When it comes to the criticism of indigenous projects, we are very proactive, confident and repetitive. One can find enormous amount of literature criticising the projects undertaken by Indian PSUs or DRDO or other government agencies. Some comment on the delays, some voice their expert views on the quality of the product, while some others may cry about the amount of money spent. It is surprising that even though most of these projects neither directly nor indirectly affect our daily life, we find it relevant to criticise but if a road is being dug up for months, footpath made unusable for weeks, flyover being under construction for years, railway line or metro on the verge of commissioning for decades, no one creates that big scene even though these things affect our day to day life!
Post independence, Tejas is one of the India’s biggest achievements in terms of technological advancement, self reliance, indigenous content, in-house facilities etc. The moment Tejas comes to the mind one promptly jumps to other aspects such as delays, costs, outcome etc. etc. And that’s how picture is painted to the common public.
While counting the time taken by Tejas to come to shape, people start from the year 1983. I always wondered why they do not start from 1969 when the government accepted the recommendation by an expert committee to develop a fighter aircraft. The nodal Agency Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) itself was established somewhere in 1984. Many do not even know that the requirements for this indigenous fighter was not finalised until end 1985! So, when did the actual t-zero start? Whether to start the clock from 1987 when the project definition phase commenced or the year 1990 when the design was finalised? Going further ahead, can we say that the commencement of the real physical project started in the year 1993 which had the provision for making two technology demonstrator (TD) aircraft as the proof of concept as India had never ever undertaken such a complex system.
Going by this chronology of events one can proudly say that the rolling out of the first TD in the year 1995 was a real achievement. So, was there any delay? The ambitious requirement of relaxed static stability was never relaxed by the customer, the help of Dassault aviation was not taken to have the analog Flight Control System (FCS) and ADA went ahead with digital FCS instead as the DFCS is far more advantageous than the former. There was a risk but the major thrust of this indigenous program was in the areas of Radar, Engine and fly-by-wire FCS. Hence no compromises were made. Was this a bad decision? Absolutely not!
This technological leap was bit ambitious as the know-how in the area of fly-by-wire system was absolutely NIL. The complexity of this system is tremendous but the safety guaranteed is awesome. If one masters in designing and testing such a complex system and deliver the same, the aircraft can be deemed accident proof as far as the FCS is considered. To handle the complexity in a simple manner a National Control Law team comprises of scientists and engineers from various organisations, was formed which would convert the requirements to functional specifications and design the control laws. This control law only decides the aircraft handling and flying qualities, the manoeuvrability, the agility and other such fancy words that are used to classify an aircraft superior. Then, a coding team was established and further the test facilities for testing such complex software as per the standards were also established. All such investments on infrastructure and planning under the guidance of foreign consultants boosted the technological understanding of the Indian counterpart and with that confidence they managed to proceed without foreign support post Pokharan tests, when so-called peace loving countries had imposed sanctions on India.
As per the ADA website, it is told that they have formed and developed more than 150 work centres in India who are in some or the other way associated with the Tejas program. And then, there is second chain to which these work centres outsource the activity. This itself is truly an achievement where production companies, research centres, academic institutions etc are all brought under one roof, for a common cause. People can just google JSF aircraft program and check the results. They will be able to understand what is meant by cost and time overruns. That too, when the project is handled by the bigwigs of aircraft industry, the experts from the most powerful countries of the globe. In the case of Tejas, despite the sanctions and a complete isolation from the outside world in 1998, flying the first TD in the first week of the year 2001 can be considered a milestone in the Indian aviation history. Again, it is worth asking, was there a delay? It is also to be noted that 1999-2000 was the time when any engineer knowing ABCD of computers was hired by software companies due to the dreaded Y2K problem. The technological cluster of Tejas also faced this problem but still delivered the result with utter diligence. And, the cost? Oh, that is just peanuts in front of the gigantic expenditure being occurred in any of the aircraft programs across the globe. Sounds quite impressive. Isn’t it?
Further, as part of the technological upgrade and the capability demonstration, almost every single year there was a new aircraft queued up for flight. People won’t believe but it is true that years back, five Tejas aircraft have flown in formation. Many great things have happened in the past and there were great people to make these things happen. Hence the journey of Tejas from scratch to the squadron formation is slow but steady. And as we all know that slow and steady always wins the race and that is Tejas for every Indian. An aircraft more than a fighter, an aircraft of our own! An aircraft of the Indians, by the Indians and for the safety of Indians.
Finally it is proven that the concept of ADA as an agency to co-ordinate various activities of aircraft building with HAL as its principal production partner has succeeded. ADA has also succeeded in developing and building the technological base required to build a modern aircraft in the country that either never existed or was the exclusive domain of the big aircraft companies and the developed nation. The idea clicked but the continuity lacked. Ideally at the verge of Tejas celebrating its IOC, the GOI should have launched a couple of similar projects like civil aircraft or the fifth generation fighter aircraft or the multi-role fighter aircraft or the advanced medium combat aircraft or the multi-role transport aircraft all being taken up in lines same as that of Tejas and preferably by ADA.
Any such projects sanctioned, giving full authority to ADA to develop them, demonstrate and make them ready for production will definitely be a success. And with the capability developed, the vendor database available, the expertise built, these projects would not take more than six to eight years to deliver the products. This could well be a technological resemblance with the programs of ISRO or even the western world. Frankly speaking it is a waste of national treasure if nothing of that sort comes to the paper. Further, the more delays in the sanctioning of the project, the more chances of getting the clustered technological base disperse. Even the scientists and engineers, who have the equations and the solutions embedded inside their brains will go on sale. Why do we not put efforts to utilise the talent to our benefit?
With India putting its stress on Make in India and industrial bigwigs running behind it without second thought, repeating the saga of Tejas in the form of a newly launched project will definitely reap the benefits of all campaigns. Let us hope that ADA gets the project of advanced medium combat aircraft or the multi-role transport aircraft with appropriate sanction by the government so that we can expect the deliverables within four years from the sanction date and certification within 8 years of the sanction date not to silence the critics but to demonstrate our capability and technological base. And that will certainly prove that Tejas is not an excellent aircraft, by chance but by design!