Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) was in the eye of the ‘Rafale Storm’ when Indian public came to know for the first time that the 126 aircraft MMRCA contract could not go through because the foreign vendor was not willing to take responsibility for the quality control of HAL produced products and that the HAL would require 2.7 times the man-hours to produce the aircraft vis-a-vis the French manufacturer Dassault, thus a significant increase in price. The Ministry of defence (MoD) and Indian Air Force (IAF) were shocked to see that the price quoted by HAL for the LCA Mk1A was much more than what it was charging IAF for the HAL-built, much- larger and potent, SU-30 MKI. There is already a three decade delay in the very desperately needed Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) for IAF, and program is still slipping further.
Indian remains one of the most threatened nations with two hostile nuclear neighbours with both of whom India has had wars. The Indian military aviation market continues to be huge. IAF is at an all time low of 31 fighter squadrons, down from the authorised 42. If urgent steps are not taken to acquire more fighters, this number could go down below 30 squadrons for the first time ever. For the IAF alone, the immediate aircraft requirements are close to USD 100 billion worth, while the Army and Navy have their own requirements for their respective air arms. HAL should have been a flag bearer of the ‘Make-in-India’ campaign, and like ISRO should have helped India become self sufficient. It should have also helped promote the Indian private industry as part of the overall eco-system. Unfortunately it has not met needs of the Indian air arms, despite being in existence for nearly 7 decades and having near monopoly. HAL and many other Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSU) continue to be highly import dependent. They have just managed to master the art of license-production and assemble aircraft using foreign supplied kits and production drawings. Even for making kits from raw material, they often need foreign assistance. It is time to catch this bull from the horns and give it a big shake.
Armed Forces Aircraft Requirements
The biggest concern for the IAF is how to rebuild and maugment its highly depleted fighter force. As recent as 2001, IAF had 39 ½ fighter/bomber squadrons. The only current saving grace is the SU 30 MKI fleet that has significantly boosted IAF’s op potential. Aircraft are being license produced by HAL at its Nasik plant at an average rate of 15-20 per annum. The indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) ‘Tejas’ which was to provide a modern jet fighter to replace IAF’s ageing MiG-21 fleets is still struggling both in terms of production capacity and to achieve the Final Operational Clearance (FOC). Since only 20 aircraft are to be supplied in Initial Operational Clearance (IOC), and another 20 in FOC configuration, any delay in achieving FOC will bring production line to a halt, or IAF will be forced to accept more aircraft in IOC status.
LCA MK1A which will bring in a modern AESA radar, aerial refuelling and easier servicing and maintainability is still at D&D stage and government is trying to resolve the excessive price quoted by HAL. This is bound to cause further delays, and push the LCA program further back. IAF has ordered 83 of these. The LCA variant that will actually meet the IAF’s original Air Staff Qualification Requirements (ASQR) will be the LCA Mk II with the more powerful GE 414 engine. The aircraft will be larger in dimensions and will have newer systems including a comprehensive Electronic Warfare suite and therefore will require a fresh round of both ground and flight testing. The earliest the first flight may take place could be in 2025 and actual induction around 2030. IAF proposes to buy 200 LCA Mk II. Effectively IAF will have to live a decade with LCA Mk1 variants.
Rafale remains a good acquisition with state-of-the-art avionics and weapons but only 36 are contracted and they will join IAF between 2019 and 2022. IAF was forced to begin a fresh process for acquiring 114 more MMRCA class aircraft. Even if fast-tracked, these aircraft cannot induct before 2025. IAF fully supports DRDO’s fifth-generation stealth Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). This is a work still in initial progress and the aircraft may fly around 2028 and induct around 2035.
India does not have a significant indigenous transport aircraft program. Also, Indian armed forces await the long delayed (7 years behind) weaponisation of the Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) ‘Rudra’ and the Light Combat Helicopter (LUH). HAL has also planned developing a Tactical Battle Support Helicopter as a tri-services project. It will be called Indian Multi Role Helicopter (IMRH). Indian Navy (IN) had a requirement of 40 Naval LCA variants. In December 2016, they have indicated that the LCA is over weight for carrier operations and may be considered for alternate use. IN has issued an RFP for six medium-range maritime reconnaissance (MRMR) aircraft. IN also needs 57 Multi-Role Carrier Borne Fighters, 123 naval multi-role helicopters (NMRHs) and 111 naval utility helicopters (NUHs). It can be seen that Indian armed forces have a huge military aviation market to be tapped.
