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India Is Still Throwing Good Money at Hopeless Military Programmes

The government persists in throwing good money after bad in its enduring albeit elusive decades-long bid for materiel self-sufficiency.

Chandigarh: The government’s Atmanirbhar Bharat, or self-sufficient India, initiative with regard to military equipment is littered with the remains of incomplete and ad hoc projects, on whose continuing development vast sums of money are being wasted.

Many such ambitious programmes, under the patronage of the government-run Defence Research and Development Organisation’s (DRDO) and the public sector Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), include the development of an aircraft engine, military transport and intermediate multi-purpose civilian aircraft and intermediate jet trainers or IJTs.

All these programmes are either nowhere near completion, continue to be technologically hobbled or have simply become redundant in times of financial crisis, compounded in recent months by the economic calamity spawned by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Other inept and futile DRDO programmes include decades-old endeavours in designing assault rifles, sub-machine guns and sniper rifles which continue desultorily, but at enormous cost. But instead of gamely admitting failure and formally scrapping these projects, and diverting the funds they continue to soak up for gainful employment elsewhere, they remain on the DRDO’s and HALs ‘active’ list.

In short, the government persists in throwing good money after bad in its enduring albeit elusive decades-long bid for materiel self-sufficiency.

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Former Deputy Chief of Army Staff and DRDO advisor Lieutenant General J.P. Singh said the DRDO needs to stop chasing old technology and to opt for the new. “The DRDO,” he said, “lags behind advanced countries by at least two technology cycles, pursuing this knowhow without the users support or with any meaningful understanding of the requirement to build military capability.” He advises the DRDO to ‘ walk quietly away’ from several of its unviable projects to keep pace with the revolution in military affairs (RMA) at a time when the cash-strapped government’s avowed goal was atmanirbhata.

Other analysts like Amit Cowshish, former Ministry of Defence (MoD) advisor on acquisitions, said it is a matter of concern that the DRDO, with its 52 state-of-the-art laboratories, spent merely 20-25% of its annual allocation on basic and applied research in futuristic technologies, but ends up expending money on numerous duff projects. “It’s more like spot running or at best making incremental headway in defence capacity building and self-sufficiency,” Cowshish added.

The list of botched projects under MoD oversight is boundless, but a handful of foremost projects will suffice to illustrate financial profligacy and technical overreach that lamentably alongside HAL also applies to the eight other Defence Public Sector Units (DPSUs).

Chasing the Kaveri for 34 years

In 1986, the DRDO’s Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE) in Bangalore launched its Kaveri afterburning turbofan engine project, to power the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), approved three years earlier. Three years later, the MoD authorised Kaveri’s full-scale development in a 93-month-long programme for Rs 3.82 billion.

In mid-2004, the overweight and inefficient Kaveri failed its high-altitude trials in Russia, ending all hopes of it powering the LCA. For this a US General Electric GE-F404IN engine was selected and continues in use with the fighter that eventually entered IAF squadron service in 2016, some 33 years after the domestic fighter programme was initiated in 1983.

But despite these setbacks, GTRE received an additional Rs 28.39 billion in late 2004 from the MoD for the Kaveri programme with the renewed aim of designing a fighter engine with a 93-100kiloNewton (kN) thrust to provide the projected platform greater manoeuvrability, angle of attack and enhanced payload carrying capacity.

After several more years of futile development and supplementary financial assistance, the MoD in 2010 uncharacteristically listed five reasons for delays in Kaveri’s development: technological complexity, lack of critical equipment and materials, engine technology denial by advanced countries, absence of domestic testing facilities, and, above all non-availability of skilled and specialised manpower.

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However, despite acknowledging these critical handicaps, an undeterred DRDO continued with Kaveri’s development, periodically announcing its intent to develop derivatives to power tanks, railway locomotives, naval ships and its under-development ‘Ghatak’ unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), but produced nothing.

Eventually, the offer in 2016 by French engine maker Snecma to assist the DRDO in developing Kaveri, as part of the offset obligation associated with the IAF’s import of 36 Dassault Rafale fighters, offered a glimmer of hope. Regrettably, that too has failed to fructify as revealed recently by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) in its report presented to parliament.

In short, 34 years after the Kaveri’s commencement, the programme remains incomplete but dogged DRDO is persisting with it, reasoning speciously that it was too deeply committed to the bungled programme to quit it.

Another case of good money chasing bad.

A joint venture in limbo

Meanwhile, HAL is yet to formally terminate its 2012 Ilyushin-Il-278 Multirole Transport Aircraft (MTA) joint venture (JV) project with Russia, in which either side had initially invested $300 million each. Intended as a replacement for the IAF’s fleet of legacy Antonov An-32 ‘Cline’ transport aircraft that entered service with it 1986 onwards, the MTA was scheduled to conduct its first test flight by 2017, but never did.

