It’s still early days, but it seems Modi and Sitharaman are slowly showing their true colours and betting big on our engineers and scientists and home-grown defence products
Something unusual is happening in the defence arena: the Narendra Modi government has shown remarkable courage to embark on a long and arduous journey that will have a long-term impact on India’s national security. Curiously, it seems to be receiving extraordinarily thin support for such a radical move. The government, and in particular defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman, is going to receive several brickbats for a series of quick and decisive steps that they have taken in the closing months of 2017.
Three steps are prominent not just for their immediate impact on the defence forces and our military preparedness, but also for pointing out a clear trajectory for the way in which we can develop ourselves in the medium to long term.
Two of these steps are related as they were part of the larger battle being fought for the control of the procurement process of long-term defence needs. It makes sense, then, to understand these two steps first before getting to the third one. Since this is a long essay, it’s necessary that I quickly mention the three steps. The first two are the official decisions to order 83 Tejas MK1A and 15 Rudras, India’s home-grown light combat helicopter (LCH). The third step is not to go ahead with the deal for Spike anti-tank missiles from Rafael of Israel. It’s also a fair warning to say that since Tejas has been criticised the most, vilified mercilessly in media and other forums by a force that’s as suspect as it is extraordinarily powerful, a substantial part of this essay has been devoted to dealing with the specific points on which Tejas is supposed to have fallen short. Most of the forthcoming attacks on this new direction that favours indigenous defence projects will be focussed on bringing down the Tejas aircraft, the shining jewel, and hence my unabashedly direct title.
Before diving into the column, the readers also deserve three clear disclaimers. These disclaimers, needless to say, can also be treated as conclusions. I guess there is no harm turning the typical structure upside down and putting the conclusions upfront. The first is that Modi and Sitharaman need to be congratulated and commended for their brave decisions. The second is that this column makes that rare plea to them to cancel the quest for a foreign single-engine multirole fighter and funnel that money towards involving different private-sector partners to rapidly produce 350 Tejas Mk1As and 250 Tejas Mk IIs. The third is that this column expects a massive attack on Tejas and other indigenous defence projects and exhorts everyone who cares about India’s national security to pre-emptively repulse it by all means and methods.
The insidious presentation and a battle only half won
Now that disclaimers-cum-conclusions are out of the way, let’s get down to the first two steps. The first step is the official order, a tender, placed by the Indian Air Force (IAF) for 83 Tejas Mark 1A single-engine multirole fighters to Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). The second is the first serious order placed by both the IAF and the Indian army for 15 of the limited series variant of the indigenously product LCH Rudra. Additionally, the Indian Army Air Corp (IAAC) and the IAF have committed to buying further 114 and 65 Rudras respectively.
No serious observer of the defence sector is under any illusion about the need for a proactive involvement of the defence ministry in these two decisions. It involved a pitched battle with certain powerful forces actively supported by the foreign arms lobby. In the case of Tejas, as I noted in my previous column in Governance Now dated December 31, 2017 (‘Why the Fight for Tejas and Arjun is Not Just About the Defence Forces’), there was a concerted last-minute push insinuating that the fighter aircraft was obsolete, not fighter or multirole enough and, quite shockingly, not worthy enough of replacing the venerable yet terribly aged 1950s-vintage MiG-21 series of aircraft. This push was timed quite conveniently with the concerted campaign by the global aviation majors to push their respective single-engine fighter aircraft – notably the Lockheed-Martin F-16 Block 70 and the yet-to-be certified SAAB Gripen E that is still undergoing flight trials.
That last-minute push was a presentation made by certain sections of the IAF to top officials of the defence ministry sprinkled with certain selective facts and figures. The crux of the presentation was on four seemingly indisputable facts. First was that Tejas has abysmal endurance time of just 59 minutes in the air as opposed to Gripen’s three hours and the F-16’s nearly four hours. Combat persistence, which is air force speak for how long you can stay in the air, is a critical requirement for both air-to-air and ground attack missions. Second was that Tejas aircraft’s weapons load of three tonnes did not compare favourably to the weapons load of Gripen and F-16, at six and seven tonnes respectively. Third was that Tejas takes almost 20 hours of servicing for every hour it flies as against six and three-and-a-half hours for Gripen and F-16 respectively. Fourth was that Tejas has half the service life of 20 years as opposed to 40 years for both Gripen and F-16. The presentation was strategically and selectively leaked to the media which swallowed it hook, line and sinker and quoted the so-called facts without adequate verification. Fortunately, the defence ministry seems to have not taken the bait, but it’s still only a battle half won. The war is still coming and all our indigenous defence efforts need to be protected. Careful analysis and unpacking of the seemingly indisputable facts would have revealed three things.
Myth 1: Tejas has poor endurance time
First, Tejas’s endurance time was calculated in a manner that handicapped Tejas in two ways. One, the most basic version of Tejas was used for the calculation. Tejas LSP-8 (Limited Serial Production-8 that is the basis for Serial Production (SP) 1-20, the first squadron) does not have a mid-air refuelling probe that Tejas Mk1A, 83 of which have been ordered, will have. Two, both the F-16 and the Gripen’s endurance time was calculated using the fuel capacity that both aircraft could carry using both conformal and non-comformal fuel tanks, CFTs and drop tanks in technical language, while Tejas’s fuel capacity was calculated only using its internal fuel capacity. In short, it’s like comparing two cars with one not being allowed to stop at any fuel pump and not allowed to carry extra bottles of fuel, while the other allowed both the facilities. Refuelling probe and drops tanks are exactly like access to petrol pumps and extra bottles of gas. If one were to compare the ferry ranges of fully loaded Tejas, Gripen and F-16 with fuel tanks, they aren’t that alarmingly different. Tejas has a ferry range of slightly over 1,800 kilometres, a Gripen slightly below 2,000 KM and F-16 around 3,000 km. For being the smallest aircraft of the lot, Tejas does extraordinarily well.