HAL Has its Hands Full
HAL was founded in 1940. It is currently state owned (90 percent) with 10 percent private share holding. HAL designs and manufactures fighters, transport aircraft and helicopters and many of their major systems. It employs nearly 32,000 personnel, had assets worth Rs 5,15,523 crore (USD 7.36 billion) in 2017, and revenue of Rs 1,95,969 crore (USD 2.79 billion), and profit after tax of Rs 26,247 crore (USD 374 million). The company has produced under license a large variety of aircraft including HS 748, Gnat, MiG-21 & 27, Jaguar, Dornier Do-228, Chetak/Cheetah helicopters, SU- 30MKI, Hawk AJT among some other aircraft.
It indigenously designed, developed and produced 147 HF-24 fighter jet. More recently it is producing the ADA developed LCA ‘Tejas’, and its in-house Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) and its variants. HAL is also into overhauls and upgrades of many IAF aircraft and engines. HAL has also obtained several multimillion-dollar contracts from leading international aerospace firms such as Airbus, Boeing and Honeywell to manufacture aircraft parts and engines. The immediate areas of concern are the need to quickly complete FOC of LCA Mk 1 and mark up annual production initially to 16 aircraft from current 8. The next set of challenges are to complete Design and Development (D&D) of already ordered 83 LCA Mk 1A. Tasks further down include developing the LCA Mk II and AMCA.
HAL Production and Quality Issues
There are essentially three issues that have slowed aircraft development and production and that has often upset IAF plans for building its force levels. HAL (and no less DRDO) have often overstated capability of having full know-how of technologies to be able to design world class aircraft. In the same breath they have overstated the timelines to deliver. As a result, most programs have been only partially successful and have seen excessive delays. LCA is two decades behind schedule. The second issue is the production quality control. IAF has repeatedly pointed out production quality flaws. Russians have often questioned HAL’s production quality standards. More recently Dassault was unwilling to take responsibility of HAL’s production quality for the Rafale. The possible reason for high man-hours for production in HAL could be inefficiency or blind-eye to overtime, thus adding to employee numbers. Analysts have suggested that it is better to have high paid experts but cut the flab and make HAL ‘lean and mean’. The third issue is the costing. HAL has offered Tejas Mark-1A at Rs 463 crore (USD 67.5 million) a piece making it costlier than even the much bigger and operationally potent Sukhoi-30MKI which HAL themselves supply at Rs 415 crore (USD 60.5 million). Interestingly, the Russian supplied SU-30 MKI costs Rs 330 crore (USD 48 million). IAF can ill-afford to pay so much more from its meagre capital budget for the possible inefficiency of HAL.
What Ails HAL
HAL is a license production house with limited design capability and little R&D. Despite Indian successes in space and IT, HAL has not been able to leverage the same. While design engineers at the middle level are good with analytical ability but the leaders are absent. The credit for HAL’s HF-24 Marut good design must go entirely to the leadership of German aeronautical engineer, Dr. Kurt Tank who headed the project. LCA was a very ambitious program, and collaboration with a company in the West should have been explored. It would have greatly saved time. ALH Dhruv can be termed as a success though there are serious slippages and had some quality related accidents. The strength of HAL lies in production and overhaul. Optimistic schedules given by HAL are invariably unrealistic. Imported aircraft are cheaper because of high man-hours taken at HAL. HAL should have promoted private sector to set up high-tech units for building accessories etc. For technology developed in India, the quantities required need increase and export markets should be explored. The growth/performance of PSUs also suffers due to bureaucratic delays and interference. ISRO does not suffer from bureaucratic interference as Chairman is also Secretary of Department of Space reporting directly to the Prime Minister.
