The atmosphere at Bangalore-based defence public sector undertaking Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is sombre. The statement of Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman questioning the capability of the ace PSU in the context of Rafale deal controversy has dampened the spirit of the staff, scientists and officials of the PSU.

In her defence of the Rafael’s Rs 37,000-crore offset contract not going to the PSU, the Minister had said the HAL didn’t have the capability to produce 4.5 generation French-made Rafale fighter jets.

Speaking to a news channel, Sitharaman had said, “There are questions which… why didn’t you prefer the HAL... I will answer that too... In fact, if anything, I would question the Congress party...Your love for the HAL...The noise that is being made now, the HAL is being ignored… If they were more interested in the HAL, why didn’t they sit with the French (company) and talk it out to see what is deficient about the HAL’s offer and what can be done to improve it and how the HAL indeed gets it.

If they really had a love for the HAL, at least LCA productions should have been increased. If you genuinely had a love for the HAL, you could have increased that capacity, which is what we have done. We are quite actively engaged with the HAL. For the love of the HAL... UPA, Shri Rahul Gandhi doesn’t just help talking.”

The officials and staff at the HAL, the country’s only defence aerospace company established over seven decades ago, feel insulted by Minister’s remarks and point out that the HAL has been the backbone of the Indian Air Force and has the capabilities to produce any fighter with technology transfer. They also feel the HAL has become a pawn in the political slugfest.

Another retired executive pointed out that this has killed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dream of “Make in India”. He also pointed out that the Government started, what is called buyback of shares, and took about Rs 5,000-6,000 crore each year for last three years from the HAL. He said with this the order book position of the HAL came down drastically.

Regarding design and development of new aircraft/ helicopter/aircraft engines, an official said as of now Indian private sector companies do not have expertise, patience, and perseverance to pursue a design which may take anywhere between 6 years and 20 years.

In any case, he said, Indian private sectors have not shown stomach for innovation. They don’t seem to have faith that technology innovation could be profitable in the long run unlike their western counterparts. Pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors are perhaps an exception. On the other hand, it could be argued that India may not have reached that time in history, which gives confidence to entrepreneurs to invest in R&D, he said.

Another expert said, “When it comes to manufacturing of Aero engines, aircrafts and helicopters, private sector and even Indian Government should be ready for a long haul. It takes anywhere between 20-25 years to reach maturity in this otherwise risky industry”.

He said private sector should start with becoming Tier-1, Tier-2 and Tier-3 suppliers of big players like Airbus, Boeing, Embreaer and HAL etc. That will help in establishing skills, processes, quality certificates and human resources and management capabilities.

In terms of prototypes flight testing, only the HAL has the unique experience. LCA, IJT, HTT, ALH, LCH and LUH are good examples.

The HAL has also produced Su 30, Hawk, Tejas and many helicopters to defend the borders.

A defence expert remarked, “The reluctance of the Indian Government to fund LCA MarkII, AMCA, Aero engines development, IMRH helicopter is ill-conceived. At the end of the day, no country can defend its borders with imported machines.”

“It is one thing to import a few to address inescapable emergency, but in the long term Indian defence and security policy should encourage design, development and manufacturing of indigenous designed ones. Make in India in the long term should come to mean “Design in India and Make in India,” he added.

Given the reluctance of Indian industry to innovate and build new aircraft, there is still room for more than one industry in addition to the HAL, in the manufacturing of aircraft/Aero engines and helicopters. Twenty-five years from now, one can visualise export of parts, assemblies, subassemblies and even fully flight worthy aircraft, Aero engines and helicopters.

It is in the national interest that the Indian Government should tread carefully, to encourage private industries, certainly not at the expense of DPSU HAL.