While the US, China, Japan and Russia are all catching up on the space race, (or) the race to tame the final frontier as it's called, the Indian space programme is still light years away. When I mean light years, I am talking at least 20 years behind the leader. For example, the Chandrayan mission is really well meant and maybe doable with the current capabilities but honestly lacks the vital strategic vision needed for the Indian nation.
If the programme is really geared to showcase to the developed world that India has the capability to launch rockets to the Moon, the ISRO is on the wrong track! The world is not looking to India for innovation in aerospace! They are already 20 years ahead and will only turn their heads to an Indian space programme, if something drastic or path-breaking comes out of India!
Granted that the Indians had vimanas flying 10,000 years ago and had a well-documented vimanik shastra, but that doesn't serve any good towards innovation. Innovation needs to be constant and the innovator should be way ahead of everyone in the race.
This article is not meant to demean ISRO. They are a group of hardworking scientists (who are highly underpaid though!) but they are not backed by a strong Indian political vision.
Now, the US is almost certain to land on the Moon (again!) in another 10 years and set up a base there for deeper exploration of outer space. NASA's Mars exploration will be online in another 25 years which means that a whole planet is left open for colonisation and adaptation towards human life. The Chinese, Japanese and Russians have similar programmes but on smaller scale.
India, on the other hand, is experiencing great economic growth. However, it certainly needs a 'vision for air and space'. It needs to have a roadmap for the next 100 years on what Space will bring towards the wellbeing of the Indian State.
Successive India Air Force commanders have argued for the IAF to have an Indian Aerospace Command. The IAF and ISRO chief have recently been talking aloud for such a marriage of convenience but they are still powerless before the Indian cabinet. Parliament has already struck down the proposal for an aerospace command a couple of times now!
However, that decision could change in a huff! Here is why.
The IAF has recently issued RFPs (requests for proposal) for 125-175 fighters. The US, Russians, Swedes and the French will all come out with great planes and configurations. The most important question that IAF needs to ask the prospective sellers:
Are the aircraft they are about to sell to the IAF going to remain in their own inventory for the next 20 years? The prospective sellers would like to say yes but the answer is a resounding no.
The US F-16 and F-18s are 30 years old. The USAF is currently adopting F-22 Raptors and JSFs (F-35s) for their Air force, Marine Corps and Navy. The US is so far ahead in their UCAV and Unmanned bomber development that even the F-22s and JSFs will become obsolete technology in 510 years from now! So, I am not really sure why the IAF is even considering the US fighters that are being presented to the IAF!
Similarly, the Mig-29/35 design is equally old and the Mig 35 never saw production in Russia. The Russians are offering joint R&D for 5th generation fighters which are great but this century belongs to unmanned 7th generation vehicles with unlimited thrust vectoring and multi-mission capabilities. Do the Russians offer that in the new planes should be the first question from the IAF?
Grippen and Rafale are untested in battles and are unworthy of mention with the above, and they don't even come close to Su-30MKI which the Indians already have in their inventory.
So what's the answer? Are we doomed to having an obsolete IAF for the next 20 years? Are we still going to buy old planes that don't even function well in the seller countries?
Here is my three-fold solution:
1. The Indian government should plan for situations where the country is at war and needs spares to fuel its war machine. It should not be faced with a scenario where the war birds are stranded on airfields due to one screw or pin missing. The Indians should go for a technology that can be easily replicated in India without a need to look to the seller for spares all the time, especially in crisis. So, if the Russians or the US or any other country will partner in a joint R&D effort towards developing and producing a new technology that will serve India for the next 2550 years, the IAF, ISRO and DRDO should go for it. The Russians, Israelis and the US are strategic allies now and can be depended on such efforts if offered from their side.
2. Create the Indian Aerospace Force / Command: The IAF, ISRO and NRSA should be merged into this single command. This is tough considering the inherent red tape and bureaucracy of these organizations, but if you want Space to be explored, protected and utilised, all these functions should be converged into one single authority.
3. Strengthen the culture of Air and Space research in educational institutions. Too many young kids want to become software engineers and doctors not knowing that the market is already overcrowded with these zombies. The government should create awards and provide for funding to companies and individuals that innovate in defence and space research. The IAF is already looking to outsource work and research to private entrepreneurs and corporates but more of these entities need to come up and usher in competition. This competition will spur innovation just like the competition between Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin in the USA!
Finally, the IAF should stop using and upgrading old planes. Other than Su-30MKIs, all other planes in the current IAF inventory are obsolete!!! Any sensible person inside or outside the IAF can say this: 'it's better not having an air force than having an air force that can't guarantee good planes for its young men'.
It's high time for the Indian government to take strong action or another movie like Rang De Basanti (which is of course a great movie) will definitely win the Oscar. Great movie but a shame to an Air Force of 1.2 billion Indians.