The morning papers on 11 Jan 2011 were full of details of the ceremony at Bangalore declaring the Initial Operational Clearance for the Light Combat Aircraft now named Tejas. It was certainly a happy moment. For those of us who are not so young any more, such happy news brings with it a flood of memories from the past but connected closely to the source of happiness at hand.
My mind dwelt on the time of the later part of 1982. I had then settled down as the Air Officer Commanding (AOC) at Jamnagar, having moved there after a very exciting tenure at the Ministry of Defence as the project manager for the induction of Jaguar aircraft. We were living through a period of exciting times in the Air Force. The Jaguar had been inducted through a massive project of purchase and manufacture. Soon thereafter, the Government had also decided to purchase the Mirage 2000 which was really a modern aircraft. It seemed that at long last the Government was keen to equip the air force with the weapons it deserves.
One fine morning at about that time I received a call from my AOC in C Air Marshal JR Bhasin. The Air HQ desired that the DRDO would take on the task of designing and building a modern fighter aircraft that could be used by the air force. An outline of a proposal received from the DRDO was available with the Command HQ. The Air HQ had decided to seek field level opinion about the proposal and tabulate the wish list of the operators so that a consolidated response could be put out to the MOD and the DRDO. For this purpose a very broad based conference had been planned at the Air HQ where the operational commands and the VCAS and DCAS were to present their wish list in the form of a presentation. To prepare for the conference at Delhi, the AOC in C wanted all his field commanders and staff to apply their minds on the subject and then come down to the Command HQ at Jodhpur for a session of brain storming. He had sent a copy of the papers received from the Air HQ to me by post and I should get that by the next day. We had about four days to think about the task and to gather at Jodhpur.
I became rather exited. It is not often that one is invited to participate in shaping of the future. My base Jamnagar was one of the most active fighter stations of the Air Force. I knew that my unit commanders and their subordinate staff would be as excited about the project as I was. I called in my unit commanders and the Chief Operations Officer (COO) and informed them about the impending task. The anticipation for the detailed information to arrive was delectable.
The details were received through mail next morning. It was contained in a few pages of print. It described the intention to build a single engine tail-less delta plan-form aircraft powered by an engine designed by the GTRE. It was to have a multi-purpose radar designed and built within the country that was to be totally contemporary and to be highly capable in the air to air / air to ground / maritime roles. The aircraft was to be an unstable platform controlled by ‘fly by wire’ technique. It was also to contain all functionalities of a small agile low-observable fighter that could be found anywhere in the world at that point of time. Its projected weight was to be seven tons empty. It was to be designed and developed within about ten years. This dream, the DRDO felt, was achievable. Personally I disagreed with that statement.
Group Captain KN (Pinki) Pillai was at that moment commanding the TACDE based on my station. Wing Commander Sunil Gulati was commanding 29 Squadron. Wing Commander Jeff D’Souza was commanding 45 Squadron. Group Captain Ravi Kumar was my Chief operations Officer. We quickly got into a huddle to formulate a point of view on the missive we had received. The discussion soon heated up and we included other senior pilots and engineers from the units into the discussion. The source of the heat generated was the vagueness of the objective of the exercise.
Indeed, the write-up that we had received was rather confusing. The project seemed extremely ambitions. An airframe to be built with extensive use of composite material of which we had no previous experience, an engine that was still on paper, a radar set that was to be better than our imported best and yet be lighter in weight and perhaps a bit smaller in size, an electronic control system for an unstable platform (the struggle with the control laws for the Gnat being still vividly in our memory), a completely unconventional digital man/machine interface while we had no experience at all of the new fangled concept of a ‘glass cockpit’, and all this within a decade! It sounded implausible. At the same time, the paper sent down to us clearly gave us the impression that this super duper futuristic aircraft was what we were required to commit for in ten years’ time. Our Hunters, Gnats, Maruts, Mig21s would all start winding down in the nineties. If we did not start planning for these replacements realistically from now (the early eighties), we shall have undermined the ability of the air force to perform its task.
The vigor of our discussion soon pushed us into smoke and sparks rather than a beam of focused light and we had to draw back and ask ourselves whether we knew what we were talking about. What in our collective wisdom should be the focus of our comment? At last we summarized our views as follows:
We felt that the proposed aircraft was over-ambitious. We felt that we were not likely to succeed in building the aircraft within a decade. We hastened to add that we had no quarrels with the concept of dreaming big; we only needed to remain practical and credible in our endeavor.
