Is there a dire need for a serving Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) HQ to become the new Chairman & Managing Director (CMD) of the Ministry of Defence-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL)? And if yes, then what good will he to do when his predecessors haven’t been able to? After all we are now being told by certain interested parties claiming to represent the ‘righteous’ point of view that “with an eye on the future and fed up with the ‘bureaucratic culture’ pervading throughout HAL, the IAF now wants to regain management control control of this DPSU. Appatently, the IAF has asked the MoD to appoint one of its three-star officers, instead of a bureaucrat, as the CMD of HAL once the present incumbent Ashok Nayak retires on October 31. MoD sources have also reportedly confirmed that IAF HQ has even proposed the name of its present Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Operations & Space), Air Vice Marshal M Matheswaran, an accomplished combat aircraft pilot now approved for the Air Marshal rank, for the post. Simultaneously, although a panel of names has also been drawn up to include Pawan Hans’ present CMD R K Tyagi, a Defence Accounts Service officer S N Mishra, who earlier was Joint Secretary (aerospace) in the MoD, and MSTC chairman S K Tripathi, among others, a concerted attempt is being made by certain spin doctors to characterize the IAF’s proposal as being ‘revolutionary’ which, on the face of it, supposedly makes a lot of sense. As HAL's biggest customer, the IAF is claimed to have every reason to be worried that most projects being handled by the DPSU have been plagued by time and cost overruns. The IAF, it seems, contends that HAL’s CMD should be someone who “understands aerospace concepts” and can “transform” HAL into a cutting-edge company, capable of delivering on time, to stem the IAF’s fast-eroding force levels, which are down to just about 32 combat aircraft squadrons from a sanctioned strength of 39.5 squadrons. Therefore, let us apply logical reasoning yet again and dissect the IAF’s alleged proposal that promises to be the single magic cure-all pill to wipe out all of HAL’s deficiencies.
Firstly, the present IAF’s Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Pradeep Vasant Naik—IF he indeed is behind such a proposal—ought to realise that by proposing such a ridiculous option he is only proposing himself to be the butt of jokes just like his colleagues now heading Navy HQ and Army HQ. Why? Simply because irrespective of whether the CMD of HAL is a three-star or four-star officer, he still will have to report to the civilian Secretary of Defence Production & Supplies (DPS) sitting at the MoD and obtain final clearances on each and every aspect of managing and administering HAL. The IAF’s proposal would have made sense ONLY had the MoD been totally integrated with the IAF HQ, and had the Secretary for DPS also been a three-star ranking officer. Consequently, small wonder that so much energy and effort is nowadays being expended on creating illusions about ‘jointness’, structural reforms, rightsizing, and inter-services cooperation when in fact the three armed services remain as divided as ever both operationally and strategically, while the MoD’s and Union Finance Ministry’s bureaucracy remains brazen, and executive branch of the Govt of India remains comatose. Such dysfunctional state of affairs has in turn adversely affected the force modernisation programmes of the armed services as well. Take the example of the HQ of the Integrated Defence Staff to the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC). It was Navy HQ that had in the not too distant past engaged in a futile attempt to deny its own senior-most officer—Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha--the post of the Chief of IDS (CIDS) to the COSC! Then there was the uncalled for controversy surrounding the age of the present Chief of the Army Staff.
