A day before Mirage 2000 crash in Bangalore, IAF chief B.S. Dhanoa had hit out at HAL for blaming it for delays. Former officers agree with chief’s assessment

by Snehesh Alex Philip 

NEW DELHI: In the aftermath of the Mirage 2000 crash and plain speaking by Indian Air Force chief BS Dhanoa, former senior officers of the IAF have questioned the capabilities of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. However, they’ve also said there should be no blame game between the IAF and the state-owned aerospace and defence firm.

HAL has been under the scanner since a Mirage 2000 aircraft crashed in Bangalore Friday, soon after being upgraded by HAL, killing two young pilots who were on an ‘acceptance sortie’.

A day earlier, Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa had launched a frontal attack on HAL, rejecting allegations that the development of the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft had suffered because the IAF changed specifications and requirements frequently. Dhanoa said the IAF has “made concessions for HAL, but will the enemy make any concession for us when we face them in battle?”

He asserted: “IAF has not shifted any goal posts as alleged. We have maintained the Air Staff Quality Requirements (ASQR) of the first 20 LCA Mk-I at standards issued in 1985.” And even then, HAL has been able to manufacture only “10 fighters”, he said.

However, it must be noted that the IAF chief also praised HAL for its contribution in making Exercise Gaganshakti a success last year. In this exercise, HAL and IAF worked together to carry out a record number of sorties and maintain a high serviceability ratio.

More Nuanced Approach

Air Chief Marshal S Krishnaswamy (Retd), who headed the IAF from 2001 to 2004, called for a more nuanced approach and said Dhanoa’s statement should not be connected to the crash that took place a day later.

“Had it not being for HAL, we would not have been flying the MiGs for all these years,” Krishnaswamy said. He also highlighted that Tejas had done thousands of flying hours without any accident.

On the issue of concessions given, Krishnaswamy, who wrote the draft ASQR in 1985 that was later formally accepted, said they are something that even the French, US and Chinese military give.

However, he added that the work ethos needed “drastic” change, and that IAF and HAL should swap personnel involved in maintenance and other arenas to understand each other.

“There needs to be a look into the managerial structure. There need to be drastic changes,” he said, adding that deployment of IAF officers to HAL needs to be done in a calibrated manner. He also underlined that industrial function must also go to the private sector.

In fact, several other former officers also stressed on the need to fix HAL’s work culture.

Air Chief Marshal AY Tipnis (Retd), who served as IAF chief 1998 to 2001, agreed that there are issues, but said they need to be discussed behind closed doors. He refused to say much more, saying the matter is sensitive, especially after the crash, but also spoke out against a blame game.

Scathing Criticism of HAL

However, there were those veterans who laid the blame squarely at HAL’s door.

Air Marshal K.K. Nohwar (Retd), former vice-chief of the IAF and director-general of the Centre for Air Power Studies, said HAL needed to ramp up its performance and get over the “slackness”.

He said a proper revamp of HAL was “long overdue”, and the delays in programmes was completely unacceptable.

Air Marshal Vinod Patney (Retd) said the whole situation is a “Terrible Paradox”, since HAL says it is not getting enough support in terms of money from the government, and the IAF says it is a PSU and has to deliver on its promises.

“Something is terribly wrong with the systems at HAL and the way it functions. HAL needs to be overhauled completely. I want HAL to succeed, but it should not take anyone for granted,” he said.

Air Marshal P.K. Barbora (Retd), former vice-chief of the IAF, said the delays in programs hampered the fighting capabilities of the IAF.

“Even a blind man will tell you this. HAL has not delivered on its promises or its timelines. The worst part is that there are issues of quality control with the product manufactured by HAL. It is below the standard of any aviation industry,” he said.

Barbora said be it the Tejas or the upgrade program of the Mirage-2000s and Jaguars, delays have hit the IAF.

“The IAF plans long term and when the planning goes for a toss, everything goes for a toss. HAL is like a big white elephant. Can we shut down HAL? No, we cannot. Whenever we have said that it needs to be run by a senior Air Marshal, the government has turned it down,” he said.

“HAL was set up before China built its counterpart, and now look where they are and where we are. Life lost is life lost, quality lost is quality lost, time lost is time lost, but we will not use the danda (stick).”

Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (Retd) said it is wrong to say that the IAF kept changing goalposts on Tejas.

“There is a Preliminary Air Staff Quality Requirement (PASQR) which is made jointly, only then is the ASQR is made up. It is natural for some requirements to be changed with time. Technology is galloping away while we sit and wait,” he said.

“The IAF is looking at 20 squadrons of Tejas, including 12 Tejas Mark-2, which is a completely different aircraft.”