#EyeOnIndia: 10 Questions For Hush-Kit’s Joe Coles

After a terrific 10 question #EyeOnIndia round with FlightGlobal’s Stephen Trimble, Livefist is now happy to have one of the world’s most dogged and committed aviation journalists Joe Coles of the venerable Hush-Kit take a dive with us.

LIVEFIST: The first thing that comes to your mind when you think of Indian aerospace contracting?

JOE: Chaos. Delays. Cancellations.

LIVEFIST: What do you think of the LCA Tejas?

JOE: As both a failure and a success. As a potent timely military aircraft offering good value for money, it is clearly a failure. As a stepping stone to an indigenous capability it could be (perhaps generously) deemed a success. For the Hushkit.net site we interviewed Justin Bronk (from the RUSI think tank) on the subject of Tejas. We phrased the question as ‘joke or hope?’ He replied “Joke. Thirty years of development to produce an aircraft with short range, poor payload, and severe quality control issues throughout the manufacturing process leading to badly fitting structural components, slow delivery rates and high costs due to remanufacturing and alterations requirements. India would have done much better to have just bought a licence to manufacture Gripen C/D.” I think it is fair to say that it is inferior in almost all metrics to the similar Saab Gripen. The Marut of the 1960s was more technologically advanced for its time.

LIVEFIST: Your opinion on India choosing the Rafale?

JOE: To some extent the actual type chosen by the Indian Air Force doesn’t matter, as much as a big commitment to a single type. No air force on earth has such a lack of commonality in its fast jet fleet (though China may come close): Jaguars, Mirage 2000s, Su-30s, MiG-21s and 29s (the ‘27s still flying?) ! That’s just too many types. While reliance on a single type is dangerous, supporting the current mess of different types is too expensive and too complicated. If India gets its Rafales (and its hard to predict anything for sure in Indian procurement) they will prove both expensive and very capable. The Rafale is an excellent multirole (I refuse to use Dassault’s ‘omnirole’ marketing word) platform and, if asked to in the future, could take on all the roles covered by the types mentioned above with aplomb (though may lack the long range/combat persistence of the Su-30). Will the Indian Air Force be able to maintain the readiness levels of the Armée de l’Air’s Rafale force? Probably not. Relatively simple honest high performance jets – like the MiG-21,’29- and Mirage 2000 have long proved popular in the IAF. The rather more maintenance-heavy Su-30 has proved problematic; the even more advanced Rafale may prove a burden. If the Rafale works well for the IAF they should invest in making it a mainstay of their force. 300 odd Su-30s backed up by say 200 Rafales would be a formidable fighter force. Retiring the MiG-21, MiG-27 and ’29 would free a lot of pilot talent and reduce attrition; it should be noted the main cause of IAF aircrew death is not foreign air forces. Although things seem to have improved over the last few years, 2nd and 3rd generation fighters are far more dangerous than 4th Gen. The Jags are on a tortuous upgrade programme and will probably be hard to get rid of for a while. Very high spec Mirage 2000s 10 years ago would have been the perfect fit for India, these notional 2000s could now be upgraded with the latest weapons and sensors. They could have provided a headache free, cost effective force. Unfortunately for India, the production line closed in 2007 to make way for Rafale. At this point in time Dassault was desperate to find a first export customer for Rafale; India’s hunger for more Mirages may have accelerated the M2000’s demise. It may be worth considering Dassault’s intentions and loyalty in making such a move.

It is also worth noting that the Rafale has a carrier variant and it would make sense for the Indian Navy to procure it in the future.

LIVEFIST: India wants to build a foreign fighter in India. Which should it be?

JOE: For a lighter aircraft, combat derivatives of the Hawk trainer are a good idea from the wrong contractors; a relatively low-risk lower performance combat type, that is reliable and cheap to operate could be a good way to bolster forces. We joked about a Super Hunter on Hushkit.net, but this joke mentions a quite sensible idea: “The design will prioritise long range and ‘rugged’ reliability over high performance, and will feature proven systems to ensure a high level of combat effectiveness. Parrikar noted that “Mach 1.5+ performance is not necessary for the vast majority of combat missions, yet this requirement has until now dominated our search for future fighters. The use of heavily networked slower assets within a force that includes faster aircraft, like the Su-30, will prove more effective, far cheaper and will give the Indian Air Force what it most needs: larger, safer and more reliable forces.” An Advanced Hawk could fit such a bill- but expecting anything to be cheap from BAE Systems is a losing game. An F-16 production line would be both overly ambitious (to both negotiate and actually do) and very complicated politically.

LIVEFIST: India has three fifth generation aircraft options at various levels of likelihood: the Su-57 FGFA, the homegrown AMCA concept and the F-35. What should it bet  on?