We felt that development of critical technologies in radar and engine should be pursued with vigor but that effort must not be tied to an aircraft project clearly identified for time-bound induction into the air-force as the risk of delay or failure of the project would be too high
We reminded ourselves that in ten years time our force strength would decline. We felt that our energies would be better spent in upgrading our present strength of aircraft with better technologies in sensors and weapons. We felt that in the MiG 21 BIS we had the most optimized 7 ton fighter aircraft available in the whole world. It was however already more that 20 years old. It was therefore attractive as a target platform for substantial technological up-gradation. If we could modernize its avionics, give it a nav-attack system, add electronic self-defence capabilities, add more modern communications and add newer guided weapons and hopefully put in a modern by-pass engine into the airframe then we would have a formidable aircraft on our hands. We felt that we would be capable of handling such a development.
Having cleared our own minds, we got down to the task of preparing a presentation to convince the rest of the Air Force.
It is easy to have a gut-feeling. It is also easy to convince yourself that your feeling is based on logic and reason. Perhaps it is even easy to find support for the ideas you are feeling from amongst your friends and your immediate colleagues. It is quite a different thing how ever to present your idea in front of a large audience comprising your bosses and perhaps a segment of critical friends. It was therefore a hard grind to prepare the presentation that was to be given to the AOC in C at Jodhpur.
We started the presentation with a bald and bold set of statements laying out the three summary views we had arrived at. We were sure that such a start would shake up the audience. To substantiate the first point we put the outline of the proposed LCA as received under a microscope, put every goal stated to a comparative study with the standards achieved by the MiG21 BIS, the Mirage 2000 and a general study of achievements within public knowledge anywhere in the world. We talked of structural weight and structural volume, we talked of clean aircraft design and of drag and lift, and we talked of thrust weigh ratios and of range and endurance. We talked of Specific Fuel Consumption and fuel carrying capacities within the airframe. Bit by bit we tried to prove that to create a structure that was somewhat lighter than the MiG21 and then extract aerodynamic performance from it that almost equaled the Mirage 2000 (which was about two tons heavier) would need us to technologically improve our performance in every single element of design and construction of the airframe and engine by at least fifteen to twenty percent from our currently known capabilities or aspirations. (We were yet to build a single operational jet engine). We felt that a time frame of ten years for this scale of achievements was implausible.
We now took up the case of proposed sensors. The proposal put out by the DRDO did not include a laser rangefinder for air to ground role. The assumption therefore was that the onboard radar would have to provide primary range data for air to ground role as well as air to air role. The problem as we saw it was we had never designed any airborne radar of any sort. The radar on the MiG 21 was rudimentary. None of the aircraft of the older generation like the Hunter/Gnat/Mystere/Marut had any airborne radar. The radar fitted in the maritime Jaguars were yet to enter service. The radar fitted to the Mirage 2000 had come without any transfer of technology. It was not clear whether we were capable or creating a duplicate that would be even better in performance. The proposed LCA was smaller that the Mirage 2000. Even if we had access to Mirage 2000 radar, would it fit into the smaller volume of the LCA? There was no indication that this had been considered. Therefore, we were totally dependent on the success of the proposed MMR. If that failed or was subjected to any delay the whole LCA project would be endangered.
We also dwelt on the Kaveri as the proposed engine for the LCA. The engine was far from a reality. Even if the first few prototypes of the LCA flew on some other engine, to commit to a production run of an aircraft yet to be built based on a maiden venture on an engine yet to be designed needed a leap of faith we were unable to make.
Thus I made our first point: If the DRDO is confident of achieving everything they have aimed at, God-Speed to them. We are however skeptical about their time frame of one decade. Therefore, we recommend that the effort of the DRDO be taken up as a national project not related to Air Force funds and plans. If the DRDO succeeds in its venture and a useable aircraft is produced, the Air Force can always induct that product as soon as it is available.
We then moved over to the second point of our presentation. A modern offensive air weapon system like a fighter aircraft contains many technologically advanced components that in 1982 were not produced in the country. Apart from an aero engine and an air interception radar, many other things like secure communication, Electronic Countermeasures and counter-countermeasures, pilots’ man/machine interface, survival equipment for the aircrew, oxygen systems, intelligent weapons and advanced sensors and so on. If we ever wanted to be capable of independent and effective military air and space operations, it would be necessary for us to master these technologies. We therefore felt that any research and development under taken by DRDO in these fields should be vigorously supported by the Air Force. Successes in these fields would enhance our abilities across the board. There was therefore no need to tie any of these R&D to any specific project. R&D on all component development should proceed vigorously.
