“Increasing Chinese technological capability is an outcome of their sustained efforts in R&D. The IAF is working closely with DRDO and others to close the gap on these technological asymmetries”

by Manish Kumar Jha

Recently, the Indian Air Force (IAF) resurrected its squadron No. 18 Flying Bullets with the formal induction of the first Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Mk-1 in Final Operational Clearance (FOC) variant. The squadron will be getting 83 such aircraft over the next few years. However, as IAF seeks to modernise its squadrons and fleets, several challenges remain. In an exclusive interaction with BW Businessworld’s Manish Kumar Jha, Chief of the Air Staff Air Marshall R.K.S. Bhadauria talks about the critical steps IAF is taking as well as the thrust on R&D in aerospace:

Is there any plan to cut IAF’s budget due to economic constraints? What platforms are being prioritised for induction? How will IAF meet its modernisation and security goals given the budgetary constraints?

Pending the receipt of revised budget estimates, we are targeting savings of 20-25 per cent in revenue expenditure as the first step. On capital expenditure, our highest priority lies with the contract for 83 TEJAS Mk-1A. Additionally, we are in the process of prioritising our critical requirements, weapons and technologies like air-to-air missiles, air-to-ground precision weapons, networking, data linking, etc. We are working towards industry critical capabilities and minimising the impact of budget constraints on modernisation.

Our vision of Atmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India) in defence is not going to be realized if we continue to allot just 6 per cent or so of our defence budget to DRDO. China, for instance, spends about 15-20 per cent of its defence budget on R&D. As IAF chief, how do you look at such an anomaly? What do you suggest we can do to address such gaps?

The outlay for DRDO has been increasing every year and is based on projections by DRDO itself. The DRDO plans its future R&D based on a technology development roadmap worked out in consultation with the services and its own assessments. I have no doubt that there is a strong case to enhance indigenous R&D by DRDO in niche technologies. Defence PSUs and the private sector need to increase their emphasis on R&D. R&D is fundamental to successful indigenisation, suitable product development and import substitution. The first step should be to focus the available budget on high prioritisation of niche technological areas.

The Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRC) 2.0 is all about building a complex aerospace ecosystem, leveraging full-scale ToT with leading foreign OEMs. Why do we intend to delay projects of national importance in security and defence?

All major platform procurements where the numbers required are high will be Made in India be it Tejas Mk-IA, Tejas Mk-II, MRFA or AMCA. The MRFA programme will be fully Make in India and will significantly benefit future Indian projects by infusing cutting edge technologies into the domestic industry. After receiving initial responses to the RFI and having detailed discussions with all vendors the SOC is under finalization. In order to suitably energise and support the development of a complex aerospace ecosystem, I strongly feel all the projects have a big role to play. Therefore, our major focus on 83 LCA followed by LCA Mk-II and AMCA is parallel to MMRCA 2.0, as you put it.

You recently said India will need 450 fighter jets in a decade. India has own fighter jets — LCA Tejas MK-1a while 4th Gen concept Tejas Mk-2 and 5th generation AMCA are on drawing board. And, keeping HAL’s sporadic delivery in mind, the first squadron of MK-1a is expected in 2025. How are we going to achieve the strength of 42 squadrons?

Involvement of the defence PSUs, private sector and MSMEs effectively by putting in place modern production facilities would be essential to ramp up delivery of fighter aircraft and other platforms and systems. The key to increase in numbers lies in successful and rapid establishment of a comprehensive aviation ecosystem. 

It is estimated that more than a thousand engines are required for the fighter jets under ambitious projects like Tejas variants and futuristic AMCA. The IAF has spoken of indigenously built engines which have not taken off. Why don’t we leverage our partnership with friendly countries and make these engines in India?

Design and manufacture of a modern fighter jet engine is a highly complex, expensive and niche capability. The Kaveri project has not succeeded in delivering an engine for fighter aircraft and IAF is not insisting on this indigenous engine. The DRDO must find a way of building a suitable fighter engine in partnership and this is the initial path to success of future aircraft programmes. 

Directed energy or lasers are the weapons of the future for fighter aircraft— manned and unmanned. How are we placed with regard to R&D in this area?

Directed energy or lasers are important technologies for IAF’s future platforms and weapon systems. We are looking at this capability and are supporting measures to develop such key enabling technologies. 

China is building stealth jets like J20 and 31 in large numbers, developing jet engines and helping Pakistan build up its air strength. Will the gap with China grow wider in aerospace superiority in the coming years?

Technological asymmetry does not remain constant and varies in different spheres with the advantage shifting depending on development and procurements. Increasing Chinese technological capability is an outcome of their sustained efforts in R&D. The IAF is working closely with DRDO and others to close the gap on these technological asymmetries. A progressive increase and improvement in our combat aircraft force enablers, sensors, weapons and network centric operations capability should help us address our assessed threats in the future. Indigenisation of R&D and production is the key for our future capacity building.