HAL head Ashok Nayak had enthusiastically declared at the time that India would acquire 45 MTA, series built by its Transport Aircraft Division (TAD) at Kanpur, while Russia would procure 105, in addition to exporting the platforms worldwide. But after 2016 little was heard of the project, which according to HAL officials has still not been officially scrapped. Expectedly, there has also been no accountability for the moneys spent on the stillborn MTA project, nor is there ever likely to be, said a senior IAF officer.

Ironically, the alternate purchase of of 62 Airbus Defence and Space C295 MTA for the IAF and the Indian Coast Guard (ICG), in which HAL was pointedly excluded by the MoD, remains undecided, despite the MoD having concluded price negotiations for it in early 2019.

Estimated at around $3.2 billion, the deal for the substitute MTA – a JV between Airbus Defence and Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL) – includes 56 C295s for the IAF to replace its ageing fleet of Avro 748M transports and six for the ICG. It involves the direct import of 16 C295s and the licensed construction of the remaining 46 at a facility set up by the JV near Bangalore, but despite pressure from the IAF that urgently needs the transport platforms, the deal remains in limbo.

Saras or no Saras?

Earlier in 2004, much excitement was generated over the maiden test flight at HAL’s Bangalore airport of the overweight prototype of Saras (crane) Mk1 multi-purpose light civilian aircraft, designed by the National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL), that works closely with HAL, DRDO and the IAF. It was designed to carry between 8 and 19 passengers over varying distances, but its second prototype, overweight by 500 kg, crashed some 30 km from Bangalore killing two IAF test pilots and one flight engineer on board.

Saras gets ready for take off during a HAL review by A.K. Antony in 2008. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Saras’s funding stopped in 2013 and three years later NAL discontinued all work on the project, following which all engineers and designers associated with the project were re-deployed elsewhere. But in 2017 the first Saras prototype, 13 years after its maiden test flight was handed over to the IAF Aircraft & Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE) in Bangalore and reconfigured to carry 14 passengers. Multiple test flights followed after which Saras received certification and in February 2019 the government announced that the project would receive Rs 60 billion for it to be series built at TAD in Kanpur. The IAF is believed to have signed a memorandum of understanding for 15 Saras, but the project has made little or no progress since which appears to appears to be a non-starter, a perpetual work in progress.

Yet another instance of throwing good money after bad, but with no dividend.

Developing the redundant

Last year HAL revived its Sitara IJT-under development since 1999 – with a successful test flight some three years after abandoning the programme following technical problems. Thereafter, in November 2020 HAL claimed to have resolved the IJT’s critical stall and spin characteristics that had led to its abandonment by redesigning the platform with assistance from US consultants Bihrle Applied Research.

HAL had also reportedly shifted the IJTs horizontal fins and rudder further down the fuselage, and subsequent mathematical modelling had indicated that the re-jigged trainer was now capable of handling stalls and spins for greater manoeuvrability. But HAL needs to conduct some 200 more test flights before series building the IJT to meet the IAF’s requirement for 73 platforms.

The IJT was intended to replace the HAL-designed and built Kiran MkI and MkII trainers that provided some 50 hours of ‘intermediate’ or Stage II instruction to IAF pilots, after they had graduated from basic trainer aircraft (BTA) to BAE Systems Hawk 132 advanced jet trainers (AJTs).

Earlier, the IJT’s first two prototypes conducted their first maiden test flight in 2003 and 2004 powered by France’s Safran/Snecma Larzac engine which failed to meet the IAFs qualitative requirements, and in 2008 were replaced by Russia’s NPO-Saturn AL-55I powerpack. But despite this switch HAL was unable to resolve the IJT’s stall and spin features and in 2012 signed a consultancy with UK’s BAE Systems for Rs 53.9 million to assist it in resolving this problem, but the contract expired long before this could be achieved.

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During this period of development an IJT swerved off the runway during Aero India 2007 in Bangalore after its canopy opened up just as the pilot was getting airborne. Four years later, another prototype met with an accident in Krishnagiri district in Tamil Nadu during a trial sortie.

Following enduring delays in the IJT project the IAF withdrew financial support to it in 2016, leaving HAL to fund it. Concomitantly, the IAF devised a revised training regimen for its pilots for 200-225 hours which has since proved efficacious. Under this changed procedure, trainee pilots divide their instruction equally between the newly acquired 75 Swiss Piltaus PC-7 MKII tandem-seat basic-turbo BTAs and Hawk132 AJTs, of which 104 are in IAF service.

But the irony is that even if, by some miracle, the IJT does receive clearance from Centre for Military Air Worthiness and Certification (CEMILAC) it will largely be redundant, as almost all the worlds’ major air forces alongside the IAF follow the earlier stated two-stage pilot training curriculum, obviating an IJT’s role entirely and rendering it wholly redundant.

“Continuing with IJT-Sitara’s development after two decades would be counter-productive and expensive and the project needs to be ended” declared military analyst Air Marshal V K Bhatia (retired) one of the IAF’s most decorated fighter pilots. It’s time the DRDO, HAL and the MoD became realistic and practical in their approach to attaining Atamnirbharta, he ruefully added.

One more glaring example of (limited) good money chasing bad.