India is surrounded by two nuclear-armed neighbors who make up Second largest combined Air Force fleet in the world only to be surpassed by United states of America . Indian Air force might be on the terminal decline for past few years now and several attempts have been made to recover and make it a formidable force in the region back again but without much success .
In 21st-century, a country can neither have a modern smart air force or a large airforce with a high fleet of indigenous combat fighter jets but certainly, cannot have in its possession large fleet of imported combat jets at disposals due to rising cost of airpower .
India air force requires 45 fighter squadrons to counter a “two-front war ,” but airforce only once peaked to 39.5 combat squadrons in mid 80’s since then combat squadrons strength has been in under steady decline due to nonavailability of cheaper fighter jets and rising cost of modern fighter jets and not so economical operating cost of this modern combat jets acquired in recent times has put airforce in a peculiar situation and lack of indigenous offer only has aggravated this situation.
Why not copy ?
copying or making illegal copies of established aircraft sounds economical reasons for India and also makes sense since India simply cannot afford to buy a large fleet of fighter jets imported from abroad nor can India afford to keep a smaller air force in the region due to large combined airforce our arch rivals in the region possess nor it can depend totally on indigenous efforts alone at present to make up the numbers required .
Some will say copying is an art which requires some level of skills and surely needs a perfect understanding of modern engineering to recreate samples of an established product . copying can be of low-tech and high-tech . In low-tech an established copies are made to resemble and act like original but actually are no way on par with performance and operation capability of the original.
High-tech copying is technique mostly adopted by western countries where established aircraft is studied to the highest level and to its minute’s details and later absorbing many of the technology used to adopt and develop aircraft which absorbs design philosophy of the said aircraft with the combination of countries own design bureau philosophy to develop an aircraft which not only performance better than original but has little visual resemblance .
What is Chinese way ?
The technique adopted by China to build their air force in early 60’s was by making illegal copies of Mig-19 and Mig-21 and later in 90’s when it brought Sukhoi-27 and Sukhoi-30s again it also went on to make illegal copies. both the times illegal copies made by china failed to surpass performance and capability of the originals and can be termed as low-tech copying methodology used by them .
Development of 5th generation aircraft like J-20 ,J-31 and Military transport aircraft like Xian Y-20 has displayed that Chinese are finally catching up and are nearing high-tech copying and have successfully deployed technology spies who have obtained many technologies of an established aircraft to create aircraft with their design philosophy but it still cannot be termed as High-tech Copying since developed products are still not better than copied original product but it has allowed them to an create an Industry which begun by basing its designs on copies one and later went on to develop their own designs and slowly it is graduating its industry to high-tech copying.
How to copy ?
Under the skin of an established aircraft are thousands of components and equipment which are tested independently by Orginal equipment manufacturer and its supply sources . to use Low-tech copying methodology Direct access to an airframe helps in reducing the time taken to make a copy and also makes its more economical since minute details ,metallurgy and production jigs and tools can be copied at much faster rate and improvements/customization and fault corrections can be also made over original design to keep their development economical and cheaper than original .
High-tech copying involves not only direct access to airframe but also to its technology which is used to create a new aircraft but it also has higher developmental costs and time consuming since aircraft developed is totally based on a new design which requires its own calculations, winds tunnel testing,metallurgy and improvements .
Which Way Should India go ?
Low-tech copying is effective in the short term but in longer run direct access to relevant technology and aircraft will not be possible and like china, India will be forced to rely on spying activities to gain access to modern research and developments taking place around the world since it can ill afford to have high R&D budget on its own to support total indigenous developments .
India for long wanted to create local industry know-how by engaging in the deep transfer of technology for which it did license local manufacturing of many aircraft in India but access to Transfer of technology to Indian technicians and engineers have not lead to desired results nor it has lead to spin-offs which helped in development of its own indigenous efforts .
India needs to make serious attempts to develop a High-tech Industrial base which can absorb design philosophy and technology for which it has direct access to . Developing a Modern Re-engineering Industry in India should be a priority for the government which is result oriented since current Transfer of technology has failed to create larger local Industrial base nor has helped Indian Air force maintain a decent operational fleet of combat jets .
India needs to develop its local Public-Private industry for next 20 years with joint ventures and constant exposure to Transfer of technology so that in future it will not require depending on imports to make up its combat fleet .