The inside story of India’s Light Combat Aircraft Tejas
A memoir narrates the coming of age of the country’s defence research programme.
doi:10.1038/nindia.2020.33 Published online 20 February 2020
From Temples to Turbines – An Adventure in Two Worlds V. S. Arunachalam DESIDOC (2019)
Like all children in his small southern Indian village, Arun was fascinated with aeroplanes cruising in the skies above Vallampadugai. Unlike most of his boyhood friends, however, he grew up to realise the dream of actually making an aircraft, a fighter plane at that.
The little boy – Vallampadugai Srinivasaraghavan Arunachalam – born in a family of farmers, later rose to helm India’s defence research programme. He helped shape a fighter plane that became a star asset in the country’s military might – the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA Tejas.
Arunachalam’s memoir "From Temples to Turbines – An Adventure in Two Worlds" is a simple tale of a childhood enchantment blossoming into the creation of this supersonic fighter aircraft commissioned in the Indian Air Force in 2016.
Arunachalam headed India’s Defence Research & Development Organization (DRDO) for 10 years beginning 1982 and was a scientific adviser to India’s defence minister.That made him privy to the innards of India’s defence sector, though his memoir tells only the stories he is able to “disclose without compromising on security and technical secrecy".
In school, Arunachalam ran a students' newspaper and wrote popular science articles for it. The first boy from his village to pass secondary school, he was inspired by his biochemist uncle to pave a career in science – first as a mastersstudentin solid state physics, then as a researcherat the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, and thereafter as a trainee and then as a researcher in the metallurgy division of the Atomic Energy Establishment Trombay (AEET) in Mumbai. In 1962, he secureda fellowship to the University College in North Wales based on a paper on uranium with collaborators R. Krishnan and M. K. Asundi. At the university, Arunachalam researched ordered alloys in the laboratory of renowned metallurgist Robert Cahn, who gets a special mention in the book.
Arunachalam talks at length about the 1980s when India’s hitherto import-dependent defence programme finally began designing and building hardware and spare parts on its own. India’s military men were making everything indigenously – from battle tanks to nuclear submarines and cruise missiles to the LCA, which was to replace the ageing MIG-21 fighters.
At DRDO, where he worked for over two decades, Arunachalam came in contact with some of India's top scientists,his predecessor MGK Menon and mentor Raja Ramanna. Menon supported the battle tank project ARJUN, the setting up of super-alloy plant MIDHANI that made the ‘miraging steel' critical for rocket casings, and the formation of the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) that would eventually design the LCA.
However, the road for the LCA's developmentwas rough. Arunachalam recalls how the Soviet Union was unhappy over India’s LCA plans prompting their defence minister Dmitry Ustinov to mock that India "would end up flying a kite instead of an LCA". TheFrench withdrew from the programme midway.
But with Arunachalam as Director General and Kota Harinarayanan as the programme director and chief designer, India's prized combat aircraft took shape as the US agreed to collaborate. After India's 1998 Pokhran nuclear test, there was a temporary setback in this collaboration too.
Despite that, Indian scientists built LCA's avionics and the radar system. Its maiden flight on 4 January 2001 broke the high technology ceiling of aerospace systems. "With the flawless flight of Tejas for over 2000 hours, and an order for 120 aircraft by the Indian Air Force, it remains fresh in my mind of a promise made to our nation and kept," Arunachalam says in the book.
LCA was not the first project that tested his grit. In the early 1980s, when the Soviets declined to supply brake-pads, a critical component for the MIG aircraft, his team at the Defence Metallurgical Research Laboratory (DMRL), replaced these with home-made brake pads that worked better than the Russian product. DMRL also developed jet engine turbine blades integrated with cooling channels to prevent the blade from melting even at temperatures exceeding its melting point. The technology was a “sophisticated version of the Lost Wax process used by our ancestors for making idols", from which the book derives its name.
Arunachalam also recalls one of his most difficult jobs – getting rocket scientist APJ Abdul Kalam transferred to DRDO around 1985. The Space Commission chairman Satish Dhawan was not ready to "spare" Kalam and convincing Dhawan was not easy. However, once Kalam was in their fold, DRDO and the manufacturing agencies formed an inter-services team and weathered a “painful decade of technology denials”. This led to the development of India’s guided missiles –Trishul, Prithvi, Akash and the long-range Agni.
Arunachalam worked with five Prime Ministers and says none wanted any underground nuclear test after the 1974 Pokhran operation codenamed ‘Smiling Buddha’. Indira Gandhi – from whom he received the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar award in 1980 – initially agreed but later changed her mind fearing that further nuclear tests could invite embargoes from the US. The decision was left to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee who approved the 1998 tests. Arunachalam was then on a sabbatical at the Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in the US.
Arunachalam set up a think tank, the Centre for Study of Science Technology and Policy (CSTEP), in Bangalore in 2005. The centre has grown from a one room office to two big facilities and from four employees to over 100.
Though the defence scientist’s career spanning more than two decades was dotted with challenges and successes, he nurtures a deep regret – that his project to strengthen India’s telecommunication with high bandwidth optical fibre network did not get the government’s go-ahead due to the suspicion that the network would "provide opportunities for foreign eavesdropping".
Called ‘Sankyavahani’, the project was to get technical support from CMU (where he was on sabbatical). For Arunachalam, it was a "major personal blow” when CMU eventually withdrew from the project.