The Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) chaired by the Minister of Defence Manohar Parrikar which met on February 28, 2015, cleared a followon order for 38 Pilatus PC-7 Mk II basic trainer aircraft for the Indian Air Force (IAF). The DAC decided to go in for the second batch of 38 aircraft under the “Option Clause” in the deal that was originally signed in 2012. The original contract for 75 aircraft had the Option Clause of buying 50 per cent of the number procured in the first contract within three years on the same terms and conditions. The validity of the Option Clause is up to May 2015 and as such the DAC decided to follow this route for additional basic trainer aircraft.
With the sudden and premature grounding in July 2009 by the IAF of the fleet of HPT-32 piston engine basic trainer aircraft, the organisation was left without a basic trainer. As a result, Stage I training for pilots fell into complete disarray. As the HPT-32 fleet had been in service for just over 20 years, it was half-way through its service life which would normally extend to 40 years. As such, the Indian aerospace major the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) that had been providing the IAF with indigenously developed basic trainer aircraft since the 1950s, was not prepared with a ready solution that it could offer at that point in time. The IAF had no option but to carry out Stage I training on the HJT-16 Kiran jet trainer aircraft, not the most desirable solution for a variety of reasons. Also as the Kiran fleet itself was fast approaching the end of its total technical life, it was clear that it could not be used for basic training for long and a suitable platform had to be inducted and that too on fast track to put basic flying training in the IAF back on the rails.
After the development of the HPT-32, HAL had taken the initiative to develop a turboprop single-engine trainer dubbed as the Hindustan Turbo Trainer 34 (HTT-34). With an Allison engine rated at 420 shaft horsepower mounted on an HPT-32 airframe, the HTT-34 undertook its maiden flight on June 17, 1984. This new aircraft was far more powerful than the HPT-32 and could have been considered as its replacement in due course. However, for some reason, the IAF did not evince any interest in this project which was shelved, never to be resurrected.
At the time of grounding of the HPT-32 fleet in July 2009, the IAF projected to the Ministry of Defence (MoD), a requirement of a total of 181 basic trainer aircraft. In the absence of a readily available solution from HAL and given the urgency of the situation, the MoD had no option but to accord sanction to the IAF to procure 75 basic trainer aircraft from a foreign company. It also ruled that the remaining 106 aircraft with similar attributes would be developed indigenously by HAL. The time frame for the availability of the new aircraft was not defined. Also, the IAF may not have been very happy about the prospects of operating two different types of basic trainer aircraft as it would lead to duplication of maintenance activities and training of technical manpower. Nevertheless, HAL did embark on the development of the new platform dubbed as the HTT-40.
After an elaborate process involving a global tender as well as technical and flight evaluation, in June 2011 the IAF identified the Pilatus PC-7 Mk II as the preferred platform. A contract with Pilatus for 75 aircraft was signed on May 24, 2012, and the first aircraft arrived at the Air Force Academy, Hyderabad, in February 2013. The aircraft with the markings of the IAF was displayed at Aero India 2013. The aircraft was formally inducted in training in June 2013 and by early 2015, delivery of the initial order for 75 is to be completed. Given the rate at which the aircraft has been delivered so far, there should be no doubt about the stated time lines. The IAF is reported to be extremely happy with the performance of the Pilatus PC-7 Mk II fleet. It has proved to be reliable and an excellent platform for basic flying training. The maintenance workload is low and with the high serviceability that the fleet has been recording, more aircraft are available on the flight line thus generating high sortie rate.
As the IAF needed to quickly build up the basic trainer fleet to the required level of 181, it suggested that HAL examine the possibility of licence manufacture the remaining 106 Pilatus PC-7 Mk II instead of developing from scratch an indigenous design. For some unknown reason, HAL rejected the proposal outright and continued with the development of the HTT-40. However, with no certainty of the time frame for its availability, the IAF made a pitch for importing another 38 aircraft under the Option Clause of the original contract. This too was stoutly objected to by HAL.
Now that the DAC has cleared the proposal for the procurement of the second lot of 38 aircraft from Pilatus, HAL’s quota for the HTT-40 has now reduced from 106 to 68. HAL therefore needs to re-evaluate whether an order for just 68 aircraft would justify the investments required. It may pay better dividends if HAL concentrates its energies on other major ongoing projects.