Thursday, June 18, 2009

In thin air

Another Mig-21 crashed today, thankfully though its pilot ejected safely. Even the Indian Air Force by now would have lost track of how many Mig-21s it has lost in air crashes in the last decade. As with all crashes, a press release saying "We will investigate" - would be dished out and all will be forgotten till the next crash happens.

One wonders what the government is doing about it? Pat would come the answer - "We're building the LCA 'Tejas' to replace the MiG-21." So what's with the LCA? Well DRDO is working hard to develop it... DRDO?? WTF is DRDO ??

'The Defence Research and Development Organization or the DRDO as it is commonly known touts itself as "... a network of more than 50 laboratories which are deeply engaged in developing defence technologies covering various disciplines, like aeronautics, armaments, electronics, combat vehicles, engineering systems, instrumentation, missiles, advanced computing and simulation, special materials, naval systems, life sciences,training, information systems and agriculture. Presently, the Organisation is backed by over 5000 scientists and about 25,000 other scientific, technical and supporting personnel. Several major projects for the development of missiles, armaments, light combat aircrafts, radars, electronic warfare systems etc are on hand and significant achievements have already been made in several such technologies.'

The above spiel has been taken directly from the DRDO website. So lets see what this amazing organization has done about one of its most high profile projects - the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), now known as the Tejas.

The programme was conceived in 1983 with the aim to have an indigenous aircraft to replace the 'aging' Mig-21 which were the backbone of the Indian Air Force and were nearly 15 years old then.Today, 26 years later - the LCA is yet to be inducted in the IAF and the Mig-21 is still the most numerous aircraft in the IAF's inventory. Out of a total fleet of some 630 combat aircraft, more than 200 are from the Mig-21 family. Even now, it isn't yet clear when then LCA would enter active combat service. 2012 is said to be the earliest when it is likely to happen.

The reasons for the LCA's delay are many - including those related to sanctions imposed by the US following the nuclear tests carried out by the BJP Govt in 1998, which meant that the project could not use the GE404 engine as planned. However, DRDO had also started parallel work on another engine called Kaveri which has practically failed all requisite tests in the last 23 years marking it as another dud that DRDO has produced. The initial versions of the plane, whenever it goes into serial production would be powered by Eurojet or GE engines.

The LCA project has exceeded Rs 10,000 crore in development costs. In 1996, the projected cost per unit was $10-17m which went up to $24m in 2001 and now it has gone up to $35m apiece!

That beggars one simple question? Why spend a gazillion bucks out of the taxpayers pocket to develop the LCA? Wouldn't it have been better to simply buy proper new aircraft and save money and lives from being lost?

I'm sure the Swadeshi party would be at my throats by now - but hey look where we are now...The Indian Air Force today is struggling to maintain its inventory - back in 2007 the Air Chief Marshal had sent out a warning about the dwindling numbers - its 2009 and nothing has been done. Today, we are less than 32 squadrons strong whereas the minimum sanctioned strength of the IAF should be 39.5 squadrons. That's about 100 aircraft less than what we should be and this does not include the number of aircraft grounded for lack of spares.

As far as I can see, the situation will not improve even the next 3-4 years. The Mig-21s won't last beyond 2012. The Tejas would not be ready in significant numbers to fill that gap, nor would there be enough Sukhoi Su-30s. The Mig-29s are ageing and so is the Mig 27 / Jaguar fleet. The MRCA is still a competition and lord knows when the first plane would be bought.

At this rate by 2012 we simply will not have enough aircraft to protect both the Chinese and Pakistani borders. The government needs to realize this soon or we'll flying without wings in thin air.


Sidhusaaheb said...

I think that foreign-made aircraft are ultimately likely to be purchased to replace the Mig-21. However, a lot more money will probably be wasted on the LCA project before that happens.

Else, as you have mentioned, the LCA will be touted as a 'swadeshi' fighter, but actually be made of major components (like the engine) sourced from foreign manufacturers.

Another home-made dud that I can recall was the MBT (main battle tank) Arjun, which failed to meet the Indian army's requirements.

Perakath said...

It's not only about taxpayer money. Given the state of "infrastructure" in our country, taxpayer money will always be wasted, whatever happens.

Only a handful of countries in the world have the capability to manufacture their own fighter jets. It's a worthy cause for India to strive for, and has self-sufficiency ramifications as well.

Agreed though, the delays on the project, although perhaps due to causes beyond DRDO's control, reflect very badly on our engineering prowess. It really can't be that hard. And how did we ever manage to institute a space mission, then?

nomad said...

@ SS - Agree, the Arjun is another white elephant we've been feeding all these years. At least the Army has been smart enough to get T-90s for itself to compensate.

@ Perakath - I am all for self sufficiency, but not at the cost of reduced defence capability in these troubled times and more importantly at the cost of lives of brilliant officers. BTW, have you seen stats of how short staffed the officer cadre is in our armed forces?

I care two hoots if we are self sufficient in rockets are not, you could still fire them off Kourou by paying a few extra dollars.

Soulmate said...

More than the air-crafts, its the lives of the officers that worries me more. how can the government be so nonchalant in their attitude towards them. My heart goes out for that officer whenever I hear such incidents...