Such is the political phobia which plagues the nation ~ issues of national security included ~ that all attention was focused on the Chief of the Air Staff “batting” for the Rafale combat aircraft at a seminar in the Capital that only marginal attention was paid to a possibly more pregnant observation of Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa. He dubbed the much-hyped indigenous Tejas LCA as a “medium technology” fighter, and said given the demands on the IAF the home-built bird “alone just will not do”.

In one swift uppercut Dhanoa flattened the boasts of Hindustan Aeronautics and the LCA’s designers, and made it clear that there was no alternative to exercising the got-abroad option if the IAF was to effectively counter the “two front” threat from nuclearised neighbours China and Pakistan: both were upgrading their air assets, while the combat fleet of the IAF was depleting.

Never mind that Dhanoa, like other voluble air force officers, ducked the layman’s query how 36 Rafales would address the reality of the IAF now being down to just 30-odd squadrons ~ his point on the criticality of hi-tech aircraft is well-taken. Hopefully, it will get Nirmala Sitharaman & Co to get their act together about processing the requirement for another 100 frontline fighters. To the dismay of the “make in India” lobby, the Tejas LCA does not have the requisite cutting-edge the IAF sorely needs ~ like the MBT Arjun, the Tejas will merely make up the numbers towards the base of the arrowhead.

The Air Chief’s observation serves as a grim reality check ~ only a couple of days back the defence ministry issued an elaborate statement hailing the Tejas as some kind of a sanjivini after a successful experiment at mid-air refuelling was conducted using a Russian tanker. No doubt that air-to-air refueling acts as a force-multiplier, and is one of the IAF’s demands for placing enhanced orders, but the MOD must refrain ~ of be forced to refrain ~ from misleading the public. This is not to write off the Tejas, but the project initiated in the mid-1980s has yet to shape up to the desired standards of the IAF ~ as now confirmed by the Air Chief.

The various improvements sought by the IAF are still a work in progress and the Final Operation Clearance is yet to be secured. Limited orders have been placed, only to keep the project in motion. Maybe spending vast sums on the LCA upgrade is not a case of throwing good moiney after bad, but the Tejas’ pricing is another subject of some controversy and the defence budget is unelastic. It is more than a matter of mere money: Dhanoa, or his successors, will have a hard time convincing young air warriors about operating a fighter that “alone just will not do”. Remember the reluctance to get airborne in the “flying coffins”.