The third point of our presentation was centered on our need to get some useable and effective aircraft into the air force within a decade. We mentioned that the Gnat was a spent force, the Hunters were becoming difficult to maintain, the SU-7 and the Type 77s would soon finish their lives. We needed credible replacements and we saw no inductions on the horizon. We therefore felt that a midlife upgrade for the MiG21BIS Type 75 was urgently needed. We felt that an upgrade should concentrate on new electronics and weapons. We also felt that if a less thirsty engine could be found for induction that would increase its radius of action it would be very good. We felt confident that the talent available in India was capable of delivering such an upgrade. We suggested that irrespective of what the DRDO plans about a project called LCA, the MiG21BIS upgrade program must be taken up without delay.
Having created the presentation, we polished it for a couple of days. The task of verbal delivery of the presentation was shouldered mainly by me and Pinky Pillai with able help from the rest of the members of the team. We had many talented young officers on the station. Our audio visual support for the planned presentation came to a high standard. We then proceeded to Jodhpur for the conference.
The other two major stations of the SWAC, Jodhpur and Bhuj, had kept their presentations simple. They functioned on the premise that the DRDO would deliver what ever was being promised. They just asked for a few additional items like laser ranger. The presentation at Jodhpur was an easy walk-over for us. We evoked a lot of opposition that we readily overcame. Our presentation was technically superior as we had much more resources and manpower than the other stations. After a day of debate we were chosen as the SWAC team for the presentation at the Air HQ.
The Gathering at the Air HQ was big. Mr Shahariyar, the Scientific Advisor to the Chief of the Air Staff was the organizer for the meeting as he represented the DRDO to the Air Force. However, the Directorate of Air Staff Requirements (DASR) under Air Vice Marshal JW (Johney) Greene took over the actual conduct of the conference, as ultimately they would have to become the nodal agency for induction of an indigenous aircraft.
In 1982, the SWAC was the youngest of the operational commands. We were therefore called upon to make our presentation after the other commands had had their say. The morning was tending to become a bit monotonous. It seemed to me that most of the presentations were based on thin air! At long last it was my turn. The auditorium was full of dignitaries. The Chief, Air Chif Marshal Idris Latif was present. All his PSOs and most of the ACASs and Directors were also present. There was a senior rep from the Navy. The HAL, the NAL and many other DRDO Labs were represented. The hall was actually overflowing with middle ranking officers, many of them standing two or three deep in the rear. The SWAC team took the stage. Very soon all the monotony of the morning was gone. The audacity and challenge of our presentation shook up the audience. I am however not sure whether the Chief took to our presentation kindly. He was an ardent supporter of the concept of the LCA. Our open disbelief of the DRDO’s claims and aims ran contrary to the theme of the conference. There was a frown on his face as we rambled on, and he left the hall before we came to the end of our presentation. He did however come back to be present during the vociferous Q&A session that followed.
There were some more presentations to be done after we finished. The day rolled on after a lunch break. Some time before the end of the proceeding and the summing up, I was told not to plan my departure from the Air HQ without checking with the DASR. We had planned to return on the following day. Pinky and I cancelled our plans and stayed back. Next day when we reported to the DASR, we were asked to prepare a paper summary of our presentation that included not only what we had said in the presentation but also the substance of the discussions that had followed. We struggled for a couple of days and submitted a paper. It was not a very hopeful one.
After returning to Jamnagar, we did not get involved with the LCA project at all. I had a station to command and that took all my attention. I enjoyed my job so thoroughly that I did not spare a thought for the LCA during my stay in Jamnagar. Apparently however, I did not do a good job of of my base command. I was overlooked by the promotion board. I was sent away as the CI of the Defence Services Staff College at Wellington. It was a slot for an AVM but I filled it in my lower rank hoping that the next promotion board will elevate my rank. Once again, I enjoyed my job and scarcely spared a thought for the LCA for the duration of my stay as the CI(Air) at the DSSC.
