Moving at a Tardy Pace

In the regime of basic trainer aircraft production, over the years, there has been a perceptible degradation of capability of HAL to meet with the requirements of the IAF

Issue: 3 / 2015By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)Photo(s): By Anoop Kamath

HAL, a state-owned enterprise with its headquarters in Bengaluru in the state of Karnataka, is the leading manufacturer in the aerospace industry in India. The company was established as a private venture on December 23, 1940, as Hindustan Aircraft Company driven by the initiative of entrepreneurs such as Walchand Hirachand who took over as Chairman and was duly supported by Tulsidas Khilachand and Dharmsey Mularaj Khatau who became the Directors of the new entity. The venture had liberal support from the Maharaja of Mysore, Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar, whose representatives were also inducted on the Board of Managers of the company. The Government of India acquired 33 per cent stake in the company with the investment of Rs. 25 lakh, a respectable sum in those days. However, on April 2, 1942, the Government of India announced that the company had been nationalised and post-independence in 1947, the Government formally took charge of its management. Subsequently on October 1, 1964, the company was renamed as the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, or HAL for short.

Being a defence public sector undertaking (DPSU), ever since HAL was established, it has been mandated to focus largely on military aviation though the company has built aeroplanes for civil aviation as well. The aviation wings of the Indian armed and paramilitary forces have been captive customers with major orders emanating from the Indian Air Force (IAF).

Basic Trainer Aircraft

The initial years witnessed a number of successful projects in the regime of trainer aircraft. Beginning in the 1950s, HAL produced the indigenous two-seat Hindustan Trainer-2 (HT-2), a highly successful single-engine basic trainer aircraft. The HT-2 was retired from the IAF after nearly 40 years of service and was replaced by the more powerful and slightly heavier two-seat Hindustan Piston Trainer 32 (HPT-32). However, the HPT-32 project was not as successful as its predecessor the HT-2, as the aircraft proved to be troublesome. The IAF was left with no option but to ground the HPT-32 fleet prematurely after just 18 years of service as HAL was unable to correct the design deficiencies that led to several disastrous accidents in which a number of precious lives were lost including those of even experienced flying instructors.

In the regime of basic trainer aircraft production, it has been observed that over the years, there has undoubtedly been a perceptible degradation of capability of HAL to meet with the requirements of the IAF. The IAF went through a jarring experience with the problems it faced with the HPT-32 fleet and its premature grounding in July 2009 left the service literally high and dry and basic flying training in complete disarray. With no certainty of a solution by way of an indigenous basic trainer forthcoming from HAL, the IAF opted to explore options for acquiring a basic trainer aircraft through outright purchase from foreign sources. In retrospect, this decision of the IAF was the right one as in just over three-and-a-half years after the grounding of the HPT-32 fleet, induction of the 75 Pilatus PC-7 Mk II turboprop basic trainer aircraft ordered on Pilatus Aircraft Ltd of Switzerland commenced.

Of the total requirement of 181 basic trainer aircraft for Stage-I training, the IAF has placed orders for 75 aircraft with Pilatus Aircraft Ltd. The remaining was to be built by HAL either through indigenous effort collaboration with any other original equipment manufacturer (OEM) or through licensed production of the Pilatus PC-7 Mk II. Apparently, HAL rejected the suggestion to collaborate with Pilatus Aircraft Ltd to licence produce the Pilaus PC-7 Mk II and opted to embark on the first option, i.e. to develop an indigenous platform dubbed as the Hindustan Turbo Trainer 40 (HTT-40). Although the first option ought to have been preferred by the IAF as well, the Indian aerospace major has failed to inspire confidence as the HTT-40 project continues to be plagued by uncertainty even though HAL has indicated that the aircraft would be available beginning in 2019. However, as the IAF cannot risk the possibility of endless wait for HAL to come up with a basic trainer aircraft, it has initiated a proposal to procure another 38 Pilatus PC-7 Mk II aircraft from Switzerland and leave the remaining 68 platforms for HAL to provide, the HTT-40 or any other platform of similar capability. The IAF will be monitoring the progress of the HTT-40 project carefully and will be prepared with options in case there is further slippage in the project, the possibility of which remains real and will continue to haunt the IAF.