Second, there are six basic parameters for assessing the potency and fighting capacity of any multirole fighter aircraft: empty weight, loaded weight, maximum take-off weight, speed at low and high altitude with a full weapons load, beyond visual range (BVR) capabilities and manoeuvrability. For unpacking the myth of Tejas’s inferior weapons carrying capacity, only the first three are required. Speed at low and high altitude and with full weapons payload depends on the engine – F-16, Tejas and Gripen share the same General Electric F-series engine family – airframe characteristics and the use of new-age materials and manufacturing techniques like carbon composites and rivetless shaping and moulding of parts and structures. Tejas is a class apart from F-16 and on par with Gripen. I would really like to press this point with relevant technical details, but that would distract from the point that needs to be made here. [Anyone who wants to get into that technical debate can write to me directly at rswami(at)gmail(dot)com.] BVR depends on the quality and power of the radar, availability of infrared trackers, forward looking infrared sensors and laser range finders – all of which are available on Tejas Mk1A with several as detachable pods – and the right active/passive long/short range missile mix in the weapons load. Tejas Mk1A will initially be equipped with jointly developed and produced HAL-Israeli Elbit EL/M-2052 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar and later on replaced completely by the indigenous Uttam AESA. It must be kept in mind that only a handful of countries have mastered the technologies needed for the AESA radar. India, with no small thanks to LRDE and its sister laboratories, is one of them.
Before we get to address the core point of the inferior weapons payload of Tejas, there is one thing to keep in mind, one already mentioned in passing. Tejas is the smallest of the three aircraft. It is the also the shortest in three critical parameters of length with 43 feet and 4 inches, height of 14 feet and 9 inches and wingspan of 26 feet and 11 inches. F-16, in contrast, is 49 feet and 4 inches, 16 feet and 32 feet and 8 inches, while Gripen is 46 feet and 3 inches, 14 feet and 9 inches (exactly as high as Tejas) and 27 feet and 7 inches for the same parameters. Yet, because of its unique compound delta tailless wing configuration (a complex configuration that’s extremely difficult to master but NAL, ADA and DRDO scientists have), Tejas has the largest wing area at 413 sq ft. F-16 and Gripen have only 300 sq ft and 323 sq ft respectively. This large wing area provides two advantages. It dramatically improves lift characteristics and manoeuvrability. For instance, Tejas has the best short take-off time among the three aircraft and it can pull the tightest and the fastest 9 ‘G’ turns with full weapons payload. Delta wing configurations are usually considered to produce sluggish results in turns, but Tejas crossed that Rubicon by evolving some of the best control laws in the world and then turning them into a robust and sophisticated software programme that automatically manages flight parameters. In a real-time war scenario both these characteristics are extremely useful. Short take-off time increases the number of sorties possible and the tightest turns in the shortest time usually proves to be the make or break in Within Visual Range (WVR) dogfights. [Look at how the Russians have almost won the war in Syria against ISIS with a limited number of aircraft because of the large number of sorties that they were able to pull together in a day. It is also notable that the Russians managed to keep up the high sortie rates despite employing a majority of old aircraft, most notably Su-24M2s and Su-25s. It would do well for those in power to remember that there is more to air power strategy and air dominance than just having sophisticated and expensive fighter aircraft.] Large wing area also allows for the possibility to fix more hardpoints in the future to carry a variety of missiles, dumb bombs, laser guided munitions and different kinds of sensor pods. Tejas has comparable wing loading capacity, which is the weight that per square metre of wing area can support, with Gripen. Currently, both Gripen and Tejas have eight hardpoints each, while certain variants of the F-16, especially the Block 60, have been customised with 11 hardpoints. It’s worth remembering here that when the F-16 first flew in 1976 – yes Lockheed-Martin is hawking us a 42-year-old ancient airframe – it had only four hardpoints.
Myth 2: Tejas cannot carry enough weapons
Coming back to the so-called inferior weapons payload of Tejas, a careful comparative assessment of the empty, loaded and maximum take-off weights of the Gripen, F-16 and Tejas with a clear intention of turning them into ratios would have once again revealed the age-old adage that numbers and statistics hide more than they reveal. Empty weight is the total weight of the aircraft without any fuel and armaments. In short, in technical terms, it’s a clean configuration without any fuel. Loaded weight is with fuel and armaments. In short, it’s a mission-ready configuration. Maximum take-off weight includes fuel loaded to capacity, including drop tanks/conformal fuel tanks, and weapons payload and sensors suite connected to all available hardpoints. In short, it’s a complete configuration. Tejas’s empty weight is 6,560 kg, loaded weight is 9,800 kg and maximum take-off weight is 13,500 kg. An F-16 Block 60 variant is 8,750 kg, 12,000 kg and 19,200 kg for the same parameters, while a Gripen is 6,800 kg, 8,500 kg and 14,000 kg respectively. Even without getting into ratios, one can see that despite being the smallest aircraft Tejas is able to load and pull more than a Gripen in both empty-to-loaded weight configuration (3,240 kg for Tejas in comparison to Gripen’s 1,700 kg) and on par with the relatively larger F-16, which pulls up an extra 10 kg than Tejas at 3,250 kg.
