Why the Indian Navy’s non-acceptance of the Tejas fighter aircraft should be accepted as a result of evaluation by specialists
The Indian Navy’s professional decision not to induct the indigenous Tejas fighter aircraft has given armchair critics a new lease of life. Stand by for a lot of their ‘professional’ views against the Navy especially as the Indian Air Force (IAF) is now out of their cross hairs after its decision to induct 120 Tejas MK 1As — a decision which was born out of no other criterion but a professional assessment. It is time we become wise about how the defence forces go about buying aircraft and other equipment that cost millions of rupees per piece. There are operational pressures too which influence decision-making. In this misplaced assault of the ‘armchairists’, the case of the procurement of the Pilatus PC-7 Basic Trainer Aircraft (BTA) by the IAF from Switzerland as against Hindustan Aeronautics Limited’s indigenous HTT-40 stands out.
Procurement road map
Every procurement proposal has three basic constituents: the first is the Services Qualitative Requirements (SQR) of the item to be bought. The second is the ‘categorisation’ or the way the item is to be procured, and the last is the grant of ‘acceptance of necessity’ of the competent authority. Thereafter, the request for proposal (RFP) is floated to eligible firms to bid for the equipment. Thus the SQRs are the cornerstone of an acquisition proposal.
Qualitative Requirements are of two types, depending on the categorisation of the case. If the project is under the ‘Make’ (in India) category, since the equipment is being indigenously designed a Preliminary SQR (PSQR) is generated. For all other categorisations an Air SQR, NSQR (for the Navy) or GSQR (Army) is made. The reason lies in the basic dissimilarity between a ‘Make’ project and the other categorisations. Considering that indigenous design capability is not sufficiently developed, procurement rules permit an incremental approach in the ‘Make’ process till the fruition of the prototype. Thus, PSQRs are jointly framed by the IAF and the development agency, taking into account the operational capability required by the former and the designing capability of the latter. As development progresses, PSQRs are fine-tuned till the prototype takes shape and its performance meets the requirements of the PSQRs. The PSQRs are then converted to ASQR (or its equivalent for the other services) and frozen. Therefore, a PSQR is futuristic in character, because inherent in it is the element of technology that is still under development.
On the other hand, an ASQR resides more ‘in the present’ and is indicative of the technology that is on offer by arms manufacturing firms. In most cases, an ASQR is less demanding than a PSQR since the developing Indian entity (in a PSQR case) could be researching and designing a capability that foreign firms are unable to offer, either because they do not posses it or because their governments have not cleared its sale.
A case study
So, what transpired in the BTA project under which the Pilatus was procured? PSQRs were generated in early 2009 for the development of the HTT-40 basic trainer aircraft to replace the HAL-built HPT-32. These PSQRs were a joint effort of the IAF and HAL. However, in May 2009, following a number of crashes of the HPT-32, the aircraft was prematurely grounded by the IAF; this writer was part of the decision- making and recalls the enormity of the repercussions that weighed on everyone present. But there was no way out. The IAF’s training schedule was totally disrupted; HJT-16 Kiran intermediate trainers had to be withdrawn from the Surya Kiran aerobatic team and the Flying Instructors School to put in place an ad hoc basic training profile for rookie trainees. The flying syllabus was drastically curtailed to manage the available flying hours on the Kiran. A basic trainer had to be urgently bought from abroad to tide over the crisis and put the flying training profile back on track. With the HTT-40 nowhere on the horizon, ASQRs were generated to enable worldwide competition. These ASQRs may have been different than the PSQRs for the HTT-40 due the fact that an aircraft had to be found as soon as possible to train pilots for operational squadrons. Of the companies that responded to the RFP, six were shortlisted in the technical evaluation, of which three subsequently qualified in the flight evaluation. The Pilatus PC-7 emerged as the lowest bidder in the evaluation of commercial bids.
As has become the norm in defence procurements nearing fruition, there were insinuations that the ASQRs had been diluted in the selection of the Pilatus. Critics overlooked the fact that in any acquisition a group of IAF professionals, on whose training the country has spent a fortune, goes about the selection process diligently. In the event, the HTT-40 is still at least four years away from gaining operational status and for production to start. Meanwhile, the Pilatus has been going great guns for the past three years at the Air Force Academy, and the IAF’s training profile is back on track, converting rookie youngsters to operational pilots for frontline squadrons. These young pilots are guarding our skies day in and day out.
So, is it a dead end for development of a modern fighter in the country? Far from it as the technologies developed in the Tejas programme should come handy in the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) programme of the country. Meanwhile, one hopes that the Indian Navy’s non-acceptance of the Tejas is accepted as born out of an evaluation by specialists.