TheAir Force is ultimately a small society. Over a period of time and for any seniority band, every body gets to know (about) everybody else. From the DSSC at Wellington, I had many occasions to go down to Bangalore. There, I invariably met Ramu (then Air Commodore PM Ramachandran) who was then the Commandant of the ASTE (Aircraft and Armament Testing Establishment). He was a keen observer of the progress of the LCA project and, like most of us, wished it well. During one of these visits he told me that the DRDO had asked him to come and join the LCA team at a senior level. He was not however keen to leave the Air Force and go over to DRDO permanently. He was willing to do a limited tenure there on deputation. The DRDO had requested the Air Force for him to be deputed and the Air Force had declined to let him go. We had long interactions about the LCA, primarily laced with disappointment and lack of hope. The initial inputs for our 1982 conference had been put together by the HAL design bureau. A design study for this project had begun in 1983 but we had very little information filtering through on its progress The progress on Kavery was slow, the information on MMR was vague. Some other developments from the electronics fields were somewhat more encouraging. We had very little idea about the progress of the aerodynamic/structural development. NAL seemed upbeat about their progress on composites.
On 31 October 1984 I was in Nashik with the Industrial And Demonstration Tour for the Staff College students. The news of the assassination of the PM and the mayhem that followed stopped us on our tracks. A few extra days were spent at Nashik under high uncertainties. To keep myself occupied at that time, I spent a lot of time with my friend Wing Commander P Ashok. He was then the Chief Test Pilot with HAL Nashik. In the process, I ran into Sri Kota Harinarayana. Kota was then with CRE and was located in Nashik. He was a man on the go. Ebullient and enthusiastic, he spent a lot of his time on design studies for the proposed LCA, though he was not in the LCA development team as yet. At that moment, he had just completed a study of wing-leading edge- root extension on a MiG 21. He had proposed it and had been authorized to carry out the experiment. He was quite excited about it and he took me to see the aircraft that had been modified. To me, it looked like a small modification, somewhat like the HT2 leading edge root extensions incorporated to provide a stall warning buffet. The MiG21 LREX experiment had by then been completed and the authorized number of sorties had been flown by Ashok. I did not investigate about the results of the experiment. However Sri Kota Harinarayana was really full about all the theoretical studies he was involved in for the proposed LCA. He was indeed very keen to join in the LCA effort. Soon thereafter, we learnt that the development tasks for the LCA had been shifted from the HAL Design Bureau / NAL to a new entity called ADA and Sri Kota Harinarayana had been placed as the head of ADA. The ADA took in a fair number of people from the HAL design Bureau. The lead designers from HAL / NAL who had worked on the project so far slowly drifted away.
By the middle of 1985 I moved on from the DSSC to take over the command of Ari Force Station Kalaikunda. It was a hectic tenure that kept me busy. The LCA did not enter in my thought process except an an object of keen interest. I was involved in a flying accident in February 1986 and spent the next few month in hospitals or in convalescence, plastered up to my hip. In August 1986 I retired from the Air Force. I was then only 52 years old. I was sure of my abilities. I was interested in the LCA project. It seemed to me that project management for the project needed to be strengthened. I felt sure that with my recent experience of managing the Jaguar project I could contribute. I therefore wrote a letter to Sri Arunachalam, who was then heading the DRDO, offering my services. There was a very prompt response to that letter. The SA to RM welcomed my gesture and promised to follow it up after due consultation with ADA. It was a very sweet letter, but that was the last I heard from the DRDO.
After my retirement I had more time on my hand. I kept track of the progress of the LCA project to the best of my ability. However, for the most par we only got bad news. By 1990 it had become quite clear the the time lines for the Kaveri will not match the time line for the LCA. The two projects had to be separated. Yet, the DRDO seemed blind to this need. The MMR progress was uneven. Some collaborative effort was necessary. There was no indication in the public domain that this need was being recognized. We got to know that the project definition phase for the LCA had been completed by 1989. A full scale engineering development (FSED) phase-I was sanctioned in 1993. It is difficult to list what exactly transpired relating to the project between 1989 and 1993. A higher risk alternative of digital quad-redundant path had been chosen for the fly by wire system, but no investments were being made for testing the system being developed. Instead of harnessing our own capability, the DRDO plumped for American help. This decision blew up in our face in 1998. Time ticked on. It became obvious to us that project management for LCA was not adequate.
By 28 Feb 1993 Ramu had reached his age of retirement. He was then a full Air Marshal holding the post of Vice Chief of the Air Staff. Dr Abdul Kalam was then the SA to RM. He wanted Ramu to take over the LCA project in the existing vacancy of Director General ADA as he had done good work earlier on the very successful “Jaguar Darin” project. Ramu was willing to take on the challenge provided his name was proposed jointly by DRDO & Air Force so that he was not identified as an “Air Force” man or a “DRDO” man and he could function freely in the interests of the project. Accordingly, the SA to RM routed the file through the CAS who concurred with the proposal and forwarded it to the RM Sri Sharad Pawar in Feb 93. It is learnt that the same got approval from three out of the four members of the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC) within a couple of months but was held up by the PMO for more than two years on various pretexts. It was examined by a few more search Committees all of whom had concurred with the original selection of Ramu. Dr Kalam intervened again and Ramu’s appointment was finally cleared by the PM in Jun 95. The file was then passed to the Establishment Directorate for issue of an official letter of appointment. Even after another one full year, this letter had not been issued. It looked as if no one other than Dr Kalam was interested in strengthening the LCA project Management, and even he was powerless to enforce his will in the face of departmental apathy/antipathy. Ramu was determined not to pursue his own case but act only if the formal appointment letter was issued. That post still remains vacant after almost two decades! That was that.
