by Dinesh Kumar

Airport ground staff beside Tejas, India’s first locally-built Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), before its induction into the Indian Air Force at the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited Airport in Bangalore, on 1 July 2016

It has been a story of little delivery, at the cost of compromising the airpower dimension of national security.

It had started as a private company in Bangalore prior to Independence in December 1940, as Hindustan Aircraft Pvt Ltd belonging to Walchand Hirachand, in association with the then Government of Mysore. The government took control of it in 1942 and then in collaboration with the Intercontinental Aircraft Company engaged in manufacturing four different American fighter aircraft of that era. But these programmes were abandoned a year later in favour of overhauling and repairing aircraft to support the World War-II efforts.

Eventually, in January 1951, four years after Independence, it was brought under the control of the Ministry of Defence. It was not until almost 14 years later that the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited or HAL was formed in October 1964, after Hindustan Aircraft was merged with Aeronautics India Limited, which had earlier been created by the government to manufacture MiG-21 aircraft from the former Soviet Union. The newly created HAL’s aim was to design, develop, manufacture, repair and overhaul aircraft, helicopters, engines and related systems like avionics, instruments and accessories. But its record since has been questionable.

Hindustan Aeronautics’ efforts to manufacture aircraft had begun as early as 1948 by designing the HT-2, a basic trainer aircraft, which eventually entered service in 1955, only to be subsequently phased out following the development of the Deepak HPT-32 piston engine basic trainer powered by American engines built between 1975 and 1994 for training rookie pilots. In the late 1960s, HAL developed the Kiran HJT-16 basic jet trainer for training Indian Air Force (IAF) and Navy pilots. While the HPT-32 had to be grounded some years ago following a series of accidents, the Kiran continues to fly, but is now in urgent need of replacement with only 19 of the current fleet of just 39 of these aircraft in flying condition.

HAL’s other major indigenous project in the past has been the Marut HF-24 fighter aircraft, design work on which began in January 1957. With Kurt Tank, a renowned German aircraft designer of his time involved as the head of the design bureau, the aircraft first flew in June 1961. Subsequently, 147 HF-24 were produced between 1965 and 1977 before the project was eventually closed because of underpowered imported engines and lack of serious and concerted government support.

On paper, HAL boasts an “impressive” record of having produced a dozen aircraft from in-house research and development, 14 types of licenced-produced aircraft and eight types of aero engines. In all, the HAL has produced about 3,500 aircraft and over 3,600 aero-engines, while overhauling about 8,500 aircraft and over 28,000 aero-engines.

After HAL’s reasonably successful tryst in making trainers and even a fighter aircraft, it has been struggling with all its subsequent aircraft development programmes. HAL’s record has been one of long delays, unkept promises and enormous costs. It has been a story of so much effort, so little delivery and hardly any accountability, and that too at the cost of compromising, if not altogether endangering, the airpower dimension of national security. The fact is that even 71 years after Independence, India does not have an industrial base for designing aircraft engines and almost all aircraft and aero-engines are being licenced-produced. All of HAL’s big ticket projects are either incomplete, suffering long delays or have fructified in part with its vital components purchased from overseas. These include the Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA), the Dhruv advance light helicopter (ALH), the Sitara HJT-36 intermediate jet trainer, the Hindustan Turbo Trainer-40 or HTT-40 and the light combat helicopter (LCH).

HAL has specifically been unable to design, develop and induct an aero-engine for any type of aircraft ranging from fighter aircraft to transport aircraft and even a basic trainer aircraft. The only exception has been for the three variants of the Kiran basic jet trainer. Every other aircraft designed and developed by HAL was and is fitted with imported engines. In a candid admission before a parliamentary standing committee on defence, a former Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) chief once stated, “Just because India manufactured a few Russian engines under licence in Koraput does not automatically make India a designer’.

The development of both the HTT-40 (meant to replace the Deepak HPT-32) and the HJT-36 (meant to replace the Kiran), which are stage-1 and stage-2 trainer aircraft, respectively, is vital considering that these have a bearing on the Air Force’s pilot training programme. Delays in the development of the HTT-40, a basic trainer as a replacement to the premature grounding of the HPT-32 owing to a spate of fatal accidents, led to the import of 75 Pilatus PC-7 basic trainers from Switzerland in 2012. The HTT-40 was originally scheduled to be ready for induction in 2015. Yet, the first prototype of this basic trainer powered with an American engine (Honeywell Garrett TPE 331-12B) was first rolled out only in February 2016 and first test flown in May 2016. The aircraft was expected to be inducted into the Air Force this year which, not surprisingly, remains a far cry.

