Rafale Deal sums up India’s journey from “Marut” to “Tejas”

Finally, after four years Indian National Congress highlighted something which is above caste-religion-vote-bank politics. I am indebted to them for their concern about Rafale deal. India produces approximately 1.5 million engineers every year, hypothetically if all of them form a separate country, that hypothetical country will  have a population greater than 82 countries of the world; and yet India is the top most importer of defense equipment. What  forces India  to import fighter aircraft from a foreign country even after successfully manufacturing its first indigenous fighter aircraft in the 1960s?  Hindustan Aircraft Limited (today’s Hindustan Aeronautical Limited) with a number of German design engineers lead by Kurt Tank formally started working on the HF-24 Marut (“Spirit of the Tempest”) in 1959 and the first prototype was available by 1961.

Before 1991 (economic liberalization of India) we were supposedly laying strong emphasis on import substitution industrialization but it turns out that ‘we’ as in the citizens were being made fools by ‘we’ as in the government. The Indian authorities reportedly showed little confidence in indigenous fighter technology and had openly expressed their preference for the French-built Dassault Ouragan as an alternative.  By the time the Marut entered mass production, foreign-built fighters such as the Hawker Hunter and Sukhoi Su-7  were already purchased. By 1982, the IAF was proposing that the Marut fleet be phased out on the basis that the type was “no longer operationally viable”. Supporters such as Air Commodore Jasjit Singh pointed out that the type had performed well in the 1971 combat, and had enjoyed superior safety records to other IAF aircraft such as the Gnat(a British made aircraft). Some aircraft had less than 100 recorded flight hours when the retirement of the Marut was being mooted.  Even though the aircraft proved its mettle in one of the battles, it was replaced by Soviet Union’s MiG 23 BN. There are other accolades in the name of our first indigenous fighter.

I can understand that this was the first Indian built aircraft and fell short of the supersonic criteria, but what I could not understand is why Indian government never sanctioned the development of an engine design team even though the engine was the primary reason for the aircraft not satisfying the supersonic criteria? Neither were there assessments of HAL’s capability to reverse engineer or to apply technologies from other projects, such as the work performed for the Folland Gnat. Why was the government unwilling to invest in developing an engine and rather buying it from outside? There were countries willing to help.

Further, it looks to me that Indian Government did not want to manufacture in India to an extent that there were allegations of lack of co-ordination between the ministry of defense, military and the industry, leaving many issues down to industry alone without guidance.

The saddest part is that the achievements of the fighter aircraft were downplayed by every one, media, government and even Bollywood. Do you remember a popular 1997 Bollywood flick “Border”? Not only the movie killed(on screen) Indian Soldiers(who were pretty much alive and even watched the movie) but also try to kill the legacy of HF-24 Marut. The fighter aircraft played a significant role in the Battle of Longewala, however, the movie did not mention it even once.  Distorting the facts in the name of art is so easy and acceptable.  A single hit dialogue in the movie revolving around Marut would have kept the legacy of the aircraft alive in the minds forever. If you can think of any such one-liner, do put a comment below.  Although the pilots who flew HF-24s entitled it as “super hunter”. It was a great opportunity to fill Indians with a feeling of national pride, make them aware of the past  accomplishments and inspire them to go further.

Below is a picture for one of the HAL Maruts used in that battle. Yes, it was first Indian indigenous fighter jet that won a battle for us.


Here is a small video showcasing HF-24 Marut.


If we were able to manufacture our first indigenous aircraft in less than a decade, what took us more than three long decades to manufacture our second indigenous aircraft? let alone how indigenous is our second “indigenous” fighter aircraft.

The government of India in 1969 first accepted the recommendation for HAL to design a fighter aircraft around a “proven engine“. And even after four decades, the “indigenous” fighter aircraft has imported systems like Israel Aerospace Industries/ELTA EL/M-2032 radar, an Elbit helmet-mounted cueing system, a British-made Martin-Baker ejection seat and an American General Electric F404 afterburning turbofan. Additionally, many of the jet’s weapons—such as the GSh-23 23 mm cannon—are of Russian origin. Indeed, the very fact that the Tejas is equipped with a U.S. engine means that Washington has a veto on which nations New Delhi can offer the aircraft to for sale. Further, HAL Tejas will go obsolete soon as the world is moving towards fifth generation fighter aircrafts. The amount of time Tejas took become usable killed its strength, the world did not wait for it. Moreover, it would not be possible to extend the technology to the fifth generation as we still lack the engine. Project Kaveri, which was responsible for building engines in-house was scrapped in 2014 because of its repeated failures. If you are following the article you would have realized that is a deja-vu moment, a repetition of what was happening in the 60s.

Why did it take this long?

HAL Marut was a generation one fighter jet and HAL Tejas is a generation four fighter jet. Why didn’t the Indian government sanction development of generation two and generation three jets? Why was the government not interested in building the avionics ecosystem? Infact the successive variants for HAL Marut  (mark 1R and 2) were not developed. Would it not be easier for the HAL to extend their acquired knowledge to develop more complex design in a step by step  and generation by generation basis?

With all this information available on the internet, which foreign government would  want to work with HAL? With billions and billions being invested and still the core technology being imported from different countries and mere assembling the components in-house is what might have put the French at the back-foot once they were asked to work with HAL.

Are HAL and DRDO to be blamed for their inefficiencies or it is the then government who created an ecosystem that favored their personal goals? I think it is the latter. If there was something wrong with the engineers in India, ISRO would not have achieved success in their Mars Mission which was the cheapest in the world and the only one in the world who succeeded in its first attempt. One major difference between ISRO & DRDO is that government interferes less with ISRO as buying in the name of “national security” does not make much sense there. Or does it?

Now coming to the current issue at hand. Kaveri Project which was has been re-started. French company Safran will be helping in India in completing the engine within the next 18 months. This skill/tech is extremely important. The variant of Kaveri engine is planned to be used in India’s fifth generation aircraft HAL Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).

With this joint development program, the cost matrix became quite complex. I would refrain myself from commenting over the prices as I don’t have a clear understanding of as to what is going on in there. But I am certainly sure of one thing, bringing in the technology and skill set to build crucial engines is extremely important for the country, the country will not have to depend on others to build her own fighter aircrafts. Irrespective of which private company leads today, there would a lot of opportunities for Indian engineers in the future.

At this point in time, we have two different ways of operations:

  • The way Congress (Mrs/Mr. Gandhi) did things in the past: Invest billions and billions in creating an aircraft; take more than three decades to get something done, by the time it is up and running the product is already outdated, scrap the aircraft, portray engineers in the bad light  and invest billions more and buy new foreign products.
  • The way BJP (Mr. Modi) is trying to do: get the required skill set and try to create an ecosystem. What happens after that can be seen in 2020 when we have in-house designed Kaveri engine (18 months time sought by the French Company)

Of-course, it is easy to make fun of  initiatives like “Make In India” and “Startup India” during their initial phases. I am pretty confident that these two will take time but will definitely deliver results and we all be proud one day that somebody took these initiatives. The questions we should be asking the government are: “till when are we going to import aircrafts from different countries? ” or “when will India be a trade surplus country?”

We generally don’t start watching a movie after the intermission even though it has the climax but we start from the beginning because the first part builds the  plot and gives us an understanding of the climax.

Featured Image source 

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