“Naam Hai Prachand”– A “Fierce” Look at Atma Nirbharta

Two major developments within a month of each other heralded a new chapter in India’s latest quest for atma nirbharta: Commissioning of the first Indigenous Aircraft Carrier INS Vikrant on Sep 2, and raising of IAF’s first indigenous Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) unit on Oct 3. While Vikrant’s commissioning was presided over by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, LCH was ushered into IAF by Raksha Mantri (RM) Rajnath Singh. Both events received wide coverage in the media with catchy headlines. The RM shared a video of LCH with a Bollywoodsy “naam hai Prachand” tweet in Hindi that created a splash with over 49000 ‘likes’ at last count!

RM Rajnath Singh’s tweet on induction of LCH Prachand (via RM’s Twitter TL)

The first batch of Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) — christened ‘Prachand’ (“fierce”) — will be operated by newly-raised 143 Helicopter Unit of the IAF, based out of AFS Jodhpur. The baton now passes on to the unit to develop standard operating procedures and tactics while honing their flying and maintenance skills on the helicopter. To my information, the LCH has been tested and evaluated by IAF’s premier Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE) that celebrates 50 years of its own existence this year.

Arguably the only attack helicopter that packs a punch all the way from sea level to super high altitude, the LCH, when fully operationalised, will fill a critical capability void experienced during the Kargil War. It is a significant milestone in the journey of indigenous helicopter development.

INS Vikrant, on the other hand, is a floating testament to what can be achieved if projects of national importance get unstinting support and funding irrespective of which government is in power. Kudos is richly deserved by teams from state-run aerospace major Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and Cochin Shipyard Limited (CSL) who produced and fielded both these products to exacting specifications from the armed forces.

Devil in the details

As I have written before, there are few sights at sea as majestic as an aircraft carrier. Similarly, there are few sights on land more intimidating than a pack of fully-loaded attack helicopters popping up from nap of the earth. When the platform is your own, it adds an afterglow that is hard not to gush over. The devil however lies in details.

Notwithstanding the spectacular commissioning ceremonies, both events miss some seemingly ‘minor’ details. Vikrant was commissioned without its raison d’être being successfully demonstrated — the launch and recovery of deck-based fighters. LCH Prachanda standing on the frontline at Jodhpur misses crucial anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM), imported air-to-air missiles and electronic warfare (EW) suite. Both platforms are propelled by imported engines that India has failed to develop, 75 years after independence. Talks of ‘% indigenisation achieved’ often misses weightage for key components that decide ‘fly or ground’ status or ‘warfighting ability’ of the platform.

Now that the celebrations are over, it is a good point to review some of those grey areas.

LCH Prachand takes to the skies (photo by Aatish Pillai)

Engine conundrum

In retrospect, the large fleet of indigenous helicopters and fighters (ALH, LCA & their derivatives) represent one of the largest pools for indigenous aeroengine development. It is a prize catch engine OEMs would give an arm and a leg for. But we never had one; that bridge was crossed years ago. In 2022, we are no closer to an indigenous aeroengine powering any of the manned platforms, now or in the foreseeable future. This represents an era of ‘lost opportunity’ for indigenisation, leaving a critical vulnerability, while clearly rendering the numbers for future development even smaller.

In the Indian system of ‘distributed unaccountability’, one will be hard put to lay the blame for this situation at the doorstep of any one organisation or service. It is nevertheless a national loss because we hardly had a clear roadmap for achieving this key technology with a budget or driving force to match. Projects like LCA, ALH or indigenous shipbuilding cannot be held hostage to technological barriers of indigenous engine development only an exclusive club in the world has mastery over. In that sense, the selection of engine for the platforms under discussion in this article were both timely and appropriate.

However, from a national perspective, development of such critical technologies must rise above numbers or economy of scale. It should be a matter of national shame that we claim to have ‘arrived’ under foreign propulsion on the tarmac of elite aircraft carrier, fighter and attack helicopter makers. As I see it, this situation is not set to change anytime soon.

