The indigenously made single-engine fighter Tejas, now 30 years in the making, isn't yet good enough to protect the Indian skies on its own. This is what the Indian Air Force (IAF) has gently but firmly told the Narendra Modi-led NDA government.
The government recently told the IAF to scrap its plans of acquiring single-engine fighters through the "Make In India" route and instead go for the totally homemade Tejas.
There are only two proven single-engine fighters. They are the JAS 39 Gripen, a single-engine multi-role fighter manufactured by the Swedish aerospace company Saab, and the US-made F-16, manufactured by Lockheed Martin. While the USA has been applying diplomatic pressure on India to go for the F-16s, former defence minister Manohar Parrikar's Sweden visit in 2016 indicated that India was also considering the Gripen.
The Modi government is keen to reduce India's dependence on foreign defence platforms and wants to create a defence manufacturing hub in India. Parrikar, during his short but eventful tenure, ensured that the IAF agreed to induct the homemade fighter, and to be fair, Tejas has received the support of the forces, especially the IAF, which has agreed to buy 123 Tejas fighters, though not fighting fit yet.
India's quest for a home-grown fighter
What the Modi government is doing now has been tried earlier too. Tejas isn't India's first homemade fighter.
Charged by the Nehruvian vision of industrial and economic self-reliance, the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) - a defence public sector unit (PSU) that now produces the Tejas - had produced the twin engine HF-24 Marut, India's first indigenous fighter-bomber in the 1960s. Work for the Marut began in mid-1950s. Kurt Tank, who had designed the Fockë-Wulf-190 - one of the top performing German fighters during World War II - was persuaded by Jawaharlal Nehru to take over the responsibility of making the Marut.
The first fighter was handed over to IAF's Dagger Squadron on April 1, 1967. The Marut proved its mettle in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. Two squadrons of the Marut would fly more than 300 combat sorties during the fortnight-long hostilities between India and Pakistan. Not a single Marut was shot down or damaged by the enemy. By the mid-1970s, the fighter had reached 70 per cent indigenisation. A total of 147 Marut fighters were built before they were decommissioned in the 1980s.
However, the Marut was under-powered and proved too expensive to maintain. And like the Marut, the Tejas too has technical limitations.
The homemade dream and the problems therein
According to those who have given the best years of their life to the IAF, the Tejas is small, nimble, and unique, but it has its share of problems as well.
The Tejas requires more man-hours to maintain, cannot carry as much ordnance as its counterparts and most importantly, cannot fly as far as the others in a single sortie. Other single-engine fighters can be effective over a radius of over 500km whereas the Tejas can do just 300km. The radius of action of the Tejas is far smaller, making it less effective.
Balancing the short-, medium- and long-term needs of India
The IAF's firm rejection is based on the short- and medium-term need to build capabilities to deal with threats from either Pakistan or China or both. The number of fighter aircraft IAF has is dwindling steadily. It will lose another 11 fighter squadrons by 2019-20, bringing the total strength down to 22 fighter squadrons.
Lack of spares and poor serviceability of fighter aircraft means a further drop in number of fighters for operational task on a given day.
In contrast, Pakistan has between 24 and 27 squadrons and is now inducting the Chinese-made J-17 fighters. The Chinese People's Liberation Army (Air Force) has about 3,000 fighters. However, the entire fleet of fighters of neither Pakistan nor China are new or up-to-the-mark. But numbers do matter if these outdated, old and new fighters of Pakistan and China can be deployed in a concentrated manner in a given theatre. Clearly, the IAF's refusal to go only for homemade fighter aircraft is driven by its anxiety "to do the job".
The government's decision to go for the homemade fighters is driven by a slightly different perspective. It aims to make India a manufacturing hub - including defence - in the long term. Giving up on the homemade Marut in the 1980s wasn't the best decision. But, hindsight always gives wisdom. A developing country with competing needs would definitely invest more on food, health and education than funding weapons programmes. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the former head of Pakistan, who was later hanged, once famously remarked "we will eat grass" but will build a nuclear bomb. Pakistan did build the bomb but, in the process, became a textbook example of a failed state.
We, as a nation, decided to invest more on IITs and medical colleges, roads, dams, agriculture, and airports and thereby building a composite and progressive India. There have been slips and the job could have been done better, but over the years, the Indian economy has emerged strong and resilient.
So, who is wrong and what is the way forward?
In the day and age of instant food, Any Time Money, and quick gratification, problems or difficult questions necessarily require binary answers - right or wrong. Unfortunately, in this case there is neither a right nor a wrong answer.
Both the IAF and government are right and wrong. The IAF, because of the nature of job at hand, is looking at the immediate scenario and wants to be prepared. Similarly, by insisting on the homemade fighter, the government too wants to be prepared for the long-term.
Perhaps what Nehru did in the 1950s is the way forward. Just as Nehru hired Kurt Tank for the Marut, India can hire another expert to fine-tune the Tejas. India today can well afford to do that. And, in the interim, India can also well afford to buy few more fighter aircraft through the "Make In India" route to fill the gaps.
Let's not give up on the Tejas but let us also give our air warriors what they want so that they can do their job.