JOE: The AMCA appears to be complete madness. Jumping from an unsuccessful (relatively) technologically pedestrian project like Tejas to a world class stealthy tactical fighter seems an unlikely route to success. Additionally, a first flight in 2025 (if achieved) plus ten or twenty years of development to get it operational sees it reaching squadrons in the 2035-45 period. At best, you have an F-35 twenty years too late (or mini F-22 thirty years too late). Of course an AMCA would have a large amount of foreign help (Russian and maybe Swedish), which may help matters, but looking at the FGFA, Russia does not seem a great collaborative partner. Pakistan’s approach with the JF-17 was to let China do almost all the work and then claim it as collaborative venture, a sceptic may argue that a similar approach with Sweden and Indian money could be a winning solution. Saab’s good track record is starting to be recognised, so Indian aerospace companies may have to join a long queue.

The FGFA has so far disappointed India. Sukhoi wanted to hoover huge amounts of money out of Indian coffers to fund Russia’s next fighters and the deal seemed exploitative. According to Indian sources the PAK FA is deficient in several key areas, notably radar cross section. Given sufficient funding the aircraft could end up as a capable fighter – and one ideal for countering an air force, like China, equipped with mass ‘Flanker’ forces.

The ultra hygienic world of low observability does not fit comfortably with the Russian ethos of making aircraft that can function in the smoke and dirt of a messy world. Given sufficient funding and an honest development, the Su-57 should end up as an extremely potent fighter. It may however by best bought ‘off the shelf’ later on.

The F-35 is not normally mentioned in the same paragraph as the words ‘low risk’ but in this case it is the lower risk option. There are several disadvantages however:

1. It would be immensely costly to maintain and operate.

2. It would have low readiness rates.

3. It may tie India into the cumbersome Autonomic Logistics Information System.

4. All large non-US states are developing counter-technologies specifically for the F-35.

5. F-35 ownership is far from an autonomous affair, and the India government would be absolutely at the whim of US Foreign Policy

To answer your question. The IAF may be wise to get its air force fully into the 1990s before getting it into the 2010s. There is still only one 5th generation fighter in real full-scale service anywhere in the world, the F-22. It has proved too costly and maintenance heavy for even USAF. The mission capable rate was a pitiful 49% last year! And the fleet is considerably smaller than the IAF’s Su-30 force. The F-35’s mission rates were barely better despite it being mollycoddled into full service. 5th gen (if you accept this slightly nebulous term) is still immature. Stealth with its nightmarish support requirements appears to halve the aircraft available. Also looking at the F-117 and planned B-2 retirement, stealth aircraft have, historically, had short service lives. Is it worth it? Unless the IAF’s priority mission is to counter J-20s in the near future, it may be worth waiting until the new generation of fighters reach maturity. Other than stealth, all 5th gen technologies can be added to existing platforms —adding modern SA (situtational awareness).

LIVEFIST: Which aircraft in the Indian military would you take a spin in?

JOE: I have phobia of ejection seats caused by sitting in the cockpit of a MiG-29 operated by a certain Eastern European nation. A technician leaned in to explain certain systems to m. As the vodka on the maintainer’s breath scorched my face I became conscious that I was sitting on rocket-powered chairs kept ‘safe’ by a drunk. Ever since then I’m nervous of ejection seats, having said that, if I was feeling brave, a Su-30 trip would be quite an experience!

LIVEFIST: What’s the worst thing you’ve heard about Indian defence contracting?

JOE: Where to begin? I asked one friend, a defence journalist, his opinion on this and he answered “Defence deals can be either corrupt or slow..India has opted for both.”

LIVEFIST: India is developing a stealth UCAV. Your thoughts?

High technology UCAV’s are a great way to help your enemies progress technologically…see Iran and the RQ-170 for details. I’m curious as to the military purpose of the AURA considering its expected range.

LIVEFIST: What’s India’s most visible strength in aerospace/defence?

JOE: Naming a UAV ‘Fluffy’. In terms of organisation and technology India does not seem close to achieving its potential. Despite decent funding levels and a wealth of talent the aerospace and defence sectors seem dogged by chaos, painfully slow bureaucracy and corruption.

But sorry you did ask for a more positive response. The level of ambition is very impressive: as we speak, Indian companies are working on aircraft in every category: regional transports, helicopter gunships, stealth fighters, stealth UAVs, missiles and spaceflight. I would single out the Indian space effort as the most visible strength. India was the first nation to succeed on its first mission to Mars, a remarkable achievement.

LIVEFIST: Do you see India as a countervailing force to China?

JOE: Now I have Googled the word ‘countervailing’ I can answer. I guess this depends if you mean economically, militarily or in terms of spheres of interest. The answer to this question falls well outside my knowledge, but I will say that raising the boogieman of peer-peer warfare is great for defence contractors!

Coming up: #EyeOnIndia Part 3: The Aviationist founder David Cenciotti takes 10 questions

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