The government has decided to go in for 120 Tejas Light Combat Aircrafts (LCA) instead of more Rafales over and above the 36 being ordered. Some are even salivating at the thought that this decision has been "rammed down the IAF’s (Indian Air Force) throat".
Going a step further, one "strategic expert" criticised the recommendation of the committee of experts looking into the Defence Procurement Procedure that acknowledges the primacy of the political executive in all decision making but adds that, “... in the choice of defence equipment, the armed forces must have the final say”. It all boils down to an understanding of what type of war(s) would the nation (not just the armed forces) be involved in – on which would depend the equipping of the Services.
How many fronts is India going to face? A two-front scenario is what everyone talks about, but it would actually be a "five-front" one – the northern border, the western part, the naval "frontier" down South and the two new challenges of space and cyber world.
The last two are parts of the threat continuum as also integral parts of any action that happens in the other three. The definition of "victory" and "defeat" has also changed. Both sides may believe that they have won, which when analysed from an outside perch, may show that both had lost in some form.
The Yom Kippur, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars are proof that "military victory" is just one part of a conflict while true victory is on a substantially different plane because in war, victory and defeat have a contextual hue.
Most assessments indicate India’s wars would be short and sharp, implying that time and intensity would be factors in the perception of (as different from making of) victory and defeat. So, India has to plan its defence procurements to enable its fighters address the five-front challenge in a short and sharp engagement, and if the confrontation drags on, it must have the "strategic" depth for a continuous supply chain that can come only from an indigenous arms industry. Defence procurements must have quality to ensure that war of the right intensity can be carried on with the enemy; and also ensure the timeliness of supply, so that the fighter has requisite firepower that assures a positive asymmetry over adversarial equipment, and lastly, capacity or quantity to enable him sustain the asymmetry over the period of confrontation.
So one is looking for equipment to achieve two aims, first, deterrence to prevent war, and second, if war is to be fought, fight to win. The process of equipping will always be primary, with its sourcing, though almost as important, coming in second.
Indigenous sourcing of military equipment gives "strategic depth" or "strategic autonomy" to a nation, but may not always be possible. So, the process of procurement needs to follow the dictates of ensuring positive equipment asymmetry, even if sourcing is from a foreign entity. Procurement decisions have to be correspondingly taken and recommendations made accordingly because it is the armed forces which have to implement the nation’s will. This is the scenario for which we have to prepare and weigh the decision to acquire more LCA.
The IAF’s objections to the LCA have been based on proven technical infirmities of the aircraft that would have been impediments in fulfilling its charter in the five-front scenario. Its doggedness to stick to its air staff requirements, plus the government’s push towards accountability, have put the required pressure on the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) to work towards overcoming the 50-plus shortcomings, the major ones being the absence of the advanced Active Electronically Steered Array (AESA) radar, air-to-air refuelling capability, a modern electronic warfare suite and Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missile capability. Re-positioning of major aggregates for the ease of maintenance (which was a major observation) has nullified the requirement to stretch the fuselage that would have increased aerodynamic drag to such levels as to require the more powerful F-414 engine. This obviates the requirement to have LCA Mk2 for the IAF.
43 of the observations have been resolved, leading to the government’s decision to acquire the 120 LCA. However, what is overlooked is that this decision would not have come about if the progress in the programme was not acceptable to the IAF. No government would want to "ram down" a weapon system, especially one as vital as a fighter aircraft.
There are many bridges to be crossed, the foremost being the capability of the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) to produce the required 12-plus LCA each year. The IAF requires serviceable aircrafts on the flight line and an assured supply chain, and the HAL would have to buck its track record to meet the requirement. In the interim, the IAF’s acceptance of LCA Mk1 should spur the ADA to accelerate the first prototype of the already delayed Mk2 for the Navy (which mandatorily requires a redesigned fuselage for the more powerful F-414 engine), and not "throttle back" in euphoria. It must also concentrate on keeping the futuristic Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft programme for the IAF on track.