Hyderabad: The recent statement of defence minister Ms Nirmala Sitharaman questioning the capability of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) to produce the French Rafale jets continues to rouse controversy. Former HAL chairman Mr T Suvarna Raju said HAL has a legacy in manufacturing fighter aircraft for the IAF.

“If the Government did not believe in the capability of HAL, how could they allocate the deal to a novice company that was established 12 days prior to the deal?” is the argument. A large contingent of experts in aeronautics have come out in support of HAL, and said it could have built the Rafale fighter.

Ms Sitharaman made a statement, “Deal for procurement of 126 Rafale Jets under UPA fell through as HAL did not have required capability to produce them.” The minister’s judgement about the capability of HAL continues to draw flak, “The country-run plane maker HAL could have built Rafale fighters in India had the government managed to close the original negotiation with Dassault,” said Mr Raju.

However, it should be noted that the Rafale was selected by the IAF after an exhaustive evaluation process during the UPA period, the controversy was about the pricing and the allotment of a deal to a company that has zilch experience in aircraft manufacture.

HAL has built several hundred aircraft for India in the past 60-odd years; to name a few jets are MiG-21, MiG- 27, Jaguar, Hawk, Sukhoi-30, Dornier. From the list of helicopters the company has built Light Combat Helicopters, Light Utility Helicopter, Chetak, Dhruv, Rudra.

A defence historian and author of the book Ganesha Flyboys’ (Conflict of IAF & Congo — 1960) and the The Brown Few’ (Indian’s role in World War II), K.S. Nair, said “HAL certainly has a track record in building aircraft. Up to the 1970s they could be regarded as a leading developing country aircraft manufacturer. However, particularly from the 1990s onwards, the more sophisticated products manufactured by HAL (Su-30s) have always had a very high import component. This is not a problem by itself. Even Russia, China and South Korea started their aero industries by importing, assembling and reverse engineering. They started with import assembly and made progress from there.

Presently, eight countries are using helicopters produced by HAL. Karim Shahid, a mechanical engineer and an aeronautics enthusiast said, “HAL on certain projects has been pulled up for the delay. However, it has still delivered the products. The aircraft manufacturing unit operates under the government and how can the Centre point at the inefficiency of its own organisation?”

“Also, realistically, given the small number of aircraft in this contract (36), it is unlikely that Ambani/ Reliance would be able to gear up in time to build anything used specifically in the aircraft delivered to India.”

HAL’s craftsmanship has drawn praises from various foreign defence ministers. For instance in 2017, Singapore minister Dr N. G. Eng Hen flew in the LCA Tejas trainer with Air Vice-Marshal A.P. Singh at Kalaikunda airbase, and said, “It is an excellent aircraft and it is very impressive.”

In 2016, India’s indigenous light combat aircraft Tejas for the first time participated in an international air show in Bahrain. IAF chief Arup Raha had commented “It is a good aircraft for induction.”

“There are many reasons to show how HAL is more capable than Reliance Defence, which doesn’t have a workshop, tools, manpower and experience in the aerospace domain. Before questioning the capability of HAL, the government should instead question their decision of allocating business worth multi-crore of rupees to a company with no previous record,” a former HAL employee said.