What Holds Back Indian Military Aviation Development – Historic Perspective By a Retired Surgeon

Shiv Sastry. air power asia, defence production

When the then defence minister Smt. Nirmala Sitharaman released a list of defence related items to be sourced from Indian industry alone. I saw some amused or sarcastic comments on social media about the low technological level needed for those items. Many educated Indians sneer at products of Indian industry, thinking that it would be easy to move into high-technology products and it is only incompetence or political factors that have prevented India’s rise to the top of the technology table. I believe that these comments are from people who have their heart set in the right place but are simply ignorant of how far India was left behind and how much catching up we have to do. To be fair – India is ahead of a very large proportion of nations of the world in industry and technology, but one must look at the past to understand how we got to the present.

Wright Brothers First Flight. December 17, 1903 Time Magazine (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

          Military aviation can be taken as a marker for advanced technology and the level of technical capability that a nation displays in this field is an indicator of national strength. But a very large number of educated Indians fail to appreciate the breadth and depth of industrial capacity that is needed for not just producing aircraft but keeping up with constant advances in technology that started with the Wright Brothers aircraft in 1903 to the Lockheed-Martin F-22 Raptor less than 100 years later. It is easy to underestimate the level to which a country needs to be industrialized to produce even one single aircraft totally in house. An aircraft may have half a million different parts. Each part has to be designed and mass produced to exacting standards. The materials that make that part require chemistry and metallurgy skills . Making the machines that will make that part requires engineers – and the unsung machine worker. Aircraft parts can vary from huge blocks of aluminum alloy to minute washers, rings and clips; Titanium or ceramic parts, components containing exotic elements like Lithium and Gallium. Machines to make these parts, starting from humble drills and lathes to 5-axis CNC machines also need to be made. A generation of people who proudly bought and wore “Hindustan Machine Tools” (HMT) watches did not often realize that the precision parts of a watch require specialised tools. Hence it was (HMT) that made watches, not “Hindustan Watches”.

Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor. Picture Credit: Wikipedia

          In 1914, at the start of the First World War, Britain had less than 300 planes. Four years later, at the end of the war they had 22,000 aircraft (1). This means they were producing one plane every 90 minutes for the duration of the war. If the numbers of factories,  designers, draughts men, engineers and workers needed to churn out such figures is astonishing, we need to look at World War II. In the 5 years of the latter war the US produced 3 lakh planes, the UK 1.25 lakh aircraft and Germany 90,000. (2,3,4). For the UK, the figure represents production of nearly 3 aircraft per hour, 24 hours a day for the course of the war.

Spitfire Aircraft. Picture Credit: You Tube

          For nations like the UK and Germany to reach this level of production, the industrial revolution had started in 1760 with the invention of the steam engine and automated spinning mills to produce cloth. For Indians in 1760, the Mughal king Aurangzeb had died just 53 years earlier. Elderly people who had lived under Aurangzeb’s rule were still alive in India at that time. India was in a flux and the East India company was expanding. By 1850 the East India company itself was a rich multinational ruling India.  The business of the East India company was trade, meaning import of raw material  from India and export to India of manufactured goods from the new industries of Britain. It made no sense to have industries in India. Indians were the consumers. Because of British imports of steel, cloth and even terracotta tiles into India, traditional Indian workmen, the people who made things with their hands like carpenters, weavers, potters and metalworkers went out of business. So by the time the British crown took over India in 1858, there had been virtually no socio economic progress for Indians at a time when the industrial revolution was already a century old.

British Indai. Picture Credit: thoughtco.com

          In the 1850s India’s first engineers were trained in colleges in Kolkata, Chennai and Rourkee (5) but these were only civil engineers whom the British needed for construction projects. It was not until the 1930s that the first mechanical engineers were trained in India. The training of Indian electrical and chemical engineers, let alone aeronautical engineers lay far in the future. In the 1930s, 90% of Indians were illiterate. This stands out in stark contrast to 80% literacy in Europe and 90% in the USA.  By 1950 India had 370 million people but only 10-15% literacy,  and about 2 million factory workers. Britain had 50 million people, about 90% literacy and 9 million factory workers. And they still had to import workers for their factories.  Our colleges had started producing mechanical, chemical and electrical and other engineers barely 15 years before 1950, so by the time of independence India had a bare minimum of qualified engineers with little experience in building industry. These people were our fathers and grandfathers.

