OPINION: More Than Tejas, The IAF Needs To Take Over AMCA Project NOW

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.

10 thoughts on “OPINION: More Than Tejas, The IAF Needs To Take Over AMCA Project NOW”

  1. Subarno Sinha

    Although very late but still appreciated move by IAF. It should’ve been done atleast when the Flying Daggers squadron was beginning to take shape, or even better half a decade ago, when Tejas missed it’s FOC deadline of March 2012. Let’s hope that this late impetus turns out good for the project.

  2. Although a very late move but still appreciated. It should’ve been done when the Flying Daggers squadron first took shape a couple of years back. It could’ve been done when the HAL and ADA missed the deadline of FOC of March 2012.

  3. As correctly brought out, IAF should have been associated with LCA from d word “Go”. They did not do it. Seeking administrative control will change nothing. IAF cannot change the actors from DRDO and HAL who relish their ultra slow pace and lack of urgency.

    At present the IAF atleast has HAL and DRDO to blame. Once they take control, they will have no one else but themselves to be blamed while having no control over other two players.

    Hope IAF continues its hands off approach, which was wrong from the beginning but it is now the correct course of action.

  4. Privatise HAL and project team should be placed under experienced PMs…… The safe zone of salary every first of the month of callous government employees who have little respect for work, timelines and goals have to removed along with reservations at cutting edge of work spectrum…..a good team under an efficient AVM with support from good project managers will help

  5. I feel there should be big credit limit to the suppliers and with120 days interest free loans and let them complete the parts with wiring and pipes already installed with plug and play system so that it should have all parts systematically lined up and installed in Sulur base hanger. 80% of the work must be done by the suppliers and get the supply chain to bump up the production and start fitting every component in the Sulur hangers so that the cost can be reduced and production can be bumped . If India cannot make 28-30 Tejas per year then drop the project. Make at least 250 Tejas MK 1 A and then MK 2 with a new 142 KN engine and larger body and six thousand liters of fuel with cracked delta wings and canards and should have 23 hard points like F 16 XL on the same model. The modifications asked by Airforce must be incorporated and start the first production run 2020 with all the modifications made with almost complete components supplied by the suppliers that complete installation would be easier and quicker. In this 18 months set all the pieces together so that large production run be made . Let HAL supply the first 40 planes in next 7-8 years but with desperate situation and desperate measures I feel IAF should start assembly of these planes in Sulur hangers where a large pool of technicians and engineers can be made who would finally provide the service to these 10-12 Tejas squadrons. It seems to me that because of monopoly HAL is taking the nation for a ride. The money asked is exorbitant and I feel Air Force can do it more efficiently and economically than HAL.

  6. Spot on. The IAF should have led from the front from the start. The problem is the IAF has a ‘foreign is better’ complex. Putting an IAF officer in charge at this stage will achieve nothing. An IAF officer of whatever rank would not be the solution. A Group Captain will not even be taken seriously by his own seniors in the IAF. The thing to sort out with regard to Tejas at this stage is to finalize the FOC specification (IAF’s responsibility) and then sort out production (HAL’s responsibility). The real leadership that is needed is at the MOD, to lick the IAF, HAL, ADA et al into shape. Sadly that is missing. Parrikar was getting there but then keeping Goa in the BJP fold was more vital for the nation than sorting out the MOD.

  7. The IAF cannot blame the DRDO for unkept promises. The DRDO was the victim of sanctions post-Pokhran in 1998, which delayed the Tejas project for a full 2 years before it’s first flight in Jan 2001.

    It remained under sanctions for the most part of the previous decade, which explained why flight-tests were done with the utmost caution. Besides, most related projects were never linked to the Tejas’ timelines in the first place. A case in point is the Kaveri engine. It’s failure to meet requirements, never once delayed the Tejas’ progress, because it was anyway cruising along with the GE-F404 engines.

    Now let’s come to how the IAF is directly responsible for many years of delays in the Tejas:

    1) In early 2003, the IAF suddenly demanded a change in the wing-loading of the Tejas prototype. This change took a full 22 months to be executed by late 2004 to early 2005, as the developers had to go back to the drawing board and make structural changes.

    2) (And this takes the cake). In 2010, the IAF boffins suddenly remembered that the Tejas must have air-to-air refueling. The DRDO balked at this, but soldiered on because the IAF held up the FoC certification for want of this and many other 11th hour changes. The refueling probe was finally tested in 2017, though it had cleared many other tests in the interim.

    3) It’s late demands for a bigger engine (not realizing that it’s own demands earlier have led to a weight bloat), an AESA radar, more and more avionics have always forced the DRDO to revisit the drawing board many times in the past 10 years.

    The IAF must realize that project development is best done in phases. The moon can’t be expected in the very first iteration. This recaltricant attitude of the IAF is the primary reason for delays in the Tejas program, besides the US sanctions post-Pokhran 2.

  8. DEFINITELY YES !!!

    Even if we can’t make a 5th generation – make a 4th generation fighters & save our tax money from these scouting Boeings, Lockheeds, Migs, Saabs, Eurofighters & Dassaults…

  9. Looks like you are accusing IAF for delays of Tejas project. HAL has over 30 years of experience in aircraft manufacturing and repair . Why did HAL took 30 years to develop a jet that can replace MIG 21 (developed in late 50’s) . HAL can’t even complete the delivery of SU 30 in time. Typical government agency who is very pathetic when it comes to follow timelines

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