HAL Command and Control
The government is finally poised to hand over the entire fixed wing and engine design and production of HAL to the IAF. An Air Marshal answerable to the Air Chief in Air HQ and through him to the Raksha Mantri is proposed to be put in charge. IAF had significant command and control in initial years. Between 1958 to 1993, serving or retired IAF officers were Chairmen/Managing Directors. A large number of IAF officers of Wg Cdr and Gp Capt rank were General Managers (GMs) of various HAL divisions. There have been no Ex-IAF Chairmen or GMs ever since. This situation came about primarily when the government set up Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) in 1984 to oversee the development of the nation’s LCA programme.
The Director General Quality Assurance (DGQA) which handles Army products has always been a senior serving Army officer. Similarly directorate of quality assurance (Naval) is headed by naval officers. The Directorate General of Aeronautical Quality Assurance (DGAQA) which handles quality assurance of aviation products has never had an IAF officer as the head. Most major Indian shipyards are headed by retired naval officers. In view of inordinate delays in LCA program and quality control issues related to HAL production, a fresh move has begun for IAF to exercise greater control over aircraft design and production. Will such a move be allowed to succeed by the HAL unions, or bureaucracy is still a moot question.
ASQR Issues IAF-HAL
IAF is sometimes unfairly blamed for not encouraging indigenous production in their hurry to acquire state-of-the- art systems from abroad and frequently changing ASQRs. IAF’s depleted state has been reached because of unending wait for the LCA despite IAF making nearly 135 concessions because it was beyond the DRDO and HAL to be able to meet them. Jointly agreed changes are made only in those items which reach obsolescence. Since LCA Mk1 did not meet the IAF specifications, it was decided to have LCA Mk II which would hopefully meet. Since Mk II would take long to develop, the Mk 1A variant had to be evolved to fill that gap. It clearly shows that IAF has been accommodating the indigenous industry at each stage. IAF is directly responsible to the nation for defence from the air and needs state of the weapons no less in quality than the ones with its adversaries. Pointing out deficiencies does not mean that IAF has not been fully backing the LCA program. LCA continues to progress at snail’s pace despite firm orders.
Urgently Required Aircraft Technologies
India has been floundering in making an aircraft jet or even a piston engine. Our over ambitious go-it-alone approach has not been of help. Finally, we have been forced to seek help from French firm Safran (Snecma) to recover the Kaveri engine earlier meant for LCA. HAL and DRDO have made attempts to make modern airborne radars but success has eluded and India had to fall back to Elta Israel for the interim radar for the LCA and is scouting for a partner to make the AESA radars in India. India is still long way to go for electro- optical systems and helmet mounted sights, albeit some work is already on. Similarly we need capabilities in Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) and Laser designation pods. India should be able to make and export fly-by-wire and fly-by-light signalling cables and equipment. India has still to master even aircraft auto-pilots and has had to look for foreign support.
In days of Artificial intelligence (AI) and robots, this is a logical first step. AI is the future and India need to climb the band-wagon quickly. Electronic Warfare (EW) system technologies are complex and need constant evolution. India is still working to master older technologies. There is a need to work closely on EW hardware. There is very little work going on in DRDO on stealth shapes or materials. In fact we seem to have nearly given up the idea of India’s fifth-generation Advanced Multirole Combat Aircraft (AMCA) being stealthy.
The AMCA is meant to be a twin-engine, stealthy, super maneuverable all-weather multirole fighter with solid-state gallium nitride AESA radar. The current first flight is already shifted to 2032.
While China has become the largest producer of small UAS in the world, for India UAS are still work in slow progress, with only DRDO’s Nishant UAV flying. UAS programs need a push. India has still to succeed in making even a commuter aircraft leave alone an IL-76 class heavy lift transport aircraft. The mid-sized, 80-90 seat, Indian Regional Jet (IRJ) has still to take off. Similarly the Saras small transport (20 seat) is still struggling. It is critical to succeed in a medium transport aircraft quickly. HAL has yet to deliver an indigenous basic trainer aircraft after grounding of HPT-32 nearly a decade ago. HAL has also not been able to succeed in the Intermediate Jet Trainer (IJT).