India in 1950. Picture Credit: irfca.org

          The fact that the HT-2 (a basic trainer aircraft) was made in India in 1951 is a flash in the pan. We had nowhere near the industrial and social development of the west at that time. We had not built a single engine or machine tool. The HT-2 was made using lathes, presses, and machines that were imported earlier for the WW 2 war effort. So while we may feel pride at the achievement of the HT-2, that achievement hides the decrepit state of our industry in that era. By 1950 India had missed out on 200 years of industrial development. Even if we thought that we were “getting there” the bald facts are that you cannot catch up with 200 years of industrialization in 10, or 20 or even 50 years. By the year 1900, when Europe and the USA were about to start making their first aircraft, all the basic industries for that already existed. They already had the level of industrialization, the engineering training and the workers to do the things that India did not have even in 1950. Compare this with the USA that had already made the F-86 Sabre by 1948, the UK that had made the De Havilland Vampire (1946) and the USSR that had already made the MiG-15 (1948). Ironically all these names became important to the Indian subcontinent with warring sides being supplied by these very companies.

De Havilland Vampire Picture Credit: goodfon.com

          But there were other factors that impeded Indian attempts to develop a world class aerospace industry. When Britain, the US and Germany fought in the two World Wars – they were forced to develop and manufacture their own weapons. They did not have the option of importing ready-made weapons. And while great efforts were poured into all arms industries, including aircraft, the products were not necessarily ready, effective and safe to fly and perform the role required of them. Aircraft and pilots were being lost to non-combat causes in the middle of war, but they were put into action nevertheless. There was no other option. The forces did not have the choice of asking for a fully developed combat platform with all issues ironed out before induction. Improvements and tweaks were an ongoing process while the platforms saw active combat. But for India the issue was different. Neighbouring countries were being armed with the latest weaponry and India was being pulled into wars every few years. Specifically, the Air Force would not be able to get effective aircraft in numbers and in time because of multiple reasons. The lack of developed indigenous industry was one, but government policy that was socialist, Gandhian and pacifist prevented private players from entering the arms manufacturing arena while discouraging exports. Meanwhile the Air Force had to make multiple expensive purchases to ward off the threat of sophisticated weapons in the hands of adversaries. The HF-24 project that was struggling mainly with underpowered engines was cancelled and Jaguars bought instead. It is ironic to hear that the Jaguar itself is said to be underpowered. In a later era urgent purchases of MiG-23s and Mirage-2000 aircraft were done to counter the induction of F-16s into the PAF.

HF-24 Marut. Picture Credit: hushkit.net

          With money that was already in short supply flowing into the pockets of French, British and Russian arms exporters to maintain operational readiness, there was neither money nor pressure to get our arms producing Public Sector Units to create high technology or to employ the leadership to innovate in an “also ran” industry reduced to building under license. Unfortunately, even imports and building under license did not give us ready-made, safe and effective platforms from the word go. The IAF has had to put in a great deal of effort, with inputs from foreign makers and sometimes with no inputs, to make the imported platforms effective and reasonably safe.

Foland Gnat. Picture Credit BAE Systems

          Most Indians who view the Gnat, the star air combat fighter of 1965 and 1971 with glowing admiration, do not know that it had a high accident rate and many pilots were lost to accidents.  From 1958 to 1980 the Gnat had 613 major accidents and 624 minor incidents, which included very serious flight control issues, gun stoppages, brake seal failures and issues with the hydraulic system and HF radio transmitter (6). The IAF did not lose faith but wanted deficiencies removed. The Jaguar has been mentioned earlier. Its original Nav-Attack system left much to be desired and this was addressed only by intense effort within India in the DARIN upgrade programs. The MiG-23, an urgent purchase from Russia to counter the F-16 had serious issues with the engine. The MiG-21 in its original avatar had no gun, ineffective K-13 missiles and very short legs. It was again concerted effort within India and a supportive Air Force that helped the MiG-21 achieve its formidable reputation, although it is now long in the tooth.

          Clearly there is no such thing as smooth sailing and trouble-free maintenance for a potent Air Force, whether it is equipped by the import route or the local production route. Indian industry was unable to step up and meet demand, while imports have been expensive, subject to sanctions and still not without problems of reliability and maintainability. Continuing imports of 4th and 5th generation aircraft are essentially unaffordable and only help support the economies of the manufacturing nation while keeping us tied to them indefinitely. Ultimately there has to be some compromise, or some via media in which a strong push is made for local innovation and production. There is opposition to this idea. Delays, uncertainty and loss of squadron strength or operational readiness are powerful arguments against the push to indigenize. A reputation of sloth and poor quality from Public Sector Unit products has eroded trust between the manufacturer and the captive market they have in the Air Force.