The figures also do not show Tejas in a poor light in a comparative assessment of both the empty-to-maximum take-off and loaded-to-maximum take-off weight configurations. It’s necessary to remember that F-16 Block 60/70 would in all probability be the last iteration of the legendary fighter since the potential of its airframe has all but been exploited to its maximum possible extent. The Gripen is also a more mature platform with its potential already explored to a large extent. That’s one of the reasons why the under-development Gripen E has been offered to India. Gripen first flew in 1987 and was inducted into the Swedish Air Force in 1997. One must also remember that Gripen is a 30-year-old airframe. There isn’t much to choose between Tejas and Gripen in the empty-to-maximum take-off weight comparison with Gripen’s 7,200 kg just 160 kg more than Tejas’s 6,940 kg, though the F-16 pulls in a shade over 3,000 kg more than both Tejas and Gripen at 10,450 kg. The gap increases quite a bit more in the loaded-to-maximum take-off weight configuration with Gripen pulling in a good 1,200 kg more than Tejas’s 3,700 kg and F-16 lifting 3,500 kg more, almost double of what Tejas can pull and lift currently.
While this may seem to give some gravity to the insinuation that Tejas is an underperformer, these facts and figures point to quite the contrary outcome. Of the three aircraft, Tejas uses the most basic GE F-series engine producing the least amount of dry and wet thrust. Dry and wet thrust determines your take-off speed, cruising speed and supersonic speed, which is achieved using afterburners, and the load carrying capacity. Yet, Tejas has a superior thrust-to-weight ratio of 0.96 in comparison to Gripen’s 0.91 and just slightly lower than F-16’s 1.095. A thrust-to-weight ratio of close to one or greater than one is considered phenomenal among fighter aircraft. It means that the proportion of thrust generated is almost equal to or more than what is required for the aircraft’s weight. This makes the aircraft fast, nimble and extremely manoeuvrable. A late model MiG-29, for instance, considered to be a formidable multirole fighter, carrying a mission-specific payload of internal fuel and 4 air-to-air missiles has a thrust-to-weight ratio of 1.09, which is more thrust than what is required for the aircraft, while a Rafale M for the same mission specific configuration has a ratio of 0.988. There are two important aspects to keep in mind here. The first is that the thrust-to-weight ratio of 0.96 of Tejas has been achieved with its full internal fuel, weapons and sensors package load, and not in a mission-specific configuration, while that of Gripen and F-16 is the result of the global testing standards established by major manufacturers that is 50% internal fuel load and a basic weapons package, which is usually four air-to-air missiles. In short, when Tejas achieved those numbers its tank was full and all its eight hardpoints were loaded. Tejas was able to achieve those fantastic ratios despite carrying the weakest engine of the three because of the use of composites and the unique modular and honeycomb structure that actually has transformed its wings into a fuel tank. (Yes, Tejas carries its fuel in the wings too.)
The second is that when Tejas, F-16 and Gripen are tested for thrust-to-weight ratio in their full configuration (maximum take-off weight), which includes full internal fuel load, two drop tanks, and the complete weapons and sensor package, all three produce a ratio anywhere between 0.57 to 0.62. It’s interesting to note that in the maximum take-off weight configuration, even twin engine fighter aircraft like formidable MiG-29, the superb Rafale and the ageing F-15 produce very similar ratios. What this really means within the context of our comparison is that the late model F-16 Block 60 has favoured a heavier weapons, avionics and sensor load over speed and nimbleness, while Gripen has achieved a certain stable maturity between engine capability, speed and weapons and sensor load, while Tejas has the opportunity and potential to both substantially increase its weapons and sensor load without comprising either on its speed or its inherently unstable delta wing configuration that provides it superb nimbleness and mission-specific range. That potential is only enhanced by the fact that Tejas is going to eventually get more powerful engines, including at some point the indigenously produced Kaveri (K-9/K-10) engines that will have much higher dry and wet thrust than the GE engines currently on offer. Here one must keep in mind, and always so, that Tejas was and is envisaged as a light aircraft to replace MiG-21s and take over and significantly expand the ageing fighter’s specific mission requirements.
Myth 3: Tejas takes too long to service
The third point of serviceability and the inordinately large number of hours ostensibly taken to service Tejas will not take same detailed explanation that was required to unpack the myth of our home-grown fighter aircraft’s dismal weapons and sensor package payload. In fact, it’s instructive for all of us to look towards Lockheed Martin itself, one of the major players pushing the serviceability argument in India as a big plus point for F-16. America’s much vaunted and controversial stealth aircraft F-35 Lightening II, produced by the same Lockheed Martin, and depending on the calculation method used, takes anywhere between 41.5 hours to 52 hours of maintenance for every hour it flies in the air. The same Lockheed Martin when pressed for an explanation by a Congressional committee and a task force constituted by the US Department of Defence said that any new platform employing technologies that are substantially more sophisticated than previously employed will take a certain amount of time to stabilise and embed itself within any logistical and operational system. No words can be truer than that, and these are as true for F-35 as it is for Tejas in the Indian context.