It can however be corrected for future programs if there’s a push from above (PMO?). One way would be to consolidate all centres of aeroengine expertise in India under one agency, provide them adequate funding and implement deep oversight with strict deadlines. Heads should roll if project targets are not met; each penny spent should run the longest mile. There are engineers in HAL’s Koraput, Nasik and Bangalore divisions who have spent their entire adult life working with aero engines while scientists in GTRE spent theirs trying to develop a scalable jet engine without any field experience. These silos of excellence must be connected with each other for a common purpose.

Atma Nirbharta should empower, not create more impediments

The present regime has shown a remarkable appetite for path-breaking decisions. The signalling of Atma Nirbhar Bharat at the height of covid pandemic must have emanated from reasons best known to those in the highest echelons of government. However, if left unbridled, open-ended, or worse — politicised, this campaign can run amok, especially within our armed forces where the question of ‘urgent versus indigenous’ often blurs and “in my watch” syndrome spawns 24-36 month arousal cycles. Long-gestation projects of national importance need a steady helm and years of hand-holding. The prevailing frenzy, particularly driven by iDEX in its various tri-service avatars, to my mind, incentivises jugaad innovation rather than enabling cutting-edge technologies. Also, inter-service drag-racing for scoring atma nirbharta brownie points can have potentially detrimental effects on quality, costs, and last mile connectivity in the long term.

LCH Prachand on its induction day (picture courtesy Angad Singh, @Zone5Aviation)

Strengthen institutions; don’t short-circuit them

The air chief flying the LCA or HTT-40 prototype and giving it a ringing endorsement, or vice chief taking a joyride in prototype LCH in operational area before the platform is yet to mature makes for good optics & cross-border signalling. Such photo ops can be dialled up by anyone in the system with a smartphone and the right contacts — it is low hanging fruit, meant to create a flutter among the uninitiated. But it can have the deleterious potential to strip test crew of agency in matters clearly in their domain.

Flight testing is an exacting science that is process-driven. Conventional channels of testing and the lure of flash bulbs or big bang announcements are almost always at complete odds. Yet, in my experience, these lines have frequently been transgressed through needless intervention from senior echelons, often choreographed by the forces or the mandarins of MoD themselves. Usually in such cases the penny falls in favour of the PSU/DPSU, not the user.

DPSUs & the services have always enjoyed a close partnership, marked by trust deficit at lower levels and bonhomie at higher levels. Under the present diktat of atma nirbharta, such equations should not weaken the arms of test crew or silence critics, users and maintainers. They are our greatest sounding boards and the true catalysts of self reliance in defence. It will be a sad pass if products of atma nirbharta become a ‘holy cow’ testers are reluctant to critique.

Negative import lists

One shudders to think of a “what if” scenario should the Europeans, Russians or Americans issue a ‘negative export list’ matching our ‘negative import list‘. For those ready to diss such an eventuality, do consider that the Indian government did not exactly consult other countries before issuing our list of banned imports; neither were these decisions taken to spite some or the other country. Nations act in their own national interests. It need not always align with others.

There was a time, long ago, when sanctions imposed by the Americans forced ADA to develop flight control laws for the LCA indigenously (in retrospect, a boon for the program). Two decades later, are we any better off having signed up for thousands of imported engines and tons of subsystems? Sanctions from the west or east, today or a decade from now, should not ground the entire frontline. It is vital to identify such key technologies and re-energise their R&D while developing new pathways to arm for future conflicts. That is true atma nirbharta. Diplomacy or allowing differing ‘perceptions’ alone cannot shift these ‘lines of actual control’.

Big bang announcements

Another disturbing trend, accentuated in recent years, is the propensity to make big bang announcements with unrealistic deadlines thus leaving the man on the ground to work backwards and prepare the stage for an ‘event’ rather than an ‘outcome’. INS Vikrant commissioning without a single fighter launch or recovery preceding it is an example. Process is as important as the outcome. While one understands the occasional need to crack a whip to remove sloth in the system, fixing dates before fixing process & product is doomed to fail in a high-technology race. Spectacle can never replace substance. Sadly, because of internet, social media and ‘Yes Man‘ syndrome (5G and “haan ji“), backed by ever-dwindling eye for details, this weakness can be exploited by those eyeing short-term or selfish goals. Once again, 2022 is a good point in history to introspect  — are we arming for the next war? Or are we aiming at the next election / post-retirement sinecure?