Intermediate Jet Trainer (IJT)

HAL designed, developed and produced the Hindustan Jet Trainer 16 (HJT-16) was inducted into the IAF beginning in the early 1970s for Stage-II training. Dubbed as the Kiran, this fleet has been the second successful trainer aircraft and the first successful jet trainer from HAL. However, as the Kiran fleet has been with the IAF for over four decades, its retirement from service is somewhat overdue. On account of the inability of HAL to provide a new IJT as replacement, the IAF has no option but to continue extending the life of the Kiran fleet to the detriment of the interests of the service.

HAL initiated a programme in 1997 to replace the Kiran with the HJT-36 IJT by 2010. The HJT-36 project was approved by the government in 1999 and the prototype undertook its maiden flight on March 7, 2003, when it was christened as the Sitara by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the then Prime Minister of India. While the programme up to this time was hailed as a major success, it unfortunately got derailed thereafter for a variety of reasons such as underpowered engine, an overweight airframe and serious handling issues. The underpowered Larzac engine was replaced by the more powerful NPO Saturn AL-55I engine from Russia. However, acquisition of the new engine took some time and its integration with the Sitara proved to be difficult for HAL resulting in the programme being set back by a few years. But the problem that has proved insurmountable so far has been the unacceptable behaviour of the aircraft in a stall. Consequently, spin trials could not be carried out. It now transpires that the airframe of the Sitara needs to be redesigned as the IAF is not prepared to accept a jet trainer aircraft for basic training that is afflicted with serious handling problems. Redesign of the airframe being a complex task, would entail further delay in the programme that is already five years behind schedule. At this juncture, despite the assurances by HAL, the time frame for the IJT cannot be predicted with any degree of certainty. Once again left in the lurch by HAL, the IAF has no alternative but to explore options abroad for an IJT. The IAF cannot wait indefinitely for the HAL to provide a replacement for the Kiran fleet and compromise the interests of not only the service but of national security as well. Without a properly constituted fleet of trainer aircraft, the IAF will not be able to train pilots in the numbers required to man the newly approved strength of 42 combat squadrons.

Light Combat Aircraft Tejas

On January 17, 2015, in a quiet ceremony at HAL where the media was not invited, the first indigenously-built light combat aircraft (LCA) Tejas Series Production 1(SP-1) was formally handed over to Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, Chief of the Air Staff, Indian Air Force (IAF) by Manohar Parrikar, the Minister of Defence. Although the event is being flouted by the Indian aerospace industry as a major success, the 32-year-long journey of the LCA is known more for slippages in the programme and of missed deadlines. But a major deficiency at the handing over ceremony as discovered later was the fact that the LCA Tejas SP-1 was handed over to the IAF without the associated training and technical manuals. This was symbolic of the work culture in HAL.

The LCA programme conceived in 1981 was sanctioned by the government in 1983. In January 2001 the first LCA Technology Demonstrator undertook its maiden flight. Sanction for Limited Series Production (LSP) of 20 aircraft for the IAF was accorded by the government only in 2006. But even after a 32-year programme of development, the LCA Tejas has with considerable difficulty managed to obtain only the initial operational clearance (IOC) and that too in the second attempt. The LCA Tejas is not yet truly ready to be a part of the operational combat fleet of the IAF in the event of a war. The low level of confidence that the IAF has in this platform is evident from the fact that it has ordered only 40 of this aircraft to raise only two squadrons when it desperately needs to build up the strength of its combat fleet from the current level of 25 squadrons to the authorised level of 39.5 squadrons and then on to 42. More importantly, the original objective of the LCA programme that was to produce an aircraft indigenously to replace the MiG-21 fleet, is unlikely to be achieved despite the investment of Rs. 30,000 crore in the project since its inception.

As per rhetoric emanating from the top echelons of the Indian aerospace industry, the final operational clearance (FOC) for the LCA Tejas Mk I is scheduled for end 2015. Should this deadline be missed as was the case with IOC, it should not come as a surprise to the IAF.


(To be continued...)