Presently, while the HQ IDS is trying to introduce an element of discipline in the military procurement system (such as coordinating the procurement of LUH helicopters for the Army, Navy and the IAF), it can do very little since the CIDS, being a three-star officer, is junior to the four-star armed services chiefs. A brief explanation of the HQ of the IDS (known as Integrated Defence HQ or IDH) will help appreciate the procurement process better. Following the Group of Ministers’ report released in February 2001, it was agreed that as the institution of the four-star Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) would be the primary step in the structural reforms suggested for the MoD, the appointment of a three-star Vice-CDS was created within weeks. But as the post of the CDS was soon opposed by the Standing Parliamentary Committee on Defence, the appointment of the Vice-CDS became untenable (vice to whom?). Finally, the Vice-CDS’ office was renamed and the Chief of IDS to the COSC (CISC) came into being in September 2001. The CISC, who heads the IDH, now has two responsibilities: he is answerable to the MoD like any other secretary in the MoD; and on the military side he is answerable to the Chairman of the COSC. Unfortunately, there are two fundamental limitations to both these roles. For unlike the four departments of the MoD—defence, R & D, production & supplies, and finance—the IDH has not been designated as the MoD’s fifth department, and hence its activities are not coordinated by the Defence Secretary. The reason for this is that while the armed services personnel could theoretically be posted within the MoD, a civilian cannot be expected to understand and do the services personnel’s job. Consequently, the CISC essentially remains answerable only to the COSC, and has little or no reason to report to the Defence Minister. Within the COSC, the individual service chiefs remain more aligned with their service needs than with the common causes, and there is always dissonance between the purple team (comprising the IDH with officers from the three armed services) headed by the CISC, and the COSC. This shortcoming can only be overcome with the appointment of the CDS, who is equal in rank to the three service chiefs, and hence does not report to the COSC. The CDS would then become a voting member of the COSC and in that capacity he would provide single-point military advice to the Defence Minister. Therefore, had the three four-star service chiefs worked together to support the creation of the post of CDS, there would have been no need for them to individually and persistently explain to the Prime Minister’s Office and his National Security Officer (who by the way needs to have a serving three-star military officer as a Deputy National Security Adviser) the five cardinal truths about national security, and by now the DRDO would have become far more accountable since, fearing technical audits of its diverse R & D projects, it would have ended its skullduggery—once example of which is its recent proposal to indigenously develop a 155mm/45-calibre towed howitzer for the Army, while conveniently forgetting to hold consultations with the Indian Navy, which requires turret-mounted 155mm howitzers to serve as the main artillery armament for its future warship acquisitions.
Instead, the armed services HQs are as divided as ever when it comes to war-gaming the next round of all-out hostilities. While the Army today remains obsessed with India’s disputed land borders along the country’s western and northern frontiers and yearns for the day when it will be able to greatly reduce its dependence on the IAF for close air support, the IAF is thinking about fighting its own war in both tactical and strategic terms, while the Indian Navy today is too busy fulfilling its peacetime roles and is unable to articulate its relevance and contribution to the land war. To top it all, environmental concerns are being given more credence at a time when India’s Border Roads Organisation ought to expand and accelerate its border roadbuilding efforts (which China will definitely protest against). Already an emboldened Beijing now refuses to acknowledge the disputed 2,000km-long border it has with New Delhi in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, and the PLA has deliberately obstructed infrastructure development activities in Ladakh. And how has India responded? Instead of contesting the Chinese claims, India has resorted to appeasement of Beijing (something the latter is exploiting to the hilt) by not only suspending all infrastructure development activities in eastern Ladakh, but by also resuming exchanges of military delegations with the PLA. And as if this wasn’t enough, elements within the MoD are now claiming that the quantum leap being taken forward by the IAF in terms of upgrading its tactical and strategic airlift capabilities (both fixed-wing and rotary-winged) will make up for the acute shortages in road infrastructure along the LAC.