If in the context of F-35 and American aircraft engineers, getting them to understand the process of maintaining and protecting the stealth coating is an appropriate challenge with a massive learning curve, in the context of Tejas, Indian aircraft engineers and ground personnel, getting them to understand and embed the processes of a plug-and-play self-diagnostic maintenance software is the big challenge and the big learning curve. In short, everyone from aircraft maintenance engineers, flight crews, people who test different kinds of aircraft systems and sub-systems to ground personnel who man the aircraft have to get used to new ways of working, new processes and new value chains. Tejas is a massive technological jump for the IAF. Its systems and sub-systems are electronically mapped and every single sub-system and its corresponding components are part of a self-diagnostic ecosystem. To compare the servicing hours needed to fly an F-16, Gripen and Tejas for an hour is at best an apples and oranges comparison and at worst a completely dishonest way to deal with competition. As has been pointed out in several places in this column itself, F-16 is a 40-year-old warhorse and Gripen is no spring chicken either, having touched 30 last year. The systems, processes and the training and retraining of engineers and other personnel, not to mention the spare parts ecosystem, is far more well established and mature for both aircraft than for Tejas.
An honest comparison would have been to see by what percentage and proportion have the servicing hours reduced over the course of one year in the 45th ‘Flying Daggers’ Squadron, Tejas fighter aircraft’s home. Even a month-on-month comparison would have revealed that Tejas is well on its way to becoming one of the best aircrafts in the world in terms of the amount of servicing hours required for one hour of flying. Careful observers of Tejas’s inception, growth, evolution and its baby steps will know and appreciate the thoughtfulness with which the aircraft has been designed keeping in mind the ease of flying and maintenance. The airframe has been designed using a modular approach. Systems and sub-systems, including at the basic component level, are easy to reach for an engineer and it’s like a simple computer in terms of plugging out an old part, plugging in a new one and getting back to playing. Large parts of the airframe are also manufactured using carbon and graphite composites using a unique baking method. This makes the airframe unusually strong and also provides for 40 percent less nuts, bolts and rivets. With lesser number of nuts, bolts and rivets, not only are the maintenance requirements minimised, but even the service life of the airframe is increased.
Myth 4: Tejas service life is half that of F-16, Gripen
This, of course, automatically leads us to the fourth myth of Tejas’s service life being half of that of F-16 and Gripen. Since F-16 first flew in 1974 and Gripen in 1986, anyone with a curious bent of mind will ask if both the airframes have reached their full potential, or at least have substantially travelled down that road. Now, that’s a question worth asking both Lockheed Martin and Saab and the rabbit hole that it will uncover will require reams of pages and a huge amount of technical analysis. That’s for another day, another time and maybe a different space. This particular point of Tejas’s service life is an outright lie, unlike the previous three points that were based on cherry-picking numbers and stringing them together in a particular way to make Tejas seem inadequate. This particular point is also going to take the longest explanation and might even test a reader’s patience. But I am sure that such patience will be well rewarded. Tejas’s basic service life is at least 30 years and with regular upgrades its life can be extended to at least 60 years. This particular piece of information is remarkably significant and means the following. A Tejas aircraft that’s inducted today in the 45th ‘Flying Daggers’ squadron can keep flying till 2048 with only standard and regular maintenance that’s required for any fighter aircraft in the world. The same Tejas aircraft can keep flying till 2078 with the kind of ‘deep upgrades’ that Hindustan Aeronautics is carrying out for the deep penetration Jaguar (called DARIN II) or the kind that Russian, Israeli and Indian companies, both HAL and the private sector, carried out as part of DRDO’s blueprint for the MiG-21 Bisons, MiG-27s and the MiG-29s.
These upgrades have transformed what were considered to be obsolete aircraft, so much so that the overconfident American fighter pilots flying the much vaunted F-15s and F-16s during Cope India air exercises were often roundly thrashed by the upgraded MiG-21 Bisons upgraded with the Russian Kopyo/Spear radar. The effectiveness of these deep upgrades has not gone unnoticed and the Russians have their own programme of deep upgrades for almost all their legacy aircraft from the Sukhoi, MiG to the Tupolev series. Now the Israelis, it seems, are catching on to the trick. What might be considered as blasphemy to some, the Americans under Donald Trump are also seriously considering ‘deep upgrades’ for F-15s, F-16s and F/A-18 Hornets, apart from their A-10 tank busters and their Chinook heavy lift helicopters. The point, long and short of it, is that some of the world’s best air forces are picking up concepts of frugal engineering that our technicians, engineers and scientists have evolved. There is, maybe, a pertinent lesson that the Indian decisions makers need to always keep in mind when confronted with suggestions of off-the-shelf imported acquisitions for maintaining and ramping up our military and defence infrastructure.
But that’s a relatively minor point within the context of countering the insidious propaganda about Tejas’s service life. The outright lie deployed by the powerful forces about our home-grown aircraft obfuscates the most shining aspect of Tejas, which is its service life. The typical service life of any fourth-generation fighter aircraft produced in the 1970s and the early 1980s, which practically includes all the non-stealth aircraft that you can think of, from F-15, F-16, F/A-18 to MiG-29, MiG-35 and the Sukhoi-30/35 series, is realistically only around 25 years. Midlife upgrades and deep upgrades can extend the life by another 20 years, and if the push comes to shove it can carry for another seven to 10 years beyond that. In short, all the aircraft mentioned above have a realistic lifespan of only about 45-50 years. There is a specific reason for it.
Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman at Jamnagar airbase in 2017
All such aircraft, referred to by many as fourth-generation aircraft, were made a time when composite materials were rarely used. Such aircraft extensively use aluminium and its alloys like aluminium-lithium, high strength and high carbon steel and small amounts of titanium for areas which require intense strength and heat absorption capacities. For instance, both the American A-10 and Su-25, similar to each other in mission profile, use titanium around the cockpit area, almost fashioning it like a protective bucket, to keep the pilot safe from low-level anti-aircraft fire. One of the key mission requirements for both aircraft is to fly low and take out tanks. Similarly, SR-71 Blackbird, the American spy plane, and the MiG-31 interceptor both use titanium to absorb the intense heat generated by air friction because of their ability to fly up to Mach 3.2 speeds.
During the 1970s and ‘80s there were only a few standard aircraft manufacturing techniques available. Aircraft were either made of stamped and moulded metal parts – a simpler technique favoured by the Soviet factories for mass manufacturing aircraft – or were milled to blueprints and specifications, a more complex technique favoured by Western companies. Even today, the Russians prefer simplicity, though their later generation aircraft have started using milled parts, which essentially involves carving out parts from blocks of metal. Each technique had its pros and cons, and both did evolve with the times and integrated the rapidly evolved computer-aided design and manufacturing technologies. Yet, the fundamental physics of aircraft manufacturing remained the same: one couldn’t simply stamp or mill a metal piece – whether aluminium, steel, titanium or any alloy – beyond a certain size without subjecting it unacceptable levels of stress that would damage and endanger the aircraft and the pilot. This meant that major parts of the aircraft, like fuselage and wings, had to be riveted together. All things being equal, especially the laws of physics, and without taking into account the specific conditions of use of a particular aircraft, the sophistication of avionics and weapons load and aerodynamic efficiency of the aircraft, which depended on how well designed the airframe was, the life of an aircraft essentially depended on two things: the kind and proportion of metals and alloys used and the number of rivets holding everything together.
Between the two, rivets (nuts, bolts and fasteners) arguably play a more important role in determining an airframe’s airworthiness and life. The number of rivets, with lesser the better, in an aircraft is important for two reasons. First, more rivets increases the maintenance time and costs adversely affecting the turnaround time and sortie rates during an actual conflict. Second, when rivets are used to join parts, the surfaces of both the parts that have been bolted together using various kinds of rivets are often the first areas to be exposed to metal stress and microscopic fractures and fissures. Such metal stress in technical terms is referred to as structural fatigue. These cracks, invisible to the naked eye, can cause everything from a catastrophic failure when exposed to high ‘G’ forces to drastically reducing the actual life of an airframe.
An F-16, even a late Block 60 model or the proposed Block 70 being offered to India, is manufactured using a combination of both the above mentioned processes. Despite all the sophistication of software-enabled blueprinting, computer-aided design and sophisticated industrial robots doing the milling and stamping, the essential manufacturing technique remains the same. Now, that the manufacturing processes and production techniques of a fourth-generation aircraft has been established, it’s time to bring Tejas back into the spotlight and for that one needs to a take short but necessary detour to understand the categorisation of newer fighter aircraft.
There are several reasons why an aircraft is classified as a 4.5-generation aircraft. That designation is used to define aircraft that are not fifth-generation, the defining characteristics of which are stealth and supercruising capability, but have integrated newer technologies oriented toward network warfare, self-diagnosis and newer manufacturing processes. The Russians often use the ‘4+/4++’ designation. Both are, however, different. The Russian Su-35S is brilliant late evolution of the Su-27 Flanker airframe and is arguably the best heavy fighter in its class today outclassing even the legendary American F-15 late models that have been sold to South Korea and Qatar. The Su-35S incorporates several features and customisations that the IAF, with generous help from ADA scientists, HAL engineers and DRDO scientists, had first gotten incorporated into the Su-30MKI. These ranged from an all-glass digital cockpit, advanced avionics from Indian, French and Israeli sources to literally forcing the Russians to create a customised version of the N011M Bars Passive Electronically Scanned Array (PESA) radar for the aircraft. Of course, the Russians have used indigenous equipment for Su-35S. A 4+/4++ aircraft will have advanced avionics, network-centric warfare capability, extensive use of radar absorbent paint to reduce the Radar Cross Section (RCS) and an ability to act both as an early warning platform and as refuelling station for other fighter aircraft if the need arises. These are all considered to be a 4.5-generation aircraft’s defining characteristics too, yet there is one critical parameter that the 4+/4++ generation aircraft don’t fulfil. Even if they really wanted to they cannot unless the tooling and manufacturing processes of the aircraft are completely changed. If that’s done, one might as well build a brand-new aircraft from scratch. That critical factor is the use of composites in a significant manner in the manufacturing process.
Tejas, Gripen, Typhoon and Rafale are true 4.5-generation fighters due to the use of composites and the by-default incorporation of different processes and techniques of manufacturing that come with using composites. In aircraft manufacturing composites refers to two manmade materials: carbon reinforced and glass-fibre reinforced plastics. Both are extremely difficult materials to master. Typhoon and Rafale use both. They are a different class of fighters and it’s best to keep them aside for purposes of comparing apples to apples and not to oranges. For the record, however, Typhoon and Rafale uses 72 percent and 70 percent composites respectively which constitute 40 percent and 26 percent of their respective aircraft’s structural weights. These numbers are significant because despite the high overall use of composites, the contribution to the overall weight of the aircraft is 40 percent or less indicating that critical structural components like fuselage, wings and nose (called radome in technical language since it protects the radar and also amplifies its power) still use a substantial amount of conventional materials. It’s to be expected since both Typhoon and Rafale are among the earliest 4.5-generation fighters to take to the air, with Typhoon first flying in 1994 and Rafale a full eight years earlier in 1986.