Where do all roads of Atma Nirbharta lead to?

Lastly, if all the main roads of ‘Make in India’ and Atma Nirbharta in defence lead to the same few gates in Bengaluru’s HAL 2nd Stage or leafy DRDO campuses, very soon we may have a ‘tail wagging the dog’ situation where agencies dictate to the services how staff requirements must be written, wars are to be fought, or who is to be posted where. That would be the “thousand mile screwdriver” nobody wants — almost “Putinesque” and must be avoided at all costs. How? I don’t know. Maybe by spreading the losses and distributing the gains among a bouquet of competent and committed OEMs, prime contractors and system integrators, all of whom compete on a level playing field for contracts on competitive not cost-plus basis. As of now, we seem to be drifting ever so far away from that.

Here’s wishing the Prachand and Vikrant early operationalisation and many happy launches and recoveries. In closing, I must quote an old NBCD maxim: ‘to float; to move; to fight’. Let us not rest on our laurels till we “move” and “fight” on our own power. The best time to start that campaign in Young India was the last millennium; the second best time in New India is now.

Don’t declare victory too soon.

(An edited version of this story was first published by The Quint on Oct 8, 2022. You can access it here).


©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2022. All rights reserved. I can be reached at realkaypius@gmail.com or on Twitter @realkaypius. Views are personal. Cover photo by Aatish Pillai (@severerocket on Twitter).

4 thoughts on ““Naam Hai Prachand”– A “Fierce” Look at Atma Nirbharta

  1. “In 2022, we are no closer to an indigenous aeroengine powering any of the manned platforms, now or in the foreseeable future.”

    Not true sir. Please see https://www.turbotechindia.com. They design and manufacture gas turbines. They export them all over the world. But people like you and me prohibit them from designing and manufacturing gas turbines for aircraft. And I am quite sure that there are more companies like them. I came to know about them only because one of my neighbours was working for them.

    By all means, give GTRE an adequate budget and adequate facilities. But please be true to your dictum of “………….implement deep oversight with strict deadlines. Heads should roll if project targets are not met; each penny spent should run the longest mile.” Well, in the last 60 years plus, GTRE has not produced anything that has gone into production.

    The fault, dear Kaypius, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

  2. The usual (to be so consistently good)makes me envious, ironically.Keep writing what you do best.Your writing flies,in English.We cannot escape the need of this language despite seeking solace in the slogans if Atmanirbharta or the de-colonisation. We need outside expertise and technology for a while.True. A personal suggestion – it would be less difficult,if you could expand the abbreviations in parentheses.

  3. And, of course, we have HAL.  They have two engine factories as well as a R & D  Centre.

    The R&D Centre is 62 years old.  HAL website details how little work they have done in these six decades.

    HAL and GTRE  have an understanding  — maybe even a written agreement.  HAL  has agreed to limit themselves to small jet engines.  The dividing line is 2500 or 3000 lbs sea level thrust.  This agreement needs to be cancelled.

    Above all — when India can buy aeroengines from foreign private companies, why not from Indian private companies ?

    ” Aero Engines Research and Design Centre established in 1960 carries out design and development of Gas Turbine Engines. It has successfully designed and developed small aero engines in operation with the defence services. Centre holds patents and copyrights for certain critical technologies.

    “Centre completed design and development of a Hindustan Jet Engine (HJE-2500) as  first jet engine project in 1965 which was  proposed for the HJT-16 aircraft. Later, piston engine and other engine accessories including a pneumatic starter and hydraulic pump were developed. The centre is the only design house which has developed test beds for Engines of Western as well as Russian origin engines. 

    “AERDC has taken up the design and development of HTFE-25 engine, a turbo fan engine for powering medium thrust class aircraft and HTSE-1200 engine, a turbo-shaft engine for powering helicopters.”  

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