One is convinced that as a citizen, like millions of our countrymen, we have virtually reached a stage of “now or never” so far as indigenous production of fighter aircraft is concerned. It is one’s firm belief that the first, foremost, primary objective towards Mission Indigenisation revolves around the capability and capacity or the “power” of the fighter engine and the interface with the fuselage (body) of the flying machine.

However, this is easier said than done. The fighter is not produced overnight. Years of dedicated, motivated, relentless team work and mega state investment in research and development are the prelude to success as occasional failures (at times catastrophic) will also have to be taken in stride.

Before moving forward, two things must remembered. No air chief (or for that matter the political leadership and citizens) would like to see pilots flying a machine that does not match the quality or performance of the opponent’s aircraft. The 1965 Indo-Pakistani scenario of US-made and supplied “superior” F-86 Sabre jets and “state-of-art” Lockheed F-104 Star-fighters (known as “flying coffins” and “widow makers” in Germany) which constituted the Pakistan Air Force inventory, versus the basic/rudimentary Gnat fighters of India operated by the grit and determination of pilots exists no longer. One cannot bask in the past glory of our brave fliers. No country would like to see “disproportionate” numbers of body-bags of its warriors in its backyard. It is the duty of the state to give its soldiers a fair chance to fight in equal height, if not from a position of advantage. This is the bottomline.

In terms of fighter aircraft in the post-Cold War era, it is gradually becoming a “market of diminishing producers”. The number of Western producers has declined dramatically and Asia, led by China, has surged. There was a time when Israel Aircraft Industries produced Kfir and Lavi, but no longer. The British once produced the English Electric Canberra photo reconnaissance and bombers and classic single-engine Hawker Hunter (both of which were used by IAF in the1965 and 1971 wars). The British, in collaboration with the French, also supplied India the twin-engine Anglo-French Sepecat Jaguar “deep penetration strike aircraft”. The craft still flies in India, and is no longer produced in the country of its origin.

Indeed, France and Sweden are the two exceptions. Both countries still produce the Rafale and Gripen fighter aircraft. Not a single country from the rest of Europe has the capability to produce any high-tech fighter. Europe’s sole product today is the four nation-consortium fighter; the twin-engine Euro-fighter which too is fast approaching its sell-by date. That leaves the fighter production market confined to Russia, USA, China, South Korea, Japan, and India.

As regards South Korea and Japan, the products are yet to mature and develop to a desired level of expectation and acceptance of/by foreign customers. India too still lags behind owing to its inability to bloom into a full-fledged fighter plane manufacturer. That leaves the world fighter arena open to the big three ~ China, Russia, USA.

India’s dilemma in reaching the desired evel of combat-quality calls for urgent action. A few questions survive ~ How to go forward”? Import? Indigenisation? Going it alone? Joint venture? Technology transfer? In my opinion, there still are “forward routes” for a positive result. First, the Indian Air Force must play a bigger role; a strong, visible, proactive role in research, design, development, test and flight of each and every fighter prototype. It must be involved from the drawing board to flying missions/test flight. Second, IAF has to abjure its benign “good boy” role, operating from the sidelines with only a “qualitative requirement” (QR) and sit as a helpless consumer, depending on the monopoly manufacturer/producer of high-tech and high-stake war-fighting assets by HAL. This seller (HAL) and buyer (IAF) or the producer-consumer mentality has to go. IAF has to be both producer and consumer so far as fighter aircraft is concerned.

Henceforth, IAF must have a dedicated Directorate at Delhi’s Air Headquarters or in Bangalore as a fighter division. It must be headed by a serving (and proven ace pilot) Air Vice Marshal or Air Marshal. He must, in coordination with the human resources and perspective planning branch, chalk out a detailed “actionable deployment plan” of IAF personnel to be with HAL or any other designated fighter manufacturing enterprise for at least five to seven years compulsorily, before being considered for career progression. Pilots, navigators, engineers, technicians, maintenance personnel, all will have to contribute and work shoulder-to-shoulder with HAL and DRDO. It cannot be left to a single department or branch of the Government to bear the responsibility for the success or failure of indigenous fighter development programme.

There is no harm learning from a sister department like the Indian Navy which was fortunate to have some visionary Admirals, during its formative phase. They understood the need of an indigenous fighting ship design, development and building programme. Little wonder the Navy has done well in surface ship-building, especially pertaining to fast attack craft, landing and supply ship, corvette, frigate, destroyer. However, submarine and aircraft carriers are still some way away, sincere attempts and robust political backing notwithstanding.

It, therefore, becomes axiomatic that HAL ought to be headed by either a serving three star Air Marshal fighter pilot or a serving (at least one star) aeronautical engineer par excellence. All the naval war ship building facilities in Mumbai (Mazagon Dock); Kolkata (GRSE); Vishakhapatnam (Hindustan Shipyard); Cochin are headed by naval officers (although retired). They are normally given a five-year tenure, even after retirement. That gives a semblance of continuity and steadfastness. In the past, HAL was headed by serving three-star officers like Air Marshal P.C. Lal (the victorious chief of 1971 Indo-Pak war); Air Marshal L.M. Katre both of whom were not only ace fighter pilots, but went on to become four-star Chief of Air Staff. Then there was another HAL chief, an ace pilot, Air Marshal M.S.D. Woollen.

Hence, it is time to restructure and effect redeployment for development. The time is short and the road long. Imports cannot stop overnight just as indigenous production cannot happen readily with a magic wand. Nevertheless, imports will harm indigenisation in the long run. In any given situation, one contract/deal, from out of four foreign bidders, is bound to create havoc as no rejected foreign bidder will take things lying down. One would love to be enlightened as to which foreigner would like to see India self sufficient in food, fire power, factory production, fuel and finance? Are we living in make-believe, or real, world?