Tejas should be the lynchpin of India’s defence export strategy

HAL is the leading aircraft manufacturer in the country and will continue to be so in the foreseeable future
Last Updated 30 January 2021, 18:55 IST

The recent clearance by the CCS for the IAF’s procurement of 83 Tejas Mk 1A aircraft is a shot in the arm for HAL, the manufacturer. It adds to the earlier order of 40 Mk 1 aircraft, whose final deliveries are likely to be completed by early 2022. This would ensure continuity in production for HAL, a vital aspect that is necessary for the industry to sustain and grow. It is the culmination of a long-awaited order process and a huge boost for the Indian defence industry. With an increasing focus on Atmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India), the national leadership needs to ensure that this is just the beginning of a well-crafted strategy. Aerospace capability is vital for India to become self-sufficient in critical technologies.

HAL is the leading aircraft manufacturer in the country and will continue to be so in the foreseeable future. Given its huge infrastructure investments made over decades, and the fact that it is the leading DPSU, it would be a few decades before any private player achieves comparable stature. The government’s past policy of restricting defence production to the public sector became the undoing of all attempts at self-reliance and indigenisation in the past. The fact that HAL was doing everything -- a poor strategy -- led to delays in delivery, problems in supply chain control and product support, quality and reliability issues, and poor export orientation. Learning from the past, HAL announced that it intends to focus on its role as systems integrator, retain control over design, development, quality and delivery, while much of the manufacturing would be outsourced to private industries. Outsourcing should be substantive -- to the extent of 70-80%. Such a strategy is vital for India’s aerospace ecosystem to develop and mature.

If the Tejas is to succeed as a fine example of self-reliance, lessons from the experience of the HF-24 Marut and ALH projects should not be forgotten. The HF-24 Marut, India’s first indigenous fighter aircraft developed under Jawaharlal Nehru’s leadership, was a fine achievement, but was phased out prematurely, in less than two decades, due to poor strategy. Successful aircraft and engine developments all over the world are characterised by continuity and block development strategy. This was not followed for the HF-24. When the Tejas programme began more than 20 years later, there was no continuity in terms of people, experience and knowledge management from the previous effort. Now that the Tejas is in series production, it is vital to follow the block development approach, building incremental improvements into the aircraft with each block of manufacturing. A series development strategy of going from Mk 1 to Mk 1A to Mk 2, and further to TEDBF (twin-engine naval fighter) is the right way to consolidate and stabilise the overall ecosystem, skill levels, and more importantly increasing indigenisation.

The Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) is an unqualified success of indigenous helicopter development. The lesson is primarily in the area of exports. While the ALH is a success story of how a development strategy of different variants based on a basic core platform gives rich dividends, HAL’s attempts at exports lacked a coherent strategy and supply chain control. The export results of ALH has clearly been a failure. Large orders from the Army, Air Force, along with few orders from the Coast Guard and the paramilitary forces ensured a sufficiently large domestic order to sustain production. This experience and continuity led to the development of the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) and the Light Utility Helicopter (LUH). However, successful exports would have given a major boost to Indian industry and would have enabled an increased role for the private industry.

If the lessons of the Marut and ALH are absorbed well, HAL as the OEM of Tejas must embark on an aggressive export strategy. India’s weakness has been its indifference to the idea of defence exports as a major component of the national economy and industrial development. Contrast this with France’s national strategy, articulated by its leaders immediately after 1945, wherein the defence industry and armament exports formed a critical component of rebuilding the economy. The logic was clear – defence industry and armament exports had a vital role in nation-building in terms of science and technology, education and skills, research, and economic development. The French defence industry, which was dependent on American assistance and licence production till the 1950s, achieved self-reliance by the 1960s, when they became a major exporter of arms to over 100 countries.

The Tejas should form the lynchpin of our export strategy. If strategised correctly in terms of cost, timely delivery and product support, the aircraft can become an excellent export prospect, though the global fighter market is ruthlessly competitive and is exceptionally difficult for new entrants. This requires an integrated effort that combines foreign policy, military diplomacy, and aggressive defence marketing and cooperation. Since the Mk1/1A incorporates critical equipment that are of foreign origin (for example, the GE engine) it makes eminent sense to create risk-sharing partnerships with these companies to ensure successful exports. Effectively, this 4/4.5-generation aircraft should be pitched as the best value for money to a large number of countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America. While the Mk 1 and 1A become the most affordable high-performance aircraft and best value for money, the trainer by itself has immense potential. The Tejas trainer is an ideal aircraft for the LIFT (Lead-In Fighter Trainer) role for all air forces.

Export of the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft is vital for the Indian aircraft industry and the establishment of a vibrant aerospace manufacturing ecosystem. A successful export strategy could result in a production run of 300-400 additional fighters. This would energise the industry, develop a huge pool of highly skilled manpower, and boost the quality of Indian aircraft manufacturing. In turn, it would accelerate the development of next-generation aircraft such as the AMCA, UAVs/UCAVs, and maybe even the development of a bomber. In sum, export strategy for the Tejas must start at the earliest, now that the IAF’s order for 83 Mk 1As is a reality.

(The writer was Deputy Chief of Integrated Defence Staff at HQ, IDS, and was responsible for policy plans and force structure development (PP &FD) of the three Services. He is president of The Peninsula Foundation (TPF), a policy think tank based in Chennai)

(Published 30 January 2021, 18:33 IST)

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