          Going forward, is best choice for the nation. Indigenous production has to be ramped up in terms of quality, numbers and deliveries on time. On the other side the Air Force is already facing a shortfall in squadron strength. It appears unlikely that this will be compensated by imports. If HAL, in coordination with private industry can ramp up production of the Tejas and put their heart, soul and money into getting the Mark-2 version of the LCA,  the AMCA (Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft) and planned unmanned platforms, then the nation can look forward to a healthy combination of a powerful Air Force supplied by robust Indian industry. This is unlikely to become reality in the short term.  Meanwhile the Air Force will have to live with 4th generation platforms which must be upgraded from time to time. However all is not dark and dreary. Aircraft with some of the most formidable reputations in the world started their lives in active service with deficiencies and restrictions that were gradually addressed well after they were inducted into squadron service.

          The next hurdle that India will have to cross is putting a reliable gas turbine engine into production. It was the engine that was a major handicap for the HF-24 and Tejas. The HJE-2500 planned for the HF-24 went nowhere. The Kaveri progressed further but currently seems to be floating in never-never land. A retired Air Marshal and experienced test pilot friend of mine told me that after the high altitude trials of the Kaveri engine were done in Russia they should have put the engine in the Tejas and flown it at least on an experimental basis. Another person familiar with the negotiations conducted with foreign engine consultants commented that the major engine manufacturers’ databases were full of designs that did not work, and when they needed to design a new engine they knew the problems that had to be avoided because of earlier failures. From there it is a process of trial and error till a good core engine is developed. One reliable core can serve as the base model for many engines from civilian aircraft to military manned or unmanned platforms. It is to be hoped that two promising new engine projects – the HTFE and HTSE (Hindustan Turbofan and Turbo shaft engine respectively) are pursued with vigour and brought to fruition sooner rather than later.

Kaveri Engine. Picture Credit: swarajyamag.com

          The process of developing technology is slow and no one parts with technology. However whenever foreign manufacturers sense that India is about to achieve a technological breakthrough, they remove sanctions, drop their prices and offer to supply the same technology at rock bottom prices. This only kills local skills and industry and the temptation to buy must be resisted even if we pay a higher cost to our own industry. The “L1 syndrome” to give business to the lowest bidder does not help the nation in the long term. The Chinese too have suffered from not having the closely protected technology for reliable jet engines. But they have persisted. It was reported at one time that the Chinese WS-10 engine created as a replacement for the Russian Al-31 had an MTBF (Mean Time Between Failure) of just 13 hours. The Chinese still boldly placed it in an aircraft and flew it. This is the sort of persistence and boldness that Indian industry and forces will have to show for India to achieve what many of us feel is India’s destiny to be among the top powers of the world.

Author: Dr Shiv Sastry. The Author is a retired surgeon with a long term interest in military aviation. The views expressed are the author’s own.


  1. https://historicengland.org.uk/research/current/discover-and-understand/military/the-first-world-war/first-world-war-home-front/what-we-already-know/land/aircraft-factories/
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_aircraft_production_during_World_War_II
  3. http://www.wwiiequipment.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=116:british-production-of-aircraft-by-year-during-the-second-world-war&catid=48:production-statistics&Itemid=61
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_aircraft_production_during_World_War_II
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Institute_of_Technology_Roorkee#History
  6. Sabre Slayers: The gnat in India 1958-1991, Pushpindar Singh

Picture Credit: swarajyamag.com

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

8 thoughts on “What Holds Back Indian Military Aviation Development – Historic Perspective By a Retired Surgeon

  1. Always was made to think that the incompetency of HAL and DRDO in delivering on time with the apt technology is due to the lackadaisical approach of its employees. This article puts forth the other factors one needs to consider before having unfavorable opinions about our PSUs. Enjoyed reading this one, sir.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. With a limited background of R&D, my observation over the last sixty years is that leadership and teamwork are not easy to come by,let alone political and military sagacity.One example: HAL has been commanded by senior IAF officers and later home grown civilian leaders.Several TOT,s have been acted upon with no obvious success in building up a “body of knowledge”.The author quite rightly brought out the nuts and bolts aspect of technology.What of skills required in our workers?One of the authors of a report on Ordnance Factories retorted a couple of years later, to my query on its progress…it has been thrown in the waste paper basket. The gentleman referred to has made excellent contributions to a good PSU in Bangalore! Let us make a start with Tejas and take the best advice of some of the fine (past) officers and techies who have contributed to its present high level of performance….they are still available, thank God.


    1. Appreciate your views. Yes India as a nation has to get its act together. If we can succeed in Space, Missiles, surely we should be abale to succeed in aircrfat, though the air planes are much more complex. Continue to enjoy reading.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: