The solution to end foreign dependency in the aviation sector is not simple, but there are options available. All that is required is a clutch of professionals who are empowered, an aviation ‘national flight plan’ and political will to bring about the required changes. The conversation should not be limited to mere production of C-295 transport aircraft

by Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (Retd)

THE C-295 transport aircraft acquisition project of the IAF has been a long time coming and has been hailed as a ‘trailblazer’; what is a bit overwhelming, though, is that it has been projected as a panacea for the ills that affect our aircraft industry environment. Let’s take stock.

It is indeed a good thing to happen. That it took more than seven decades after the establishment of the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is what calls for serious introspection, which if not done will ensure continuance in the same old pit of foreign dependency.

When the HAL was set up, there were great hopes of an indigenous aircraft industry taking root. Dr Kurt Tank, famous German aeronautical engineer, was brought in to kick-start India’s foray into modern fighter aircraft design. But his product, HF-24 Marut, remained a symbol of India’s aeronautical dreams and didn’t achieve much for want of a suitable engine. This was also indicative of the lack of an overarching plan for developing India’s aeronautical R&D and manufacturing ecosystem.

No aircraft manufacturing project would be economically viable only on domestic orders. While the C-295 would be an ideal replacement for IAF’s An-32 aircraft when they are phased out, the number would still be insufficient unless export customers are found. Incidentally, the fact that 15 additional C-295 are now being ordered for the Navy and Coast Guard shows that we have not learnt from past experience; if these 15 had been added in the original order of 56 aircraft, it would have resulted in a reduction of the cost per machine due to the increased number.

The conversation should not be limited to mere production of C-295. For the project to be really successful, the Tatas (the Indian manufacturer) must move into R&D so that the question ‘what after C-295?’ gets addressed. This is what that should engage the company’s leadership since moving into the bigger league of aviation products requires decades of planning and action.

The Chinese aviation industry started with a small Russian trainer aircraft, Yak-18, in the 1950s but over time has graduated to 150-seat C919 and the under-development 280-seat C929, both of which would challenge Airbus and Boeing products. Their military transport aircraft Y-20 matches America’s C-17 Globemaster in performance and is the base aircraft for flight refuellers and airborne warning and control system (AWACS). Similarly, Embraer, the Brazilian aircraft company which started in 1969 (HAL was founded in 1940) with a small turboprop, has now graduated to 140-seat commercial carriers, the Tucano series of trainer and counter insurgency aircraft and the C-390 Millennium medium-lift transport aircraft. These success stories are indicative of well-thought-out and researched strategic plans; the Indian C-295 project heads, thus, have their work cut out.

The aviation sector requires a steady supply of skilled professionals. Anecdotal evidence exists that aviation technology as a subject had fallen on hard times since young engineering graduates had stopped opting for it due to lack of a worthwhile aviation industry. Now that there is light (hopefully) at the end of the proverbial tunnel, the government must redouble its efforts at ensuring quality education in specialised aviation institutes so that aerospace engineering becomes enticing for the youth. The Tatas can help by sponsoring students in engineering colleges and catching them young. In fact, the Department of Space’s Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology, which is a feeder for the ISRO, should serve as a model for dedicated universities of aeronautical sciences.

Media reports indicate that a maintenance repair and overhaul (MRO) ecosystem would be created as a follow-up of the C-295 project. Such yawn-inspiring statements on India becoming an MRO hub have been made for decades, but the fact is that the huge civil aviation fleet still sends its aircraft abroad for MRO. There are myriad other nuts and bolts issues of civil aircraft manufacturing that require the government’s attention. To state only two — if just one airline, Air India, is planning to buy 300 aircraft, shouldn’t the Chinese model of demanding the assembly of such huge numbers in India be made a criterion in the selection process, like the Chinese have done with Airbus and Boeing? And shouldn’t there be a civil certification agency like the Federal Aviation Administration in the US and the Centre for Military Airworthiness and Certification in India for the military?

And finally, an aviation czar may be needed to ensure inter-ministerial synchronisation that would be imperative for such an onerous task. That entity can help the government take a call on whether certain divisions of HAL can be opened to the time-and-cost-conscious private sector. As a suggestion, the HAL’s helicopter division is an ideal candidate so that programmes such as the ALH (advanced light helicopter) Dhruv, light utility helicopter and the light attack helicopter are further developed and marketed successfully — and not come a cropper like the disastrous ALH Dhruv sale to Ecuador. The Indian Multi-Role Helicopter (IMRH) programme has been hanging fire since 2005 or so.

The IAF’s huge Mi-series fleet of over 250 helicopters would be due for replacement in the coming decades; can the ingenuity and nimbleness of the private sector be harnessed for IMRH as a replacement? Can HAL divest itself of the small aircraft segment like the HTT-44 and IJT-16 trainer aircraft and stay focused on the fighter fleet? These are all radical suggestions that perhaps cannot be implemented for the fundamental reason that there is not one private entity in the country with HAL’s infrastructure and technical expertise to absorb the knowhow to ensure a seamless transition. There would have to be government hand-holding for a gradual switch once an all-encompassing plan is made for diversification.

The solution to end foreign dependency in the aviation sector is not simple, but there are options available. All that is required is a clutch of professionals who are empowered, an aviation ‘national flight plan’ and political will to bring about the required changes — else, as they say in the Indian military, its ‘Jaise The’ (as you were).