Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has announced that it was about to ink a deal for supplying 16 HAL Tejas aircraft to the Indian Air Force.
This is the glorious culmination of a long process started decades ago.
The first deliberations on India having an indigenous fighter started in 1969, under Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s watch as PM. The deliberations shut down by 1975 as India could not procure a suitable engine from foreign manufacturers.
Deliberations started again in 1983, again under Mrs. Gandhi’s watch, as a need to replace the MiG 21 aircraft was seen. It was estimated that the MiG-21s would only last until 1995 at the latest. Under the governments of Mrs. Gandhi and her son Rajiv Gandhi in 1984 and 1985, the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) was started to oversee HAL and begin work on the Tejas (at that time, it was not called that; only called the LCA – Light Combat Aircraft – programme.)
In October 1987, while Rajiv Gandhi was still PM, the government engaged French engineering major Dassault for help and consultancy in defining the design parameters of the LCA at a cost of $100 million (a huge amount in those days). This was completed in September 1988.
In May 1989, still under Rajiv Gandhi, the critical decision of going forward with the project was finally taken after the earlier feasibility and design studies, and the green light was given for a two-stage full-scale engineering development (FSED).
The Tejas project reaching the current milestone is the result of these visionary decisions made more than 30 years ago under the aegis of Congress PMs.
And one more thing to remember: The Tejas project was driven by ADA, one of the many agencies of the DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organization), which was created by Jawaharlal Nehru. Not only was DRDO tasked with overseeing the Tejas project, they also contributed to many of the modules used in it. I remember working with folks at the Centre for Air Borne Systems (CABS), as they were working on a radar system for the Tejas – we were helping them understand the hydrodynamic impact of the radar on the aircraft. Other labs that played an important role were BEL, ADE, and ARDE. All these would not have existed without Nehru.
The Tejas project also worked on the principle of “Made in India” long before Modi came around with his “Make in India” slogan. As Wikipedia’s article on the Tejas mentions, “Out of a total of 35 major avionics components and line-replaceable units (LRUs), only three involve foreign systems.” The one major failure in indigenization is the engine. Originally, the indigenous Kaveri engine, to have been built by the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (another DRDO lab), was to be fitted in the LCA, but the project did not succeed, and this led to HAL opting for GE’s 404 engine for the Tejas. Now an engine is being developed by GTRE on the basis of the Kaveri engine in collaboration with SNECMA of France. When I had been to GTRE many years ago, I asked them why the Kaveri engine was not working. One of the scientists there told me that they could not get the requisite alloys in India, and other countries were not willing to export them to India. With SNECMA’s help, maybe they can overcome those barriers too.
So it is very easy to talk nonsense about how “nothing was done in India under 60 years of Congress rule,” but the reality is that Congress PMs have worked hard towards making India more self-reliant. Just as in the case of ISRO, about whom I have written in another article, the case of HAL and Tejas is a success story that has to be credited to the Congress.
Today, there are only 9 countries that make indigenous fighter aircraft: the US, Russia, France, China, Sweden, South Korea, Japan, Israel, and India. Additionally, Germany, Italy, UK, and Spain jointly manufacture the Eurofighter, and China helps Pakistan manufacture the JF-17.
Unlike Pakistan, which simply manufactures an aircraft with technology developed purely by China, India has made this aircraft purely based on its own ability, with just a few parts outsourced.
The irony is that so many people, who should feel nationalistic pride for the achievements of the Congress governments, instead praise a worthless and hollow BJP merely because they do better sloganeering.