"HAL's aircraft will play a critical role in India's military operations in a volatile geopolitical environment. If HAL is unable to address its challenges, the country's defence sector could suffer significant setbacks"

by Girish Linganna

On 26th March, an Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) belonging to the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) had to make an emergency landing in Kochi, Kerala during a routine test flight. According to ICG officials, the helicopter was hovering at an altitude of around 25 feet when it was forced to land due to unknown reasons.

An investigation has been launched to determine the exact circumstances that led to the incident, and the coast guard has assured that steps are being taken to resume operations of the ALH Dhruv fleet. However, this marks the second ALH-related incident and the third safety-related issue faced by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) produced helicopters in less than 20 days, raising concerns about the safety standards of the HAL-produced aircraft.

In a span of just 20 days, three safety-related incidents involving helicopters produced by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) have occurred in India. The first was on 8th March when an Indian Navy Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) experienced a sudden loss of power and rapidly descended into the water. The crew on board managed to perform a "controlled ditching," but the incident resulted in the entire ALH fleet being grounded. On 16th March, an Army Aviation Cheetah helicopter crashed in Arunachal Pradesh, killing both pilots on board. This was the second deadly crash in the region in less than six months, with the previous one occurring in October 2022, when an Army ALH crashed and claimed the lives of five personnel.

These incidents have once again brought HAL under scrutiny, given the PSU's questionable track record with military aircraft safety. HAL has been associated with nearly eighteen major accidents involving the ALH across the services, with similar trends observed in other HAL-developed and serviced aircraft.

HAL's Faults: Reliability And Quality Issues

In recent times, the reasons behind helicopter crashes have become more specific and alarming. Rather than a mix of human error, weather, and technical faults, technical defects have been solely blamed for these incidents, leading to severe consequences.

Senior military officials point to the fact that HAL's production challenges have been a major cause of these technical failures. While design issues have played a role in some crashes, the reliability and production quality of domestically produced aircraft have been significant factors in others.

HAL's response to these accidents has been to conduct "precautionary checks" and halt operations until the root cause of the incident is identified. The company has committed to taking corrective actions to ensure that the fleet is fully operational, and has assured customers of its commitment to safety.

The ongoing issues with HAL have far-reaching implications for India's military-industrial complex and the country's global standing in defence exports. HAL's weak realibility and safety record has resulted to a fatal accident in Ecuador, where HAL had exported its helicopter. Moreover, the PSU's inadequate spare support has damaged the reputation of India's domestic industry, resulting in a negative impact on the country's image and a lack of exports.

The consequences of HAL's shortcomings are not limited to its own operations but also have a ripple effect on India's broader defence procurement. For instance, Dassault Aviation was hesitant to strike a deal with HAL during the Rafale procurement process, citing the company's quality control issues. This highlights the lack of trust in HAL's production capabilities and emphasizes the need to address these issues urgently.

India's military-industrial complex and its reputation as a reliable defence exporter are at stake. It is imperative to resolve the problems facing HAL and ensure its continued success to maintain the country's standing in the global defence market. The stakes are high, and action is required to address the challenges facing HAL.

Too Much For HAL To Handle!

HAL is a key player in India's defense and aerospace sector, and it is crucial for the company to address its issues and improve production technology and quality control processes to maintain its position. However, there seems to be little progress on this front. Despite several serious incidents, HAL continues to operate without any significant consequences.

In fact, shortly after the Navy's DHRUV helicopter crashed, HAL was awarded a contract worth Rs 667 crore by the Indian Air Force to procure six Domier-228 aircraft. This suggests that HAL is "too big to fail," as it continues to receive orders and contracts despite its safety and reliability record.

Despite several setbacks, HAL's stock prices have remained stable at Rs 2,844.05, but investors are closely monitoring developments. Despite multiple mishaps, it seems to be business as usual for the domestic giant. Nevertheless, there is a strong demand for the company to take swift action to regain the trust of its partners and customers. A way forward has been suggested, but HAL's influence remains a significant roadblock in implementing quick reforms.

Big Question On Capabilities

Experts are raising concerns about the production capabilities of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), warning that they are falling behind those of similar-scale companies on a global level. Even facilities established by foreign companies in India mere decades ago are surpassing those of the Navratna PSU. Quality and production processes are crucial for the success of HAL's projects, such as the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) TEJAS MK-1A, which is already under order, and the TEJAS MK-2 DNT, currently in progress.

According to sources, HAL needs to involve the private sector as critical suppliers, not just small parts vendors or sub-vendors, to utilize their cost competitiveness and accountability to produce better products. HAL should let go of turf and facilitate a level playing field, outsourcing to the private sector.

In a recent interview, Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal Vivek Ram Chaudhari, echoed this sentiment, expressing skepticism over HAL's ability to deliver critical indigenous aircraft projects on time. The IAF Chief emphasized the need for HAL to establish a robust framework for the support and sustenance of all its platforms, which would require increased engagement with MSMEs and other private enterprises to ensure a complete supply chain. HAL must address these concerns to remain competitive and maintain its position as a critical player in the Indian defense and aerospace sector.

The Indian defence sector's reliance on HAL underscores the urgent need for the company to upgrade its production facilities and quality control processes. Unfortunately, HAL has been reluctant to engage the private sector beyond small parts vendors, raising concerns about its ability to keep pace with global counterparts.

This resistance to private sector involvement has raised eyebrows, with industry experts speculating that HAL is unwilling to cede ground to more competitive players who could potentially outperform it. Despite fatal accidents and other setbacks, HAL appears to believe that it can overcome any obstacle with greater investment.

This stance is troubling, given that HAL's aircraft will play a critical role in India's military operations in a volatile geopolitical environment. If HAL is unable to address its challenges, the country's defence sector could suffer significant setbacks. It is time for HAL to open its doors to the private sector and embrace a more collaborative approach to defence production.

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