Once again it is difficult to list what exactly happened to the project between 1993 and 1998 beyond the public domain information that the FSED Phase – I was in progress and what ever information is included in Air Marshal Rajkumar’s book on the Tejas. In 1998 USA imposed an embargo on all support for the LCA and confiscated all data and documentation in possession of our team working there on proving the digital flight control system on an F-16 simulator. It seems that the team had not taken the precaution of backloading all their data every day. A lot of hard work now had to be redone by the team on their return to India. Ultimately, the LCA Technology Demonstrator-I flew for the first time on 4 Jan 2001.
Notwithstanding the passage of 19 years between our first conceptual meeting in 1982 and the first flight in 2001, we were all thrilled. The Air Force sanctioned the building of 5 prototype aircraft and 8 limited series production aircraft to help the project progress. As an act of faith, it also ordered first 20 and then another 20 aircraft to be built with the GE404 engine as the power plant. It was implicit in this action that the aircraft will obtain its full operational clearance by the time it enters squadron service.
From that first flight in 2001, it took another decade for the LCA, now named Tejas, to reach a partial ‘initial’ operational clearance in January 2011. This clearance appears to be a decorative clearance. By now the 5 prototype vehicles and 6 of the 8 limited series production aircraft have flown. More than one year has gone by since this partial IOC. The project seems to have hit some rough patch. Full IOC is yet to come. Progress appears slow. We have brilliant people working in the ADA, NAL, HAL, ADE, NFTC and the host of other organizations involved with the LCA. But is the Project for the LCA being managed well? That is the question. The long gestation period for this very important national project saddens me. My grand daughter Prakriti was born about a year after the project definition for the LCA was completed. Prakriti will graduate out of the UCLA in a few weeks, while I wait anxiously for the Tejas to collect it’s matriculation certificate!
Now a days when I think about the Tejas, many scenarios, many ‘what if’ s if you like, cross my mind. What if we had allowed the HAL design team to handle the development without going through the ADA route? What if Ramu or I were allowed to take on the project management? in 1983 – in 1986 – in 1993 – in 1996 ? What if we had the guts to depend on our own people for the development of the digital flight control system, some thing that we were ultimately forced to do anyway? What if we had listened to internal doubts expressed in muted tones and then in thunderous debates that the Kavery project will not and cannot match with the Tejas project in good time? This obvious decision had to be forced down our gullet after a long period of wasted time. (Those readers who had not been aware of the Tejas Project at that time may like to look up the transcript of the Address made by Ramu at the ASTE Seminar on Flight Testing on 10 December 1997. The full transcript was published by the Vayu Magazine). What if we had realized a couple of years earlier that the MMR will need foreign collaboration to fit into the Tejas program? What if we had coordinated our testing program more tightly with the existing assets of ASTE and HAL Flight Test Division rather than creating a brand new set-up of NFTC for the purpose? (I hasten to add that NFTC and Phillip Raj Kumar who was tasked to set it up did perform excellently. I only wonder whether we could have saved some time and resources?)
I also wonder if my original presentation in 1982 had any effect on the responses of the Air Force in relation to the LCA project? I have never regretted stating my opinion and my assessments during that presentation. I am glad that we were not swayed by over enthusiasm. I am glad that our assessment of the time required for the LCA project were more real than what was then the current wisdom. I am glad that the up-grade project of MiG21BIS to BISON standard came about. I am however sad that our professional judgement on our courses of actions to fulfill the task allotted to the Air Force is now criticized by people who do not carry the responsibility of keeping the Air Force fit for its tasks. And above all, I am saddened by the realization that in this project of developing the LCA we seem to have not reached our true potential. I know we can reach where we aim to. It has taken a long time. We are not yet there. But, we must continue till we succeed. A definitive determination to be honest to the nation, Politically, Administratively, Technologically and Morally, would help. There is no room for defeatism.