Gripen, which is a direct competitor to Tejas, uses 25 percent composites, which contributes to slightly less than 20 percent of the overall aircraft weight, a significant improvement in comparison to Typhoon and Rafale, indicating that significant portions of the aircraft’s critical structural parts like wings, fuselage, ailerons, radome have been manufactured incorporating large proportion of composite materials. Tejas, in contrast, is also composed around 30 percent composites, but that constitutes 45 percent of the aircraft’s overall weight. In short, Tejas has most definitely used the maximum proportion of composites for the most critical and the heavy structural parts of an aircraft, namely fuselage, radome, wing and all the wing control surfaces like aileron. That’s an engineering feat in itself, something that needs to be celebrated with all the pomp and glory it deserves. It’s not easy and just handful of countries – Sweden, the US, France, Germany and the UK – have this capacity. Even in conventional fighter aircraft engineering technology, Tejas is first in the world on several counts. One instance needs particular mention. The tailfin is carved out of a single block of titanium using a fully computerised numerically controlled (automated) machine that’s been indigenously produced. No aircraft manufacturer in the world has achieved this.
The use of composites by Tejas is also significant because it destroys the lie that’s been peddled about its service life through sheer engineering logic. Composites have two characteristics. They are extremely lightweight and extraordinarily strong. This duality comes from a combination of the materials used and the manner in which they are fused together in a complicated baking technique where thousands of ultra-thin layers has to be carefully attached to next to make an absolutely compact sheet. Not even tiny bubble of air can enter these layers. These two characteristics give composites more strength in a square inch than any conventional material. This extraordinary strength allows composites to significantly bypass the size problem that the fourth and 4+/4++ generation aircraft face. What it means is that aircraft parts made of composites can literally be moulded as one piece. A conventional fourth-generation wing may take up to three parts, while a Tejas wing is just one single piece.
What this means for the entire aircraft is as follows: 40% reduction in the total number of parts compared to a metallic frame aircraft, number of fasteners reduced by half, that is, to 5,000 from the typical 10,000 that would have been required, 2,000 fewer holes being drilled into the airframe, overall weight reduction by over 21%. Apart from all other sorts of reductions, from costs, production and assembly time to maintenance hours, there is one substantial increase. The entire life of the airframe and by extension of the aircraft has substantially increased because the use of composites, especially in the critical parts like fuselage and wings, gives Tejas an engineering edge afforded by significantly fewer nuts, bolts and rivets to stave off structural fatigue for a longer period of time than any conventional fourth-generation aircraft.
By unpacking these four myths, I don’t expect the attacks on Tejas to cease or the same myths not to be perpetuated in different forms and shapes. In fact, I expect the attacks to increase in intensity and ferocity. But what I hope is that when such myths and untruths about our home-grown fighter are bandied about carelessly, there would at least be a small and informed minority that would blow the purveyors of such myths out of the sky with sheer weight of facts and engineering logic.
Tejas’s little brother Rudra’s fight to the top and lessons for the big brother
The Rudra faced a different and in a way more unfair fight. The powers that be pitted Rudra – the first attack helicopter to land in Siachen’s high altitude forward bases, which is no mean achievement – against the iconic American-made Apache-64E ‘Longbow’ attack helicopters. Two things must be kept in mind. First, Apache-64 first flew in 1975 and has undergone several upgrades over the years and the 64E version is the most advanced of the lot. The Longbow has also seen action on several fronts, most notably during the two Gulf Wars, and came out with flying colours. Second, the Apache-64E won the Indian contract for 22 attack helicopter-cum-gunships against the extraordinarily capable Russian Mi-28N ‘Havoc/Nighthunter’. The Mi-28 first flew in 1982 and like Apache has undergone significant upgrades and is combat tested in Afghanistan. The Rudra, despite the unfairness of such comparisons, passed all tests in a “spectacular” fashion meeting every single benchmark of the Qualitative Staff Requirements (QSR) comfortably and in some cases topping both the Mi-28N and Apache-64E despite being of a different class. In terms of analogy, it’s a like a medium weight boxer holding his ground in the heavyweight division. The word ‘spectacular’ is not mine but of a highly placed IAF source who I know is not prone to using adjectives lightly.
Rudra is a direct derivative of the Dhruv helicopter, which has a civilian version, several armed forces variants for utility, medical evacuation, troop transport and logistics and a helicopter gunship version. Needless to say, Dhruv first and Rudra later, faced a few benign and several hostile questions and attacks about their strength, usefulness, credibility and even facile discussions about whether they were indigenous enough to be called home-grown. However, unlike the Tejas and Arjun, the stakes were never high enough for these attacks to either become intensive or all-encompassing because of two reasons. First, the IAF and the air arm of the Indian navy were directly involved in evolving the requirements for the advanced light helicopter (ALH) programme, which is how Dhruv was initially called. Second, several partners were involved from the beginning. For instance, Germany’s Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm, which is now part of Airbus, was the design consultant while France’s Turbomeca (now Safran Helicopter Engines) helped extensively in designing the engine that eventually led to the HAL developing the extremely capable indigenous engine Shakti that has excellent high altitude performance. Helicopters that can perform effectively in high altitude areas are a critical need for India to maintain its dominance in Siachen and other mountainous areas around both the Pakistani and Chinese borders.
