India’s Big Defence Leap

India’s defence industry is celebrating operational clearance being granted to its indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft.

By Nitin Gokhale for

Following is a guest entry by Nitin Gokhale, Defence & Strategic Affairs Editor with Indian broadcaster, NDTV 24×7


The Indian Defence industry has posted a significant milestone.

On January 10, the Indian Air Force formally granted initial operational clearance to the country’s first indigenously manufactured light combat aircraft, marking the culmination of nearly two decades of work by Indian defence scientists and technicians. Named the Tejas, the plane will initially form one squadron (20 aircraft) in the IAF.

The Tejas was designed by the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) under the defence ministry-controlled Defence Research and Development Organisation. The project was conceived and launched in 1983, with an expected budget of Rs 560 crore (about $5.6 billion), but test flights weren’t launched until 2001.

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The project, which has its fair share of critics in India—and even within the Indian Air Force—has seen numerous ups and downs during the course of its long journey to service. But 10 years after the initial test flights, the fourth-generation plus aircraft has finally arrived.

Admittedly, there are still some doubts over the fact that the LCA’sengine, radar, some navigation technologies and some of its displays are imported. But officials at the ADA asserted ahead of the launch that the design, development, testing, certification and mastery of the system engineering are completely Indian.

‘There are just six to eight countries in the world that can design, develop, test and certify a fighter aircraft—India is now one among them,’ ADAdirector P S Subramanyam told the media in Bangalore, a southern Indian city considered a technology hub both for private and government-owned agencies in India.

Fully aware of the criticism over imported engines and radar, Subramanyam already has a road map in place for future development of the Tejas. Over the next five years, he says, the Tejas will be completely indigenous and the higher variant will be ready by 2014. Even without any further refinement, the current batch of Tejas aircraft is comparable with Sweden’s Gripen, the Chinese-Pakistan J-17 Thunder and the South Korean T-50 jets.

‘The LCA is as good if not better than these aircraft,’ Subramanyam told the media.

If all goes well, over the next decade, both the manufacturers and the Indian Air Force are planning to increase that number to 200 aircraft, if not more. But even without these kinds of numbers, India’s defence ministry will be celebrating the induction of the LCA Tejas as a major turning point in its effort to indigenise the country’s defence production sector.

Together with significant progress in locally manufacturing the Main Battle Tank ‘Arjun,’ for use by the Indian Army, India will also likely be happy with its fully-indigenous missile development programme, which has made huge strides by producing ballistic and cruise missiles with varied range and strike capabilities.

These developments are in keeping with India’s conscious decision to encourage indigenous capabilities in defence technologies and production. A recently released document by the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), a tri-service think thank under the defence ministry, clearly highlights the need for greater synergies between the Indian armed forces and Indian industry.

The ‘Technology Perspective and Capability Roadmap, 2010’, which was prepared by IDS, outlines India’s defence needs over the next 15 years and identifies the areas in which Indian industry will be able to contribute in developing and manufacturing the weapons and systems needed by the Indian armed forces.

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The IDS states:

‘This document intends to provide industry an overview of the direction in which the Armed Forces intend to head in terms of capability over the next 15 years which,  in turn,  would drive technology in the developmental process. It is based on the Long Term Integrated Perspective Plan (LTIPP) of the Armed Forces. It will highlight the broad capabilities envisaged by the Armed Forces and the technology perspective to achieve these.  Industry would be expected to interact with the MoD on a regular basis and offer firm commitments in partnering the MoD in developing contemporary and future technologies as well as productionalising   equipment required by the Armed Forces. Effective participation based on mutual trust and cooperation would go a long way in achieving the desired degree of self reliance.’

It goes on to identify the induction of future technology and capabilities across the three services in the following areas:

Information Superiority     

According to the IDS, the Indian armed forces will require Information Superiority to acquire near real-time awareness of the locations and activities of its own and enemy forces throughout the battle space.

To achieve that, the IDS says, requires a seamless, robust C4 network connecting all of its own forces to provide a common picture of the battle space that encompasses the capabilities of Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) and Command, Control, Communications and Computers (C4).

Electronic Warfare

Electronic warfare is used for deceiving, disrupting and destroying surveillance and command and control systems, as well as the weapons and sensors of an enemy’s integrated air defence network. It should also include the capacity to detect similar attempts by the enemy and be able to initiate countermeasures to protect India’s own systems through redundancy and hardening.

Area Missile Defence

Joint Area Missile Defence, which will use AD (Air Defence) assets of the three services in conjunction with the surveillance sensors of other agencies to detect track, acquire and destroy incoming theatre ballistic and cruise missiles.

In addition, the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack exposed India’s inadequacies in combating highly-motivated and skilled terrorists operating in heavily-populated urban areas. With this in mind, the IDS feels there’s further scope to enhance and hone the country’s capacity to launch so-called ‘Military Operations in Built-Up Areas (MOBUA).’    

‘The capability to undertake operations in built-up areas so as to achieve military objectives with minimum casualties and collateral damage includes appropriate precision weapons and non-lethal weapons, surveillance sensors, navigation means and communication systems that are effective in confined, built-up urban areas,’ the document says.

Finally, the IDS document is focused on developing an effective ability to counter the threats posed by the nuclear, chemical and biological warfare capabilities in India’s neighbourhood.

‘There is thus a need to provide our forces with nuclear, chemical and biological warfare defence and protection. The requirement is to enhance joint war fighting capability so that our forces are capable of operating in an NBC environment both for offensive and defensive missions,’ the document says.

The objective, according to a strategy expert involved in preparing the document, is to ensure that the efforts of the country’s defence technology research and development are aimed at supporting future war fighting capabilities required by the armed forces.

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He noted: ‘It was felt that India’s R&D Agencies, both public and private, would be able to work out a detailed plan to develop the required technologies, including the necessary funding and their research objectives in specific areas’.

Of course, all this is easier envisaged than implemented—development of defence equipment and cutting edge technologies with defence applications require considerable investment in terms of time, money and human resources.

‘If Indian industry is to become a meaningful participant in the national endeavour of achieving self-reliance in defence equipment, it would be expected to make this investment.  This, of course requires them to be aware of the capabilities the Armed Forces are seeking and the technologies required to achieve these over a reasonable period of time,’ the document says.

It also notes that: ‘induction of   new weapon systems are cost and   time intensive. Building complex platforms like ships, submarines, tanks and fighter jets has a long lead time which is constantly challenged by the race to keep pace with the relentless march of technology. It is therefore   imperative that the long term requirement of capability be identified and understood for appropriate technology to be developed and operationalised in an acceptable time frame.’

Given India’s history of tardy implementation of numerous public and private sector plans, it’s no wonder the induction of the LCA Tejas is being celebrated as a major achievement for the country’s defence sector. Whether this will spur more such efforts, of course, remains to be seen.