Long Way To Go: The aerospace industry’s contribution to building the nation’s air power has not been in keeping with its potential

A national aerospace vision is lacking. It will be the country’s greatest tribute to all brave test pilots and engineers who have perished in the cause of furthering Indian aeronautics if the policy-makers commit themselves to implementing the National Aeronautics Policy

by Air Marshal Brijesh Jayal (Retd)

EVER since the procurement of Rafale jets became a hot topic in electoral politics, two vital institutions of national air power have been sucked into the ensuing debate. In the bargain, both have suffered collateral damage to their reputation, affecting the morale of their respective work force.

The Indian Air Force (IAF), the fourth largest air force internationally, and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), a Navratna defence public sector undertaking and one of the largest aerospace companies in Asia, share a symbiotic relationship. Disturbing this arrangement will cause irreparable damage to both. 

Notwithstanding this reality and fuelled by political and media hype, each is being compelled by circumstances to continue on this slippery slope. In the absence of a national aeronautical consciousness, the tragedy is that none on either side of the political divide can see the dire need to stop this self-destructive course. 

During the 10th ‘Jumbo’ Majumdar International Conference held recently at the Centre for Air Power Studies in New Delhi, the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa, was provoked by criticism about the IAF’s alleged dislike for the indigenous light combat aircraft, Tejas. In frank and legitimate defence, he highlighted the IAF’s efforts to support HAL even at the expense of its fighting capabilities. While mentioning the air force’s cooperation in frequently granting concessions to HAL, he rued that no such concession would be forthcoming to the IAF when it would face the enemy.

To emphasise the IAF’s contribution to indigenisation, he stressed that the air force had lost 17 test pilots and engineers in accidents during flight testing and evaluation of indigenous platforms. Little did he know at the time that this figure would soon rise to 19 when two test pilots of the IAF’s Aircraft & Systems Testing Establishment would lose their lives while undertaking an acceptance test flight on behalf of the air force in a HAL-upgraded Mirage 2000 trainer aircraft. 

Even as HAL announced that a Court of Inquiry would investigate the cause of the accident, and in the absence of any information about the likely cause, it was no surprise that HAL instantly found itself at the receiving end of immense criticism both in the social and national media. The public debate was being driven more by an emotional response to this tragedy than by the stark realities of present-day aeronautical environment and challenges.

It would, however, be naive for the nation to be sanguine and wait for emotions to ebb and get back to business as usual, as exemplified by cautionary comments by two respected well-wishers of national aeronautics. A retired Navy Chief and himself a decorated fighter pilot was reported to have opined that the military has, for decades, flown poor-quality HAL machines and often paid with young lives with no reckoning for the HAL management. He further cautioned that while HAL-bashing may be justified to a point, it was time to question our elected representatives, pointing out that many Defence Ministers had overseen HAL but none demanded the type of performance expected.

A Rajya Sabha MP, who is a member of the Standing Committee on Defence and one who recently donated a Dakota to the IAF vintage flight, was also critical of HAL and reportedly offered to ensure legal support to the families of the deceased test pilots, should they demand accountability from HAL. He later lamented, “Though I had submitted a Zero Hour mention on the issue, it could not be taken up due to the disruption of the proceedings by the Trinamool Congress members.”

While appealing to the political class not to obstruct modernisation to score brownie points, he cautioned that politicking would put our brave young aviators at risk unrelated to the enemy or combat mission. 

It would be somewhat simplistic to bracket these sentiments as being driven by emotions as they reflect the views of respected leaders with a depth of professional understanding of the issues involved. So, leaving emotions and electoral politics aside, where does Indian aeronautics stand today? A sound aerospace industry forms the bedrock of national air power. While India possesses all prerequisites for a sound industry, its contribution to building the nation’s air power has not been in keeping with this potential. The primary reason is lack of an integrated and mission-oriented approach, a national aerospace vision and the requisite organisational framework and supporting institutions. This is in sharp contrast to two other high-technology fields of space and atomic energy, where India has these attributes and ranks among international players.

It was to address this gap that the Aeronautics Society of India (AeSI) mooted a National Aeronautics Policy when Dr APJ Abdul Kalam was its president in the 1990s. In the preamble to this proposed policy, Dr Kalam said, “Aviation is one of the most significant technological influences of modern time and it empowers the nation with strength for international partnership. It is a major tool for economic development and has a significant role in national security and international relations.” This policy proposal, along with a supporting framework, was resubmitted by the AeSI to the government in 2004. Its conclusion reads, “Technology will be the greatest driver for growth in this century. In aeronautics, India has the opportunity to leverage technology to generate economic growth and development. For this to happen, we need to transform our latent capability to deliver complex, aeronautical products to the world by improving productivity and moving up to the intellectual end of the chain — from mere know-hows to know-whys. The National Aeronautics Policy encapsulates this vision."

Having spent a decade flight-testing both with HAL and the Aircraft and Testing Establishment of the IAF and having suffered the trauma of losing friends and colleagues in the process, I believe that the nation can pay the greatest tribute to all those brave test pilots and engineers who have perished in the cause of furthering Indian aeronautics if the policy-makers commit themselves to implementing the National Aeronautics Policy driven by a National Aeronautics Commission. Whether or not our polity can rise to this developmental and indeed moral challenge, only time will tell.