Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The LCA Tejas Milestone: Cause for Celebration, but also Food for Thought

On December 20, Defence Minister AK Anthony will preside over an important milestone in the evolution of India’s technological capabilities – the induction of Tejas, the indigenously-developed Light Combat Aircraft into the Indian Air Force. Though the Tejas has not yet received Final Operational Clearance from the Air Force (that is expected sometime next year), the Initial Operational Clearance now granted will allow for the first few aircraft to be handed over to the Air Force, and for Air Force (rather than test) pilots to be trained on the aircraft.

Tejas has undergone 2,400 test flights since 2001, but 450 in the last year alone. The doubling of test flights came after Defence Minister AK Anthony threw his weight behind quick induction of the aircraft into the Air Force and set a deadline for completion of testing. Prior to that, according to press reports, the ADA/DRDO were being very cautious, worried that an accident would irretrievably set back the programme. There were also coordination and resourcing issues.

The Importance of Rapid Test Cycles

The Tejas experience underlines the importance of quick and rapid test cycles. However powerful computer simulations may be, testing in real conditions is where, as they say, the rubber meets the road. Faster trials mean quicker learning and faster development. In an earlier post, I commented on the challenges inherent in developing complex technological products like fighter aircraft and tanks in India and this was one of the points I mentioned: inadequate number and frequency of experimentation and testing cycles.  I identified five other reasons why we struggle in these projects: (1) overly-exacting specifications; (2) lack of clarity regarding what local development means; (3) lack of technological competence in advanced technologies; (4) design/development and production gaps; and (5) lack of tacit knowledge.

Fear of Failure & The Importance of Champions

But the fear of failure indicated by the ADA/DRDO points to another reality that is often hinted at: pro-import lobbies within the Air Force and the political establishment are ready to do all they can to prevent the emergence of local competition, and would therefore jump on any failure to try to close a project. So, unless local development has a champion at the highest level, it’s difficult for programme managers to mobilise the confidence and resources needed to make advanced technology work. (If you read 8 Steps toInnovation, you’ll remember the pivotal role that George Fernandes played in making the Konkan Railway a reality).

More “Fundamental” Issues

A recent letter from Dr. Satish Chandra to Current Science raises another interesting set of issues. Dr. Satish Chandra heads the Structures division at the National Aerospace Laboratories here in Bangalore. In this capacity, he has been a key player in NAL’s efforts to design and develop new aircraft. NAL has had some success. The two-seater Hansa demonstrated NAL’s capability to take a development project almost all the way to the market (“almost” because Hansa is yet to be commercialized). The Saras Light Transport aircraft flew, but has struggled with weight problems and appears to have lacked the resources and support to go through the rapid improvement cycles that are required to make its “weight loss programme” successful. NAL has been the crusader to develop an Indian 70-seater aircraft, but the programme is yet to get a complete buy-in from policy makers.

In Satish’s letter to Current Science, he stresses that the views expressed are in his personal capacity but they are no doubt based on his experience at NAL! He makes the following key points: Given the current stage of economic development of India, and our national priorities, should we be focusing on basic science research or on technology development to solve our myriad problems? He alludes to a caste system in the scientific establishment where anything applied is seen as not rigorous, and where higher levels of abstraction are equated with higher intrinsic value. He points out that our current structures and processes are inimical to advanced technology development.

Reflections on Dr Satish Chandra’s Letter

Reading Satish’s letter, I was reminded of an interesting book evocatively titled Smash Innovation by Gopichand Katragadda, who currently heads the Jack Welch Technology Centre of General Electric in Bangalore. Gopi points out how India has suffered from a division between hand and mind since historical times. In From Jugaad to Systematic Innovation, I argued that the tendency to put brainwork on a higher pedestal than physical work has come in the way of industrial innovation.

The lack of a strong industrial research culture in India may have led to the misperception that applied research lacks rigour. But good products and technologies have to work in a wide variety of use situations and conditions, and have to be robust and consistent in their performance. This involves extensive simulation and testing. Cost considerations lead to pressures for continuous improvement in materials and reduction in weight. Industrial research and development, particularly in high technology areas is very challenging indeed!
From what I have seen in my own life from watching two industrial researchers (my father and my wife) at close quarters, I am completely convinced that creating good high technology products is every bit as rigorous and demanding as basic research.

The Way to Go

I continue to believe that one of the problems with the commercialization of Indian industrial research and development (at least in the public sector) is the separation of research and design from production and sale. The LCA, for example, was designed by ADA, but will be manufactured by HAL. Technology and product development under the roof of an industrial enterprise is likely to bring in a stronger user perspective, and commercial considerations would hasten testing and development. New models of development would also emerge.

Consider Embraer, the Brazilian aircraft company. It started pretty much like a design bureau, and then went on to manufacture aircraft under licence. But it broke away from that paradigm to become one of the world leaders in Regional jets, and in the process developed new models of sharing risk with key suppliers. As I told a conference of HR heads of Defence Public Sector Units in Bangalore last week, my dream is that Indian defence technology companies follow the Embraer path and become leaders in their respective domains.


  1. Great article Rishi. If we find champions of technology in the 'high places' then the country can save millions of dollars in forex. Maybe a way forward is encouraging the private sector to participate in such developmental efforts. Private partnership shall also ensure quite a few things that you have mentioned in the article

  2. Thanks for the Blog Rishi! My thoughts:

    Each institute should find a mix of fundamental and applied research best suited for their charter. Industries typically will have 80% applied 20% advanced research. Universities should have 80% fundamental 20% applied. At the national level we should invest in making the country competitive long term through adavanced research while the government just doing their job will help help the short term (examples of delays which cost us dearly include gas prices, mega power projects, etc.).