising for the error in his description of Ahuja’s career credentials. On the motives he ascribes for the ‘abandoning’ of the LCA Navy program, however, Karnad appears to have stuck to his stand that it is an animus between the two officers.
The senior naval officer quoted above also told Livefist, “To speculate on bad blood between brother officers is malafide and undermines the professional ethos and morale of the armed forces. Further, to speak of professional rivalry in such a manner is damaging to the system and highly irresponsible. Both the officers in question are professionally sound and highly regarded Test Pilots. They are doing the job assigned to them. If professional disagreements do come up in jobs such as these, this is, in fact, reflective of the health of the system and is encouraged.”
The navy has stood by both officers, who find themselves abruptly thrust into an unseemly and damaging spotlight. Chagrin at Naval Headquarters is also wholly unsurprising, given that Karnad’s column rides on two implications, one intended, the other possibly not. One, that an officer has used personal rivalries to deliberately jimmy the system to favour the purchase of imported aircraft. And two, perhaps unintended but no less scathing, that the officer entrusted with seeing the LCA Navy completed satisfactorily for service, hasn’t been able to sort out what Karnad reduces in his column to a trifle over weight. It is that first suggestion, however, that the navy is understandably more alarmed by.
To be sure, both Ahuja and Maolankar are among the top crop of naval aviators, both highly qualified former Sea Harrier pilots — and both handpicked to lead the navy into the uncharted seas of future naval aviation.
Let’s be clear. The suggestion by Karnad that indigenous development has been insidiously sacrificed at the altar of foreign imports isn’t unreasonable per se — nor surprising. It has happened before on too many occasions to name. The vicious cycle of planning, budgets and priorities dooming the golden goose quest for a self reliance ideal remains a hallmark of Indian military modernisation. However, the immediate allegation has clearly injured the navy. In conversations that Livefist had with the officer quoted above, as well as others aware of the LCA Navy program spoke out for the first time on condition of anonymity on the process that led up to the apparently onerous decision to walk away from the LCA Navy. A second officer, speaking to Livefist in the context of Karnad’s column, cast new light stands cast on the contentious 2016 decision that was received with some shock. He said, “To suggest that the Indian Navy’s leadership at the apex and that of the Ministry of Defence, led by the then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, himself would get misled by just one or two officers is not reflective of the reality. It is actually proposterous and betrays a lack of understanding of how things really work. There are detailed processes and procedures in place that lead to an eventual decision in the Service HQ and the Ministry of Defence.”
The officer also shared with Livefist these first ever details on that decision:
“The issue of LCA (Navy) was initially debated at the Naval Headquarters and then in the DRDO HQ wherein both teams [that of the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and that of the Indian Navy] made their points. Based on the discussions, the DRDO senior leadership forwarded their recommendations to the then Defence Minister. The case was then presented to the Ministry of Defence. Those who participated in the meeting included senior representatives from the Indian Navy, Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), National Flight Test Centre (NFTC), DRDO and the Ministry of Defence. All those who attended made their points and an eventual decision was arrived at by the Defence Minister. To refer to this decision in a trifle manner is highly inappropriate and does no good to the nation. It was only after the Minutes of the Meeting were approved by the Ministry of Defence that the Chief of the Naval Staff announced the decision on the Navy Day (04 Dec) last year.”
As Livefist reported earlier this year, the LCA Navy continues to be funded by the Indian Navy — and therefore continues to fight back. To be sure, the Indian Navy’s quest for new aircraft will be the centrepiece of scrutiny in the months and years ahead (the excellent Stratpost recently did a deep dive on the headwind the navy flies into). We’ve learnt something today. Perhaps there’s more to look forward to. There would be no greater affirmation of the Indian Navy’s comparatively impressive position on indigenous projects than if the LCA Navy Mk.2 receives the support it needs to prove itself worthy of service.