Dhruv and Rudra, like Tejas, also faced the impact of the US-led sanctions after the Pokhran nuclear tests and the ALH team often had to think on its feet and do things in a creative and innovative manner. Three out-of-box measures need to be mentioned here, something that the team which is developing the superior iterations of Tejas from Mark 1A to Mark 2 would do well to keep in mind. The first was to rummage through and leverage the massive internal strengths that lie in our numerous and low profile central and state laboratories, university ecosystem and the private sector and apply them as solutions. For example, like Tejas, Dhruv also faced the criticism of being overweight and not having the legs to fly. The ALH team, ironically, took a leaf out of the ADA and used the Kevlar and carbon fibre composites developed by the CSIR-NAL laboratories for the Tejas radome and airframe to provide strength and reduce the weight of Dhruv. Today, sixty percent of Dhruv’s airframe, constituting around 30 percent’s of helicopter’s weight, is made out of composite materials. The second was to quickly move towards indigenisation of imported systems and sub-systems, even to the extent of adopting an iterative and rapid prototyping approach. For example, the ALH team aggressively moved towards the development of the indigenous Shakti engine and proactively sought the engagement of Indian private players. Also, the design team kept reworking parts, components and engineering layouts to respond to real time feedback as the Dhruv was put into service. This is a good lesson that the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE) can adopt for the Kaveri-engine and Kabini-core derived K-9 and K-10 versions. Of course, one does understand that developing a jet engine from scratch is a different ball game than developing a relatively simpler helicopter engine. The third was not to wait for domestic orders or depend on the ministry of defence or the forces. HAL aggressively entered the international market and started competing against the best in the world. The initial forays were disappointing, but it gave HAL an excellent understanding of what it took to compete at the global level. Today, Dhruv and its several variants serve civilian institutions and military and police forces of Turkey, Peru, Ecuador, Maldives, Mauritius, Nepal, Suriname and even Israel. That’s a tremendous achievement considering that HAL has had to go head-to-head in open tender competitions with global helicopter majors like Bell.
What these three measures, together, did for Dhruv was to reduce its iterative cycle making it easier and simpler to keep bringing out new versions, thereby negating any criticism that was thrown at it, while at the same time garnering international kudos and flying experience, something that’s extraordinarily difficult to counter no matter how determined any powerful force is to bring down an indigenous effort. It must also be mentioned here that the HAL worked extensively with the Indian navy, a force that has a fairly robust record in supporting indigenous projects and inducting them, and convinced them through several rounds of stringent tests of the world class standards of Dhruv and Rudra. The clincher for both, a tipping point beyond which it was difficult for anyone to sabotage the project, was when the Indian navy in its final round of tests in 2012-13 to pick up a helicopter for coastal surveillance operations said that Rudra’s sensor systems were so advanced and so precise that it was able to not only track ships at a 14 km range, but was actually able to read their names as well: an engineering marvel made possible by the joint efforts of Indian scientists, engineers, laboratories, Indian companies and project managers.
Spiking Spike and giving Nag a new lease of life
The third step taken by Modi and Sitharaman is to cancel the deal for Spike anti-tank missiles that were to be acquired from Rafael Industries of Israel. This step is not connected to the first two in any direct or material way, but portends to a larger narrative of indigenisation and self-sufficiency, if not self-reliance, that seems to be developing in the top-most layers of Indian decision-makers led by Modi. The Spike order was worth over a billion US dollars and would have given the Indian army close to 8,500 of these fourth-generation ‘fire-and-forget’ missiles, including their shoulder mounted and shoulder fired Man Portable, or Manpad, versions. Bharat Dynamics Limited (BDL) was to be the systems integrator.
How the Spike deal got through and how it reached almost the final stage is a little bit of a mystery – more so when the indigenously produced, equally capable, similarly versatile, extensively tested, apparently inducted Nag anti-missile was already available. The most common theory is that BDL, which produces the second generation French anti-tank Milan missile and Russian Konkurs under licence for the Indian armed forces, just did not have enough production capacity to fulfil the requirement of 7,000 Nag missiles in its various versions. BDL denies this and no one really knows how the best solution came to be the direct import of the Israeli missile and its licence production at BDL. Of course, the simple question then arises as to how BDL’s production capacity would have magically increased to produce the 7,000-odd missiles, exactly the number of Nag missiles envisaged. The first 1,600 Spikes were to be directly imported as standalone kits from Rafael.
Typical conventional attacks will feature two prominent thrusts, a ground attack comprising enemy armour and an air attack comprising a mix of multirole, air dominance and ground attack aircraft. From that perspective, two missile systems will always be critical in determining how effectively a country is able to defend itself and then quickly mount a counter offensive. The first is short-, medium- and long-range surface-to-air missiles that have to be sophisticated enough to jam all sorts of enemy electronic counter measures (ECMs) and have enough legs, which depends on the composition of solid propellants, to pursue an enemy aircraft when it deploys evasive manoeuvres. The second is that the anti-tank missiles should have the punch to stop enemy armour in its tracks. This means that the anti-tank missiles have to be sophisticated enough to negate electronic countermeasures, have the capacity to sustain damage that could be inflicted by explosive reactive armour (ERA), and still penetrate the armour, and defeat other kinds of measures ranging from low tech smoke screens and to hi-tech electro optical active protection devices like the Shtora system deployed on the Russian T-90S tanks.
