With the MIG-21 FL fighter aircraft being phased out almost fifty years after joining duty with the Indian Air Force, an era has ended. It goes to the enormous credit of the force that it managed to keep these aircraft operationally viable for such a long period, modifying them over the years to suit its needs. It was a compulsion owing largely to the flawed policies of the government on combat aircraft acquisition, the huge amount of corruption at every level on selecting and acquiring aircraft, and the consequent delays. One fallout of this was the avoidable loss of pilots’ lives in accidents. The fundamental technology of the aircraft could not allow the kind of improvements that modern era advances in design and manufacture provide in terms of safety and cutting edge performance. In that sense, for the IAF to have remained a viable fighting force over the years is truly commendable and deserving of the nation’s tribute.
As it is, India cannot match the investment in defence acquisition of the highly developed countries, or the authoritarian and military run nations. Matters are made worse by the attitude of various governments in India towards the Armed Forces. It is one thing that civilians run things in the country, but to be dismissive of the importance of the military in the way its needs are given low priority is nothing short of suicidal. In fact, at crucial times in the continuing hostile environment of South Asia, the governments of Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh actually introduced measures to reduce expenditure in an already resource starved environment.
The governments have failed in particular to match the parallel needs of indigenous weapons development and acquisitions from abroad. Nothing underlines this more than the surrender to absolutely moronic demands by a small segment of the political establishment that India’s private sector not be allowed into defence production! It is only recently that some changes have been made in this policy, but as always in a slow, reluctant and ineffective way. These patriots, by the way, see no irony in purchasing billions of dollars worth of equipment from foreign companies! India’s indigenous efforts are not only kept perennially cash-starved, but there is a strong suspicion that for covert reasons, production lines are not initiated on equipment that has reached a certain level of maturity in development. What does it matter if a tank or aircraft is not absolutely state of the art when four can be made at the cost of an imported one? If the quality of the adversary is taken into account, sheer numbers would overwhelm a nation like Pakistan, with dominance being achieved with good strategic use of advanced imported weaponry. This is what China has done. It has also boosted its military with large scale theft of technology and reverse-engineering.
The HF-24, for instance, was declared as underpowered and in spite of its sturdy and laudable performance during war, its production was stopped without considering ways of upgrading it or coming out with Mark Two or Three versions. If it was war and there were no options, would a country have been able to do that? Why do so in peace time? Particularly as buying from abroad has many shortcomings!
Even if it is for purposes of making a statement, aircraft like the Tejas should be speedily inducted into the IAF even if in small number. It will raise the morale of those developing the technology, even while receiving important feedback on not just its shortcomings, but its advantages, as well. Also, private sector conglomerates must be given the challenge of developing high technology equipment. As they did in the automobile sector, companies like Tata and Mahindra & Mahindra will definitely surprise the nation with what they can produce, and especially suited to Indian conditions!