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DSA is as much yours, as it is ours! (Febauary 2019)

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When India purchases off-the-shelf aircraft like Rafale, its domestic programmes like the Light Combat Aircraft, Tejas, suffer. It suffers both in terms of delays in development as well as inadequate funding. The cost escalation of LCA Tejas is often quoted as one of its shortcomings. While it is certainly true that the cost has escalated well beyond the initial estimates and sanctions. But such escalation is, firstly, not unique to the Tejas project, and it also has to be seen in the correct context of its figures. There are various reasons, known and unknown.

Almost every advanced country, with a combat aircraft development programme, has suffered inordinate delays and price overruns. Even the most experienced countries, with a history of aircraft design, development and manufacturing, suffer from this issue. There is virtually no programme that has not had to rewrite its audit books to correct figures, including the most advanced fifth-generation stealth fighters. But those countries and their developing companies still persist, with patience and perseverance, to get the aircraft in the air, to serve the country.

Panning the Tejas project, therefore, for this shortcoming is ignorance at best, or wilfully motivated at worst. It got delayed for the simple reason that the country sought to develop a combat aircraft in a period when the technological world was on the cusp of a major revolution. Advances were occurring at a rapid pace, outdating what was once considered modern in no time at all. As a result of which expectations of how the Tejas should fly, and what its capability should be, kept changing as new technologies became available, constantly. In simple words, the goal posts were shifted, continually, and so often as to make the task of developers virtually impossible. Not surprising.

India once did the same earlier, with the HF-32 Marut, Asia’s first supersonic combat aircraft. Yes, India was indeed the first country in Asia to make an indigenous combat aircraft that could fly at supersonic speeds. But just because it was a fast aircraft didn’t make it the best, and because it wasn’t the best, the project was shelved even before subsequent versions could be developed. The baby was indeed thrown out with the bath water, and years later, India decided to begin all over again with the Tejas project. Having cleaned its cupboard bare, it decided to begin from scratch.

The delays were only to be expected as were the cost overruns. What should have been kept in perspective, form the inception of the programme, was that technology was no longer the monopoly of state run institutions. This is what the developers of Tejas hoped to underline. So, even as they wrestled with new breakthroughs in design, materials et al, Indians employed elsewhere were achieving greater technological milestones. A fusion of efforts from the inception would have accelerated the programme, whilst helping spread the technological net wider. The same can still be done with manufacturing the Tejas, and roping in other players from the private sector too.

India needs to manufacture more squadrons of the Tejas per year than its current capacity. That can only happen if the private sector is roped in. Which would also bring in greater expertise to revise subsequent versions of the Tejas, because there have to be follow on makes in years to come. India has no choice but to develop the Tejas over the next few decades, in various versions, so as to take care of its combat fleet. No amounts of imports can compensate for the strength of a domestic programme which is also a fact known world over


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