Since these two missile systems are so critical, it is but natural that they are also going to be required in large numbers. Like Tejas, Arjun, Rudra, the Indian short- and medium-range missile programme was also subject to several damaging falsehoods and baseless insinuations. India’s strategic missile programme is quite well known because of extremely successful missile and anti-missile systems like Prithvi and Prithvi Air Defence System (PADS) and the entire Agni series of intermediate and ‘near’ intercontinental range of missiles. Of course, there was no incentive to target those programmes because international missile control treaties like Missile Control Technology Regime (MCTR) do not allow countries and companies to sell missiles of those kinds and those ranges. But India also has an extremely successful missile programme, led by DRDO, to develop both short- and medium-range missiles. These missiles are the short-range surface-to-air missile Trishul, medium range surface-to-air missile Akash, anti-tank missile Nag and several other missile systems, most notably the beyond visual range air-to-air missile Astra. This programme was part of the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) that was for a period of time led by APJ Abdul Kalam.
Since the international defence market for short- and medium-range missiles is highly competitive, it was no surprise that the Indian missile systems were targeted. Trishul and Akash had to literally go through fire and Akash has been formally inducted. Between the two, Akash has been successful because the DRDO put it through a stringent system of tests, tighter than what comparable foreign systems go through. These tests are carried out even now after every three months where random batches of inducted Akash systems are pulled out and tested. Akash has come through flying colours hitting their targets every single time. Trishul has had a mixed run, with global majors sometimes getting an upper hand and getting their systems to be adopted. This is not because Trishul is an inferior system, but because it has often not given the opportunity to perform and prove itself. India officially wound up the Trishul programme in 2008 and designated it a technology demonstrator. There is, however, a strong case for reviving it. Astra is going through an even tougher time with the IAF asking Derby, a comparable missile system, to be integrated with Tejas, which has been done. But if the decision on the Spike anti-tank missile is an indication, I wouldn’t be surprised if the order for the Derby and Python-5 missile systems was limited and money channelised to finalise the production and induction of Astra.
Trishul, Akash, Nag and Astra are all world-class systems able to compete with the best that the Russian, Israeli or the Western world has to offer. Many of these systems have also benefitted from the collaborative approach taken by the DRDO. The reason Akash, for instance, is so effective is because it uses a ramjet rocket propulsion system, a Russian speciality, that allows it to sustain a Mach 2.5 speed coupled with extreme manoeuvrability. This means that the missile is fast enough to catch any fighter aircraft and nimble enough to keep following it irrespective of whatever evasive actions that the fighter pilot might take. Similarly, Nag has a 0.9 single shot hit probability, the same as the American Javelin and Spike and is also a ‘fire and forget’ missile, which means that a soldier carrying a Man Portable launcher can just aim once at a tank or a heavy armoured vehicle, shoot and move on. Many anti-tank missile systems require the soldier to keep the laser designator painted on the tank for the missile to reach its target. In short, Nag has the same sophisticated levels of active seekers integrated into it as some of most advanced French, American and Israeli missiles.
There is always a temptation to look at these three steps in isolation. Indeed, the media has covered it as three separate steps with no connections whatsoever. There is, however, an emerging pattern, one that will immeasurably gladden the hearts of the dedicated minority of defence analysts, journalists and long-time observers and a substantial majority of defence professionals and personnel who have been advocating for India to achieve self-sufficiency and internal strength on critical military systems and sub-systems. If one were to take the risk of reading into the emerging pattern it seems that there is strong inclination, if not a strategy, to back Indian efforts and Indian products. This is a welcome departure from decades of import-driven strategies for establishing our national security. As I have strongly contended in my previous column, imported defence equipment, no matter how customised they are to specific Indian requirements, puts our national security at the mercy of other nations who can use it at the most opportune moment to deny us everything from parts to critical software updates and source codes to twist our arms when we truly are in a fight to the finish with our enemies.
It’s always good to remember that the Western powers led by the same US that wants us now to become stronger to take on China for its own narrow national security interests wasted no time in imposing crippling sanctions post Pokhran nuclear tests. These sanctions were arguably designed more to disable our indigenous efforts at acquiring critical technologies than to express a moral and political point against nuclear weapons. Within that context, they achieved their purposes pushing back our efforts to develop Tejas, Arjun and several other indigenous military systems by at least a decade if not more. Now, that our engineers and scientists have substantially made up lost ground and are so close to success, we need a strong government with a powerful leader who can look beyond the snazzy marketing presentations and the doomsday scenarios built up by the vested interests about Indian security weaknesses and the inadequacy of Indian weapons.
Narendra Modi has displayed all the hallmarks of putting the spotlight back on indigenous development and he seems to have found an able ally in Nirmala Sitharaman. They are, however, going to pass through a period where they might end up questioning the decisions taken by them and the tough path they have chosen to walk. It is here that they need to intuitively trust the Indian defence scientists, engineers and our public and private sector companies. My third and final article in this series will give them five incredible real stories of why our defence scientists, engineers and our companies need to be given our trust and support. These five stories, let’s hope, are all what they would need to continue the course and allow our indigenous defence prowess to finally shine through.
Swaminathan is visiting research fellow at Uppsala University. He is an urbanist by training and usually writes about cities. As a deeply addictive hobby, he closely follows India’s defence policy writes when he feels that a particular discussion requires a truly Indian and unbiased voice.
(The article appears in January 31, 2018 edition)