Procurement: Magic May Not Be Enough

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August 12, 2015: India and the United States have agreed on the general terms for India using American technology to build the next Indian aircraft carrier, in India. This is a 70,000 ton carrier based on the familiar American designs (flat angled deck with catapult). The Russian tech used on the latest Indian carrier (the 45,000 ton INS Vikramaditya) was unsatisfactory as is the Indian and Russian tech used for the 40,000 ton NS Vikrant, which is in the water and getting fitted out but will not be in service until the end of the decade. The American carrier tech deal is also being negotiated alongside a similar arrangement to build an engine in India for the new Tejas light fighter. This locally made LCA (Light Combat Aircraft) jet fighter had so many problems over three decades of development that India is delaying mass production until a major upgrade (Tejas II) is carried out. It is hoped that U.S. tech can be used for this.

The Americans and Indians have agreed to general terms but must now work out details. This is where there may still be critical problems as in the past the U.S. backed away from such negotiations because India demanded too much control (and too little security) for American military technology. India says it will be different this time and it is up to them to make a convincing case.

The problems with Tejas were all Indian. The decision to back away from mass production of Tejas was caused the realization, in late 2012, that the number and severity of technical problems were too great to clear up in time for production to start on schedule. Many essential electronic items were not functioning properly or reliably. The prototypes were maintenance nightmares and after each test flight it took several days to get the aircraft in shape to fly again. The managers of this government financed project tried to keep the problems quiet while they were quickly and quietly fixed but failed at both these tasks.

This was not the first major failure for the LCA. In early 2013 India admitted defeat and dropped plans to use the locally developed Kaveri engine in the LCA. After 24 years and over $600 million the Kaveri was unable to achieve the necessary performance or reliability goals. The government plans to see if the Kaveri can be used in a combat UAV that is being developed locally but that aircraft is not expected to fly until the end of the decade, if then.

The LCA developers saw this Kaveri disaster coming and several years ago ordered 99 American F414 jet engines for $8.1 million each. These were to be used for the first LCAs being mass produced. At that point it was still believed that eventually most of the LCAs were to be powered by the Kaveri engine. The F414s were to substitute only until the Kaveri was ready but now are a long-term solution. With American cooperation F414s, or something similar, could be built in India under license. The negotiations are to determine if that is really possible.

The failure of the Kaveri project is just one of many examples of how the Indian defense procurement bureaucracy misfires. Efforts to fix the mess even led to calling in foreign experts (from the U.S., Israel, and other Western nations). For example, in 2010 India made arrangements with French engine manufacturer Snecma to provide technical assistance for the Kaveri design and manufacturing problems. Critics in the Indian air force asserted that help from Snecma would not save the ill-fated Kaveri program. But the government apparently believed that it was necessary for India to acquire the ability to design and build world class jet engines, whatever the cost. Only a few nations can do this and India wants to be one of them, soon, no matter what obstacles are encountered. Despite decades of effort, the Kaveri never quite made it to mass production. Now the government will continue funding development of jet engine design and manufacturing capability, but with some unspecified changes and, possibility, some assistance from the American.

There is much to be learned from all these development disasters. When work began on the Kaveri, in the mid-1980s, it was believed that the LCA would be ready for flight testing by 1990. A long list of technical delays put off that first flight until 2001. Corners had to be cut to make this happen, for the LCA was originally designed to use the Indian built Kaveri engine and the engine was never ready.

For all this, India only wanted to buy 200-300 LCAs, mainly to replace its aging MiG-21s, plus more if the navy found the LCA worked on carriers. Export prospects are dim, given all the competition out there (especially for cheap, second-hand F-16s). The delays have led the air force to look around for a hundred or so new aircraft (or even used F-16s) to fill the gap between elderly MiG-21s falling apart and the arrival of the new LCAs. However, two decades down the road the replacement for the LCA will probably be a more competitive and timely aircraft. Now the best hope is a Tejas II, saved by an injection of some American tech and managerial magic.

 

 


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