IAF chief Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa in the cockpit of a mock-up model of SpORT during his visit at Aero India 2019 with IAF Training Command chief Air Marshal RK Bhadauria

by Chethan Kumar

BANGALORE: From cruise missiles to Laser-guided bombs—like the ones used in Balakot air strike against Pakistan last month—and anti-shipping missiles to smart weapons and modern radars and avionic systems, the new aircraft designed by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) promises enough arsenal. But that’s not it: The plane, design work on which is complete, doubles up as a new generation fighter trainer.

The plane, which will be in the 4++ class, is being offered as a fighter trainer to be used with advanced syllabus that can help pilots on modern aircraft including the Rafale and SU-30 MKi become efficient even before they join the squadrons.

However, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has so far not made any demand for such a platform given it’s well-oiled training plan. Answering a specific question on this on February 21, HAL CMD R Madhavan said that HAL is changing and no more waits for IAF to come up with requirements. “We are now confident of doing R&D and offering a product for the taking. We are even looking at markets outside,” he said.

Christened SpORT—Supersonic Omni Role Trainer Aircraft (SpORT )—the new aircraft will be a lead-in-fighter-trainer (LIFT) built on the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas platform, possessing good kinetic performance, avionics systems, sensor-stores management system suite and weapons to effectively emulate a high performance operational fighter.

Group Captain HV Thakur, deputy chief test pilot at HAL, who conceived SpORT, says: “Work started last year when we wanted to participate in US’ T-X programme for new generation trainers. But our platform was a bit expensive given that it has been built Tejas platform and was capable of combat performance. The US wanted a pure trainer.”

A Boeing-Saab partnership eventually bagged the $9-billion T-X contract to make the next generation trainers for the USAF, but HAL isn’t disheartened as it feels many air forces around the world are keen to possess next generation trainer aircraft to prepare pilots for 4++ and fifth generation fighters.

“Today, there’s a quantum jump in training from advanced trainer to fighter jets which impedes the pilots learning pattern, causing an overload on type training aircraft and tends to impinge on safety during fighter training or operations,” HAL said in an email.

To overcome this, many air forces around the world have optimised their flying training patterns by incorporating LIFT aircraft. And, Group Captain Subroto Chaki, says: “This is where SpORT comes in. Today, for example, Large Force Engagement (LFE) training happens on the actual squadron aircraft like the Su-30 or Mirage. But with SpORT we are able to simulate all of these things. A pilot can fly in a 20 aircraft formation, which may include three or four actual SpORTs taking off and the rest simulated.”

From training on Network Centric Warfare (NCW), LFE, Beyond Visual Range (BVR) combat and group combat among other things SpORT will be able to train pilots on a wide range of operational capabilities. “All this in just six months, following which they only need to get used to their squadron aircraft,” Chaki says.

Thakur elaborates that SpORT not only offers flying training but also provides pilots with exposure on high-technology systems like how to fire a laser-guided bombs, how to fire cruise missiles, how to do AESAR radar work and so on, which they currently only learn after joining their squadron.

“Besides, it is unproductive in today’s context to have any aircraft just sitting on the ground during war. Although the upgraded HAWK aircraft too can perform combat roles, there are limitations that need to be overcome with quick modifications, which will not be needed with SpORT as it will built on a fighter platform,” Chaki said.