The most glaring case of recurring time and cost overruns, technical faults, mishaps are still occurring in the United States
Why is there such a deafening cacophony, invariably launched by a few “aviation experts”, whenever a “Made in India” aircraft or helicopter crashes? Almost immediately, these “experts” behave as if such crashes are unheard of elsewhere in the world, and demand that India substitute its home-made crashed craft with a fancied imported version. These “experts” and “advisers” should be aware that any pioneering “conception-to-commissioned combat craft” is the most challenging, painstaking and protracted project — with anticipated or unanticipated and unexpected hazards — whose success or failure cannot be guaranteed even by the best of fliers ensconced in the safety nest of the West.
The most glaring case of recurring time and cost overruns, technical faults, failures, snags and mishaps occurred, and are still occurring, in the United States, arguably the world’s aviation superpower since the end of Second World War. Take the example of Washington’s “state-of-the-art” F-35 fighter. The first “requirement” for this F-35 Lightning was issued in November 1994, followed by the December 1995 “request for proposal”. It nevertheless took 21 more years for the F-35B to attain the initial operational capability (IOC) in 2015 and 22 years for the F-35A to do so in 2016. Even then, the teething operational problem of the craft seems endless as seen from the landing-crash of the F-35B at Fort Worth, Texas, in December 2022.
Preceding that, however, Jane’s Defence Weekly (November 10, 2010) had reported that “the troubled F-35 faces further US government review”. Fast forward to the reports of the annual Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft of the 2010s: “In July 2014 the US Marine Corps and Royal Air Force cancelled the international debut of mixed group of F-35 at the Farnborough Air Show” because of a “major engine oil leak” and the consequential “fleet-wide grounding order”.
The F-35 also failed to make its delayed European debut at June 2015’s Paris air show because the Pentagon conceded that the “F-35’s reliability was less than 50 per cent, with difficulty encountered in keeping more than two or three aircraft in flyable status at any time”. What made things even more complex was “there was no intention of rushing the fighter into combat”.
It took another year for the US Air Force to announce that the F-35A had reached “initial operational capability (IOC) with the 34th Fighter Squadron at Hill Air Force Base, Utah” and that its “full operational capability (FOC) is anticipated in 2021”.
Today, however, the problems have again mounted for Lockheed due to the F-35 crash-landing on the runway at Fort Worth on December 15, 2022, thereby inflicting a loss of confidence levels for potential users. Yet, the F-35 production line is on. According to Military Balance 2022, at least 13 air forces (two from the Americas, three in Asia, and seven in Europe and Australia) are either operating or likely to operate the fighter jet. The latest news is Germany allocating $10.5 billion to purchase the Lockheed Martin F-35 and a spurt in demand for US high-tech aviation machines owing to the war in Europe.
The strange fact is that despite the high-profile mishaps, technical snags, and strong reservations over using the F-35 within the US establishment, its production and deployment is unlikely to be impeded. The Americans usually take in their stride such fighter fatalities. Mishaps are a part of, and the price paid for, the normal wear and tear, leading to production continuity.
Given this background, what should be India’s position on the acquisition, production and operation of fighter jets? This writer believes India must learn the lessons and take action. First, don’t even think of the F-35 or any of other three imported fighters (offered or not): the twin-engine F-15 and F-18 (with its production stopped) and the single-engine F-16 (a 50-year-old design) or any of other comparable, but untested, untried, one-engine aircraft. Similarly, the dual-engine F-22 should be avoided for several major faults and in-flight failures, notwithstanding its high- profile February 2023 shooting of a Chinese balloon over Atlantic coast.
The final lesson should be to build our own flying machines, rather than buy imported ones. India need not bother much about which generation fighter it is capable of producing. While the West talks of generational improvement, leapfrogging from the fourth to sixth-generation fighter, it appears to have lost some of its expertise. The reliance on globalisation and privatisation has impacted the fighter-making capability of some countries. Except for two traditional fighter-producing nations in Europe (France and Sweden), the old aviation powerhouses — Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands — are missing. Thanks to Nato; virtually the whole of Europe is now dependent on US combat aircraft. The Russia-Ukraine conflict has created panic because they are now short of arms, ammunition and fighters. If push comes to shove, new fighters will have to be built and supplied by the likes of Boeing, Lockheed Martin or Raytheon, resulting in profits for American companies and losses for the European ones.
Given this background, it is important to take the report of Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence seriously. The report, submitted March 21, 2023, pointed out that while the cost incurred on imported arms and equipment was constantly increasing since 2017-2018; the procurement of more fighter jets should not be delayed any further. The Parliament committee is absolutely right.
It’s time to cut imports and go full throttle for indigenous tech. Don’t complain about not acquiring “state-of-the-art” fifth or sixth generation technology. India can definitely produce at least fourth generation fighters. These can be backed by missile technology, which has shown its usefulness in the ongoing war in Europe. True, India has faced reverses due to multiple factors, some of it being internal sabotage thanks to the strong “import lobby”, but that group must be discarded and ignored without any inhibition. Going for one’s own fighter is a process of evolution — there are bound to be trials, tribulations, errors and failures. The US, despite its decades of experience in aviation, still has 10 major issues on the F-35 that remain unresolved: excessive cabin pressure; night vision tech; lightning strike; software bugs; headache radar; fuselage corrosion; neck-crushing launching chair (zero-zero ejection seat); stealth ability; less certification (even after over seven years of introduction, it’s yet to get the Pentagon’s approval for full-rate production) and single-machine “one-size-fits-all”.
It’s time to learn lessons and act. Or else we will miss the bus. After all, India doesn’t have either the expertise or experience of Communist China to steal technology from the rest of the world, in total defiance of the rules of international behaviour.