From wanting almost nothing to do with it, to now wanting complete control over it, the Indian Air Force’s relationship with the country’s troubled Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) has trudged a high and endlessly rocky road. In the latest chapter of a fighter aircraft project that has come to be emblematic of project mismanagement, egotistical blame-games and execrable planning, one would have imagined the final stretch of the LCA Tejas would have had a semblance of calm determination. But, no.
A news story in India’s The Week reports that the Indian Air Force is officially pushing to wrest control of the LCA Tejas project and have it governed by an Air Marshal-rank officer. A handful of LCAs have been in squadron service with the 45 Squadron ‘Flying Daggers’ in the peninsular Sulur base since 2016, with more units to join over the next few years. A total of 123 LCAs are currently on order from state-owned airframer HAL. With the project administered by the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and executed by HAL, the troubled path the jet project has taken is a well-told story. As the ADA struggles to achieve even final operational clearance (FOC) of the baseline LCA Tejas — and the fate of the more capable proposed LCA Tejas Mk.2 unclear for now — and HAL so far unable to offer clarity on whether it can churn out LCAs as fast as the customer wants them, the struggles that have defined Project LCA stand accentuated more than ever at this late hour.
Smack in the middle of this messy mix lands the IAF’s proposal to take over. Now here’s why the IAF’s push is not only problematic, but also amplifies everything that’s chronically wrong with the LCA project:
For one thing, there is nothing that remotely suggests IAF-led leadership of the LCA project at this late stage is a solution to its continuing troubles and uncertainties. While turf wars and a chronic inability to collaborate has always been a defining characteristic of indigenous defence projects, Project Tejas typifies it to the greatest extent. Sure, the DRDO and HAL have a notorious proclivity for turf wars, but it has to be said that it was the IAF that chose not to have a deeper participation in Project Tejas from the start. Opting rather for a more grudging observatory role through the jet’s history with ‘status check’ meetings by officers all the way up the Chief of the Air Staff, it was the IAF’s own decision not to take a leadership role in administering Project LCA from its birth. This isn’t to suggest that doyens of the DRDO didn’t want it this way — of course they did. But the IAF lost an enormous amount of initiative, traction and control of the project when it chose the sidelines rather than the control room.
As the LCA Tejas limps towards final operational clearance, the last thing the jet project needs is an administrative overhaul. Things are too delicately poised now, both in terms of the pressures of manufacturing and flight test and the urgent requirement for clarity on the way forward, for any major moves. The Indian Navy has shown the way admirably in indigenous projects by staying embedded from the start, ensuring that no matter what the fight, military scientists, manufacturers and the customer were always fighting on the same side.
What the IAF should perhaps be focusing on now isn’t a violent administrative purge led by an Air Marshal a year or two from retirement and well past his flying years, but to allow a new generation of younger officers to mend relations and lay down no-nonsense templates for cooperation with sensible and well-defined targets. The only way the IAF should even contemplate control is if it is willing to hand the reins to an officer no senior than a Group Captain, who could be from any branch, but preferably a pilot. Putting an Air Marshal in charge at this stage would merely add another revolving door to the blur of lame leadership the Tejas has had to endure, an affliction that has been heightened by a string of disinterested HAL bosses and civilians with sub-optimal appreciation of what the IAF really needs and why its demands or so stringent.
And no, no matter what anyone’s telling you, the LCA Tejas’s targets and guidance going forward are woefully up in the air. An Air Marshal taking up the reins is going to achieve nothing that Air Marshals in the past haven’t. An Air Marshal isn’t going to necessarily fix HAL’s manufacturing rate issues or the serious technological challenges the LCA still faces in the airspace still left between now and final capability.
Far from alleviating the administrative woes that have played front and centre in the execution of Project Tejas, an IAF move to wrest control would probably do exactly the opposite of what it intends to. The current structures that govern the Tejas are woefully in need of whip-crack that freezes targets that can’t be manipulated by the players involved. But a shuffle of administrative leadership would likely alienate the turf-obsessed stakeholders, driving the project even further into the blackhole it has only lately been able to claw itself out of. In terms of project leadership, HAL and the Indian Air Force have had a history of distrust and bad blood, even though hands-on cooperation at the working level has fared well on earlier projects. Not so on the Tejas, sadly.
Relations between the IAF, HAL and the DRDO (well, the ADA) have actually deteriorated since tentative squadron service began in 2016, so the IAF’s fresh proposal to take over isn’t remotely surprising. It is a move borne from exasperation that has actually peaked over the last three years. And that exasperation has been distributed equally across the three since the project began. With the Tejas now in service, it perhaps likely that the IAF’s late keenness for control is motivated by the frustrations of dealing with ADA and HAL — and these are significant.
The IAF has been accused by the ADA and HAL of shifting requirement goalposts, blowing hot or cold during the prototype phase, being whimsical at meetings and displaying a disparaging outlook to the aircraft in general. The IAF has been armed with very legitimate accusations of its own: HAL’s relative disinterest in the LCA Tejas project (this has changed recently as a result of orders and the operational imperative), and the DRDO’s chronic stream of technological promises that have almost never been met — or met on time.
It’s a good time to remember the LCA Tejas imperative squares off against India’s rebooted quest for over 100 foreign fighters to be built in India, a requirement so aggressively pushed by the IAF, that a whole generation of young Indians has probably never even heard of the Tejas. Cynics will wonder if the IAF’s quest for administrative leadership is to speed up and correct the baseline Tejas in its (hopefully) last mile or simply to oversee the winding down of a project that sections in the force have always perceived as an albatross around their necks.
There is no question, here on Livefist at least, that the LCA Tejas is too valuable and important a project to see dwindle and ultimately fail. Milestones of the last four years have proved that the jet, in significant numbers, could more than replace the MiG-21 — the whole reason why the jet project was initiated in the first place.
The idea of an IAF thumping its fist on a desk and taking over is an evocative one. And it certainly lends itself to possibility of a violent, but necessary fix. But let’s remember that it is, ultimately, also a withering admission. And if Project LCA is turned on its head and handed to the IAF to control — as it should have been from the start — the aircraft deserves a ruthlessly clear path forward.
If the IAF wants to take control of anything at this time, it should be of the AMCA and Ghatak projects — the two truly futuristic aircraft projects in the country. Leadership from this early stage of a fifth generation fighter and stealth unmanned combat aircraft could avoid all the senseless pitfalls that the Tejas was subjected to as a result of bad planning early on.