Admiral Arun Prakash, Indian Navy chief from 2004-06, has been an eloquent and unsparing commentator on matters military since he retired from service over a decade ago. The veteran aviator and war hero (he was decorated for gallantry over enemy territory during the 1971 war with Pakistan) was part of the team that ferried the first Sea Harriers to India in the 1980s, going on to lead the Indian Navy from July 2004. Now based in Goa, Admiral Prakash has been an insightful and critical voice particularly on the state of Indian aviation — from indigenous projects to India’s quest for jets from abroad. Livefist had a quick chat with him for our very first podcast. The transcript of the podcast follows:
SHIV: Our first question is on a topic you’ve recently written and tweeted about.Your views on the current status of the LCA project.
ADMIRAL ARUN PRAKASH: If you look at the LCA’s history and the juncture we have arrived at, things don’t look too good. In future, HAL is going to deliver 5, 6, 7 aircraft to the Indian Air Force per year, then things don’t look too bright. At the same time am of the firm conviction that the LCA represents the future of India’s aeronautic industry. If we do not make a full success of this project then I’m afraid our aeronautic industry is doomed to become a licensed production assembly etc, so we have to make this project a success — and by success I mean it should get full operational clearance, the production should be wrapped up to 15-20 aircraft per year so that the air force can build up its strength, production run should go into 200-250 aircraft and it should go into various versions (Mk.1, Mk.2). That’s my definition of making the LCA a complete success.
SHIV: The Indian Air Force has lately moved a proposal to take control the LCA project. Your views?
ADMIRAL ARUN PRAKASH: Before I go into this, let me go back to the Indian Navy’s own experience in warship building. Now nobody can deny that it’s been a success. And the reason for success is that the Indian Navy took ownership of every single warship building program — it insisted on participating at every level, and invariably the head of every shipbuilding yard is a retired naval officer. That is the secret of success. Now if you look at corresponding aeronautic issue, every project has either civil, starting from the Marut or the Kaveri turbojet engine, the LCA project and even if u look across the spectrum of other defence PSUs, the problem has been the involvement of the user. Now for whatever reason, the IAF decided to keep its distant from the LCA, which in my opinion was a big mistake. So now they’ve realized the mistake and want to participate in it, and I think that’s a welcome sign. Because the LCA project has only reached the half-way mark, development is over, flight testing is over and now we are going to go into production and as I mentioned unless we have a run of 200-250 aircraft, the LCA is not going to be a success. To me this phase is as crucial as the previous phase — it is important to involve the user and what better way than to involve an air force personnel as the head of the agency.
SHIV: While the LCA for the Air Force is tentatively on track, your views on the LCA Navy not headed towards operational service.
ADMIRAL ARUN PRAKASH: The LCA Navy is linked with aircraft carriers. If it can perform from the aircraft carrier then the navy will take it, no doubt, but if it cannot then the navy has to have some other options. The background is this: the navy with its eyes fully open embarked on th LCA Navy project sometime in the early 1990s. We were fully aware of the challenge to convert land-based aircraft into a carrier-capable aircraft. It’s very rare. And the scientist at DRDO had told us that it’s going to be a challenge. The navy accepted this challenge and was fully aware that it may work out or may not — there might be delays. And knowing all this, the navy funded it because the navy is very keen that our aircraft designer and aircraft industry should gain experience so the navy had insured against it. If the LCA worked out well and good, we would put it on IAC 1 (India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier, the new Vikrant-class). Should it by any chance not work out, as an insurance the navy went out and acquired 49 MiG-29Ks and the current chief has said that the LCA Navy is not at the moment ready to embark an aircraft carrier. And yet they haven’t withdrawn support. The navy hasn’t withdrawn and it has to meet its current operational commitments for which they are looking elsewhere.
SHIV: What lessons from the Light Combat Aircraft need to be applied to India’s future aircraft projects like the fifth generation AMCA?
ADMIRAL ARUN PRAKASH: Lesson that needs to be learnt at the national level is that you cannot have aspirations for regional power unless you have a viable arms industry of your own. If u want to keep looking over your shoulder for support in this field then you will remain dependent and under obligation to some country or the other. So therefore your objective of strategic autonomy will never be achieved. Today we are abjectly dependent on Russia because 75 per cent of our stuff comes from there, spare parts etc. Tomorrow we will be dependent on the U.S. because we’ve purchased $10 billion worth. So u cannot be a power of any sort unless you attain autonomy in weapon production. This lesson has to be understood at the political level. The country’s statesmen should understand that as a part of whole matrix, your military industry complex should be as self-sufficient as possible. So lesson 1) – there must be a politician or a statesman with a vision for India’s military power, that, I’m afraid, has not existed for last 70 years. Look around you: China, as soon as they kicked out Russia in the early 1960s, China immediately launched a project that was a project of reverse engineering. The first twenty years they did reverse engineering for every piece of Russian equipment they had. Then they went on — today they are almost at the verge of competing with the US. You look at our western neighborhood, onto Pakistan, they decided they wanted to be self sufficient and started the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, manned completely by PAF, the head is always PAF man, they have heavy factory in Takshila – built tanks, armoured vehicles. So political vision is necessary. And lesson 3 — People who you select for strategic projects must be qualified. Scientists are great people in the labs, technocrats are great people on the shop floor but project management is a skill that doesn’t come with degrees. You have a huge youth pool of armed forces people, who are users used to meeting targets. Or if you don’t like soldiers in uniform – go to the private sector choose people who are bright and full of initiative. So these are the three keys: a political vision, user interface and project management. Without these three we will not get anywhere.
SHIV: Alongside the LCA and AMCA projects, India has rebooted its quest to build foreign fighters in country. Your views?
This is obviously a firefighting solution. It is an imperative which is required for our national security. At this moment you can see the air force strength is dwindling, the navy has less aircraft, so this is an imperative to bridge the current gap. However if there is political wisdom and vision behind this acquisition then we can still make up for lost time. If you are going to build 100-150 foreign aircraft in India, then that process must be accompanied by a parallel process of actually learning transfer of technology in the real sense, precision engineering etc and at the end of this thing when we finish building these 100 aircraft we should have the capability to make a Mk.2, a turbojet etc. HAL has built 3,000 aircraft so far but have they learnt how to modify it? For the MiG-21 upgradation we had to go to Russia. So this process must be backed by political vision which am afraid is lacking at this moment. You build aircraft under license but in the process you develop a capability to design and build your own aircraft, design, turbojet engine. I keep emphasizing turbo jet engine because an aircraft industry which doesn’t have its own turbo jet engine is not going to go very far.