Little is being heard about the HJT-39, CAT (Combat Air Trainer), which was to be an Advance Jet Trainer (AJT) announced in 2005. HAL also has plans to develop a Medium Lift Helicopter in the 10-15 ton class. It is currently looking for foreign partners. India even needs active research in Directed Energy Weapons (DEW). India lacks weapon homing-head technologies. India has little capability in anti-radiation weapons. After success of BrahMos there is a need to become self-sufficient on some of these. Technologies are also being used to prolong life and ensure cheaper repairs. Low Life Cycle Costs (LCC) will remain crucial. India has peripheral involvement with academia in defence R&D. More serious partnership is required for innovations of core technologies. Paltry amounts are being spent on R&D. Bulk of the DRDO’s meagre budget of Rs 17,861 crore (USD 2.5 billion) goes to salaries and establishment costs. More funds are required to focus in areas of critical interest and need to be assigned to selected teams with end-state definition. With bigger Indian private players willing to invest in defence, new technologies can best be developed or imported through joint-venture route. Private sector needs some hand holding. Time for infliction has come and the future can be bright. With Make- in-India thrust more companies may set up shop in India.
Joint Venture Approach
Two major manufacturers Boeing and Airbus control bulk of the civil aircraft market; there are only 5-6 jet engine manufacturers; only three countries have reasonable access to stealth technology. The transfer of technology (ToT) contracts are most difficult to interpret and implement. There have been ToT clauses in many Indian contracts but physically nothing significant has been transferred. India has been unable to leverage its high imports on this count. No one wants to share ‘up-end’ technology even for money. With limited access to technology alternative means will have to be found. Soviet Union and China rode to aviation success by reverse engineering Western aircraft designs. Joint-ventures are the best interim option for India.
The LCA and AMCA fighters, mid-size transport aircraft, and medium lift helicopters are critical to succeed for India to take the next leap forward in defence production. The current bureaucratic control over DPSUs cannot succeed. HAL needs to have modern corporate structure and be made more accountable. The current promote-by-seniority senior management has to be replaced by specially selected, highly paid, corporate leaders to put at the helm. The Engineer to Technician ratio has to increase if R&D has to succeed. The socialist labor policies have to be replaced to improve productivity. DPSUs are sitting on huge land banks in prime areas which need to be hived off or utilised for core requirements. They must get out of non-core areas such as housing and transportation for the staff. HAL needs greater autonomy which will come with greater privatisation.
India is a huge aviation defence production market waiting to be tapped. It will be so much better if Indian firms can take the major share. To be a global power that is the very first step. Till then the intention is to encourage foreign companies to set up shop in India and make it their manufacturing base not only for Indian market but also for exports. Several global defence aviation majors have shown interest. In addition to the economic benefits, indigenisation will result in increased jobs, improved capability and the development of critical technology, and ensure ready access to the best available
defence equipment. India will need about 200,000 skilled people in the defence and aerospace industry in next 10 years. Large number of qualified ex-servicemen may be trained and employed.
There is considerable opportunity at sub-system levels in aero structures, avionics, and actuation and control. The government wants to reduce defence imports by at least 20%- 25% through domestic production. Indian industry is good at small component manufacture, electronics, software, heavy engineering, sheet metal work, high quality milling and these needs to be harnessed. Military security is one of the key attributes for any rising power. Economic strength and well- being of a nation is dependent on the secure borders and internal security. Dependence on foreign hardware has serious security implications. Latest military technologies are still the preserve of a few nations, and they do not part with these. With changing geo-political situation friends could one day change to adversaries. They could then close the tap on critical defence spares and supplies and hold the country to ransom. It is thus imperative for any nation to have indigenous defence production capability. It is time that HAL is reenergised. Time to act is now lest India misses the bus again.
Air Marshal Anil Chopra, PVSM, AVSM, VM, VSM is a test pilot who commanded a Mirage 2000 Squadron and two operational airbases. He retired as Air Officer Personnel and has been a member of the Armed Forces Tribunal and Executive Council of JNU.