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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 20, May 9, 2015

How Far Can the Air Force’s Biases Go?

Saturday 9 May 2015, by Ashok Parthasarathi

In the recent past, there have been several developments reflecting the title of this article. The first is the government‘s very close-to-formal decision-taking on a modern single piston engine aircraft for the induction training of the IAF’s rookee pilots. The HAL’s offer of the HTT-40 aircraft to meet approximately 70 of the IAF’s approved approximately 180 such basic trainers with the bulk of some 130 PC-7 Mark II being bought outright from the Swiss company Pilatus. Going in for the HTT-40 has been criticised by the IAF on three counts : (a) the HTT-40 is yet to make its maiden flight; (b) it is therefore not only inappropriate but downright dangerous to train first-time IAF pilots on such an aircraft even if it is indigenously designed, developed and prototyped; and (c) using both Pilatus and HTT-40 for the same role would lead to “avoidable” logistical problems.

My response is: when in 1982 we ordered 40 of the frontline operational Mirage-2000 multi-role fighter-bomber from the Dassault Company of France (light years more sophisti-cated than a basic trainer), Dassault had only two prototype Mirages going through flight trials—bias one in favour of the imported aircraft; bias two having substantial quantities of the HTT-40 (70) vis-a-vis 113 of the Pilatus does not pose logistical problems. Moreover, the locally designed and produced HTT-40 with a substantial vendor base is far superior to outright purchase of the Pilatus with its serious concommittant dependence on perpetual import of spares and huge training costs. Furthermore, if the IAF cannot commit itself to local aircraft even for a very basic trainer, its commitment to the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft named Tejas, now being produced by the HAL in a state-of-art production line at the HAL’s Bangalore plant, is dubious, its protestations and even its signature to the “Initial Operational Clearance” document of Tejas in late 2013 notwithstanding. However, the IAF is already very sore at being made to accept the superb indigenous Tejas. This programme is being launched with an initial production and supply of 40 aircraft of which four have already been supplied by the HAL and accepted by the IAF. The HTT-40 and all future basic trainers—an estimated 200—makes the IAF even more sore!

The second, of course, is: delays in supplies of operational aircraft. The example cited is, as usual, again Tejas. The Final Operational Clearance has again slipped (from end-2014 to mid-2015), say commentators.

What they do not say is this delay is purely because Tejas’ in-flight refueling system by a UK firm has been delayed by six months! Everything else of the operational Tejas—including its complete weapon complement—is fully ready. That was why the IAF accepted its first six, as indicated above.

But what the IAF guards like the family silver is the case of Design and Development (D&D) of the French Dassault Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) called Rafale for which Rs 65,000 crore contract for 126 aircraft is under the consideration of the government. The contract consists of 18 aircraft imported in fully finished form and the remaining 108 manufactured at the HAL with progressively increasing local content.

The D&D of the Rafale started in 1976 with a target of delivery of the first aircraft to the French Air Force in 1986. However, this target was crucially conditional on France’s public sector monopoly military aeroengine manu-facturer, SNECMA, holding to its commitment to the French Government to D&D and provide test engines in seven years from the programme-start in 1976. However, what actually happened is that SNECMA took 11 years to undertake that task. So, instead of delivery of the first operational aircraft to the French Air Force in 1986, all that occurred in that year was the very first flight of a prototyope aircraft. This happened despite SNECMA having over 30 years of experience in D&D and series production of aeroengines for the Mirage-III, the Mirage-V, the Mirage F-1 and all variants of the Mirage-2000.

To turn now to the Rs 23,000-crore programme to replace the light transport fleet of Avro-748 aircraft of all three defence Services. The government appears to have decided to exclude The HAL from the supply programme solely to faciliatate the emergence of a private sector alternative to the HAL! This is a totally impractical decision by the government as none of even the private sector “majors”, namely, the Tatas, Mahindras and L&T, will be able to manufacture a credible Avro-748 replacement even with a foreign “collaboration”; they just do not have the manufacturing base and, more importantly, aircraft-related experience. It will only lead to a huge “brain-drain” from the HAL to the private sector rookies resulting in a loss to the nation as a whole. It is entirely correct from the national interest viewpoint for the HAL to lobby hard against this seriously incorrect government decision.

Finally, former Air Force Chief N.A.K. Browne’s “threat” (for that is all it is) that “if HAL continued to be unreliable”, the IAF would produce aircraft on its own at its Base Repair Depots (BRDs) is totally facetious. The BRDs cannot produce MMRCAs or Sukhoi-30 MKIs, let alone Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft. Only the HAL—with 70 years of experience behind it—can.

The author is a former S&T Adviser to late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.