If the present IAF CAS indeed means serious business in terms of transforming the IAF into a capabilities-based air force, then it would do a lot better for the IAF HQ to undertake a critical self-appraisal of its future force ratio not based on the number of squadrons deployed, but on the force levels required to achieve its strategic and tactical objectives. Also, instead of objecting to the longstanding requirement for a four-star Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), the IAF HQ ought to reflect upon the urgent need for integrating its theatre-based air commands with those of the Indian Army, thereby achieving true joint warfighting capabilities in terms of both planning and operations. And lastly, it ought to dust off and implement the far-reaching proposals once conceived by a previous CAS, ACM (Ret’d) S Krishnaswamy, who as far back as 2004 had advocated the creation of an apex body like an Aerospace Commission to oversee, among other things, the transformation of the IAF’s existing Base Repair Depots (BRD) as profit centres possessing high maintenance/repair/overhaul (MRO) skills. Under such a scheme, the BRDs (Kanpur/Chakeri-based 1 BRD dealing with MRO of Russia-origin transport aircraft, Chandigarh-based 3 BRD dealing with MRO of Russia-origin helicopters and engines for transport aircraft, Kanpur/Chakeri-based 4 BRD dealing with MRO of turbofans, Coimbatore/Sulur-based 5 BRD dealing with MRO of Western-origin transport aircraft and aircraft test equipment, New Delhi/Tughlakabad-based 7 BRD dealing with MRO of SAMs, Avadi-based 8 BRD dealing with MRO of support vehicles for Russia-origin aircraft and arrester barriers, Pune/Lohegaon-based 9 BRD dealing with MRO of electrical/electronic rotables for airborne and ground equipment, Nasik-based 11 BRD dealing with MRO of Russia-origin combat aircraft, New Delhi/Nazafgarh-based 12 BRD dealing with MRO of all electronic warfare systems, New Delhi/Palam-based 13 BRD dealing with MRO of radars and communications equipment, Guwahati/Borjhar-based 14 BRD dealing with MRO of radars and communications systems, Gandhinagar-based 15 BRD for MRO of diesel gen-sets and communications hardware, and New Delhi/Palam-based 16 BRD dealing with MRO of parachutes and survival equipment) would all be consolidated under one roof, which would then be turned into a joint-sector public-listed MRO company catering to the MRO requirements of both civilian air transportation aircraft and military aircraft. In other words, the IAF’s Nagpur-based HQ Maintenance Command should be assigned the task of only operating, maintaining and controlling the 1st-, 2nd- and 3rd-level MRO activities of the IAF’s fleet of aircraft, and outsourcing the depot-level (4th-level) MRO requirements from the joint-sector MRO entity. In other words, create something like Krasny Marine Services Ltd and Rosoboronservice India Ltd, whose job it is to provide through-life product support for all Russia-origin hardware now operational with the Indian Navy by not only conducting in-country MRO activities, but also maintaining bonded warehouses with pre-stockpiled inventories of spares like the much-needed rotables and consumables. It is for this very reason that the Navy, unlike the IAF, has not faced an acute shortage of rotables and consumables (like aircraft tyres, seals, gaskets, filters, valves, tubes, pumps, hydraulics accessories, sensor tubes, transistors, lubricants, etc) concerning Russia-origin warfighting assets since 2006, while the IAF continues to face such shortages.
It should be noted here that contrary to what foreign mass-media like AW & ST and a few other misinformed or mischievous Indian media outlets have reported about the so-called poor Russian product support (alleging that this is due to unilateral price hikes, or this is Russia seen to be blackmailing or punishing India for not being lucrative procurement contracts for new-build weaponry), the reality is that the Nasik-based joint India-Russia venture called Indo Russian Aviation Ltd (IRAL), which was set up in the early 1990s by HAL, Rosoboronexport State Corp and RAC-MiG to pre-stockpile and supply the IAF with rotables and consumables for all types of Russia-origin aircraft, screwed up big time by not doing what it has been mandated to do, which in turn led to the IAF issuing a raft of global RFPs earlier this year asking for the supply of such items. It is no use blaming Russian original equipment manufacturers (OEM) simply because such OEMs are only dependent on their regional distributors (like IRAL) for receiving indents 12 months in advance for the quantum of spares required or the type of periodic MRO cycle to be implemented each year. This is how the global product-support supply-chain functions, and Russia is no exception. One can blame the OEM for not setting up regional distribution centres, but one cannot blame the OEM if a MoD-mandated, financed and controlled distributor screws up by failing to adhere to prescribed business practices. Therefore, Shri Arakkaparambil Kurian Antony, are you up to the task of implementing all that I’ve explained above in layman’s terms?--Prasun K. Sengupta