The case is even worse in the case of the Sitara HJT-36 intermediate jet trainer, which is meant to replace the ageing Kiran stage-2 trainer that is currently on life extension until 2020. The HAL embarked on designing the HJT-36 as early as 1997. Government approval followed in 1999 and the aircraft was originally slated to enter service in 2007. This was revised to 2010 and then 2012. But since then the project has been hit by disasters, delays and design flaws. First, the French engine was observed to be under-powered and was replaced by a Russian engine (NPO Saturn AL-551), which arrived two years later than schedule in December 2008. The prototypes met with accidents in February 2007, February 2009 and April 2011, causing a further setback.

Eventually in August 2014, the Defence Minister admitted in Parliament that the project was well behind schedule, while HAL admitted that the aircraft was overweight and suffering from serious aerodynamic problems that have implications for air safety due a design flaw. There is no revised induction schedule in sight as the current deficiencies in the aircraft necessitates a redesign of the airframe, which is a lengthy and time consuming process. With the HJT-36 unlikely to be developed in the immediate future, the government has since floated a request for proposal to purchase an intermediate jet trainer.

The Tejas LCA, still under development, is currently powered by the American General Electric 404 engine, which is considered to be unsuitable. Efforts are on to co-develop a suitable engine for the LCA with the help of a foreign company, after a two-decade long effort to indigenously develop the Kaveri engine, sanctioned in 1989, failed. The government is continuing with the Kaveri project although there is no clear deadline as to by when it will be developed.

The government sanctioned development of the LCA in August 1983 after the Air Force analysed that the ageing Soviet-origin MiG-21 Bis would be inadequate to handle a futuristic battle environment. The aircraft, originally expected to enter service in 1995, suffered severe delays. It was only in July 2016 that the first IAF squadron comprising the LCA was raised with just three aircraft, following a number of revisions—from the initial deadline of 1995 to 2003, 2005, 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2015.

The Tejas inducted into the IAF have until now only been accorded an Initial Operational Clearance. A Final Operational Clearance, expected in December 2016, remains elusive. Even so the initial operational clearance given to the Mark-I version of the LCA has been given, with 53 concessions and permanent waivers, thereby considerably reducing its operational capability and survivability. An upgraded Mark-II version of the LCA was expected to overcome these deficiencies by December 2018. But leave aside the Mk-II, the HAL is yet to even produce the Mk-IA, an improved version of Mk-I.

Then again, the LCA has only 35% indigenous content, with 65% of its components imported. These items comprise virtually all the key components, starting with its engine, flight control system, multi-mode radar, the radome, multi-functional display systems, to all the armaments.

It is the same story with the Dhruv ALH. Although the development of the ALH had been completed in 2001, its serial production and manufacture had been delayed by over eight years due to non-availability of an engine. The design and development of the Dhruv to be powered by a French engine was approved in 1984 after the Army expressed the need for an advance light helicopter in 1980 for quick troop and logistics movement. However, the engine was found to be underpowered for the Army’s requirements. The Army, which conditionally inducted a limited number of Dhruv helicopters pending rectification of problems, continues to suffer from operational limitations.

HAL then undertook to manufacture a more powerful engine named Shakti in cooperation with the French company M/s Turbomeca to overcome the deficiencies. The engine was eventually developed and certified in October 2010. But then the more advanced ALH-WSI or Weapon System Integrated, sanctioned in 1998, is much delayed, with the phase-I of this helicopter being accorded an initial operational clearance in February 2013, but the phase-II, with better features, being much delayed with no deadline in immediate sight. The delay has affected the raising of six squadrons of this helicopter for the Army Aviation Corps, thereby compromising operational capabilities. A solitary squadron was raised with 509 personnel and an authorisation for 13 helicopters, which are yet to be provided.

The delays have forced the Army to continue operating the antiquated licensed-produced French-origin Lama and Alouttee helicopters, originally due for de-induction by 2007, but currently in service until 2019 in the absence of a replacement. The Army and IAF’s limited number of ALHs have a questionable flight safety record, with 16 of these helicopters having crashed in 11 years between 2005 and 2015 alone. Also embarrassing is the fact that Ecuador, which had bought seven ALHs from India, has since grounded them after losing four Dhruv helicopters in crashes.

There is no doubt that HAL needs some major restructuring and introduction of accountability if it has to play a more meaningful role in India’s quest for self-reliance.

Dinesh Kumar is a defence analyst