"The Indian military is the primary customer and revenue provider for HAL, but the PSU's unionised staff has demonstrated a lackadaisical attitude, resulting in slow production rates and delayed deliveries."

by Girish Linganna

Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), a prominent state-owned aerospace manufacturer in India, has been garnering significant attention lately due to its Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas and growing export opportunities. However, HAL and the Indian Air Force (IAF) face several systemic issues that need to be addressed.

With HAL being responsible for producing, repairing, and servicing the bulk of our military services' aircraft, helicopters, engines, and ancillary components, the efficiency and expansion of this aerospace giant are crucial not just for our military's combat readiness but also for the future of the aerospace sector in India. Addressing these issues is essential for ensuring a strong and sustainable future for both HAL and the Indian aerospace industry as a whole.

HAL has a crucial obligation to meet its established timelines and fulfill its commitments. Unfortunately, the organization is currently grappling with several pressing issues, with the most significant being quality control concerns that have plagued its products. Retired Air Force officers have raised alarm over HAL's inability to produce products that meet the required standards in the defense aviation sector.

To address these challenges, HAL needs to eliminate bureaucratic hurdles, simplify its procedures, and take a more results-oriented approach. It is also essential for the organization to stop the ongoing turf war against the private sector and break free from its isolation. Although HAL has grown in size, it has yet to acquire the necessary expertise, technology, or capability. The delays have had a significant impact on various programs, including the Tejas and Mirage 2000/Jaguar upgrade programs of the Indian Air Force. HAL must revamp its approach and enhance its performance to ensure that it meets its obligations effectively.

HAL's HJT-16 Kiran trainer aircraft has been the go-to choice for the Indian Air Force for intermediate stage pilot training, spanning over five decades. However, despite the Kiran's long-standing service, HAL has yet to replace it.

HAL has attempted to fill the gap with the HAL HJT-36 Sitara trainer, a program that has been in development since 1997. Unfortunately, technical issues have plagued the Sitara's development, with a recent six-year delay in resolving a critical issue related to conducting a six-turn spin flight. This was a crucial step towards commissioning the trainer, as pilots needed to enter and recover from stalls or spins during their training. The Sitara can only be considered by the IAF if it can consistently recover safely from these maneuvers.

HAL's inability to develop a replacement for the Kiran has left the IAF with an aging fleet of trainers, highlighting the need for HAL to address its technical challenges and deliver a suitable replacement as soon as possible.

HAL has been developing the HJT-36 Sitara trainer for the last 25 years. Over the years, the Indian Air Force's demands have undergone changes, and HAL must now deliver a comprehensive training solution that utilizes simulations to match the existing infrastructure of the IAF's PC-7 and Hawk MK-132 trainers. Moreover, all new procurements must include a range of training simulators, including FBS, CPT, APTT, FTD, and computer-aided learning systems. Meeting these requirements could pose significant challenges for HAL.

The Sitara program has been plagued with several issues, including changes to the engine used for the trainer. Initially, a French engine was selected, but it was later replaced with the Russian AL-55I engine, specifically designed for trainer aircraft. Unfortunately, delays in the development and delivery of the AL-55I engine by the Russian side have caused further setbacks for the program.

Given the challenges faced by HAL in the development of the Sitara, meeting the IAF's evolving requirements for a complete training solution will require significant effort and resources. Nonetheless, the replacement of the aging Kiran trainer remains a pressing need for the IAF, and HAL must find a way to deliver a suitable replacement that meets the IAF's requirements in a timely and cost-effective manner.

Regrettably, the Russian side's delays in developing and delivering the AL-55I engine have caused additional setbacks for the HJT-36 Sitara program. Both prototypes produced by HAL met with accidents during practice sorties, with PT-1 going off the runway due to a canopy locking system failure and damaging the wings, empennage, and landing gear. The HJT-36 Sitara program was dealt another blow when PT 2 experienced a landing gear failure during a practice sortie, further delaying the program.

Although HAL was established earlier than its Chinese counterpart, it must work to improve its performance and overcome its slow pace. However, the absence of a full-time director for several months has hindered HAL's progress. It is crucial for the Indian government to adopt a paradigm shift in appointing leadership positions by seeking out the most qualified individuals rather than relying on a pool of "generalist" bureaucrats and PSU cadres.

HAL's recent setbacks in the Sitara program highlight the need for a strong leadership team that can drive the organization towards achieving its goals. The Indian government must prioritize filling the leadership vacuum at HAL with qualified and competent individuals who can lead the organization towards greater efficiency and productivity. With the right leadership in place, HAL can overcome its current challenges and cement its position as a leading aerospace manufacturer in India.

HAL has faced numerous challenges in its track record, including unsuccessful or abandoned aircraft projects and fatal accidents involving the IAF's MiG-21 fleet and other HAL products. These incidents highlight the lack of adequate aircraft and engine design and production skills within the company.

To address these issues, both the Ministry of Defence and aviation regulatory bodies in India must hold HAL accountable for the errors that led to these accidents. HAL should be subject to strict regulations and oversight to ensure that they meet the necessary safety and quality standards. It is imperative that HAL takes necessary steps to improve its design, production, and quality control processes, to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future.

Additionally, HAL must invest in research and development to keep pace with the ever-changing aerospace technology landscape. This will require HAL to create a culture of innovation and collaboration, both within the company and with other industry players. By doing so, HAL can improve its competitiveness and achieve greater success in the future.

The Indian military is the primary customer and revenue provider for HAL, but the PSU's unionised staff has demonstrated a lackadaisical attitude, resulting in slow production rates and delayed deliveries. The use of substandard manufacturing and engineering practices can lead to maintenance problems and compromise fleet standardisation, while insufficient quality control measures can lead to component failures and safety incidents. Moreover, HAL's deficient product support has adversely affected its clients, resulting in dissatisfaction and impeding their operations.

Girish Linganna is a Defence & Aerospace analyst, and is the Director of ADD Engineering Components (India) Private Limited which is a Subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany with manufacturing units in Russia