HAL's product support often falls short in responsiveness, leaving its customers stranded and without adequate assistance when facing issues or in need of timely support.

by Girish Linganna

The accidents/crashes in the tri-services exposed a distressing reality of India's political discourse, where the prevailing sentiment seemed to be one of satisfaction at the perceived failures of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) rather than a heartfelt grief for the loss of two courageous young test pilots from the Indian Air Force.

The focus of our political discourse should transcend petty feuds and instead prioritize the well-being and preparedness of our armed forces. By acknowledging the vital contributions of organizations like HAL, we can foster a more informed and empathetic dialogue, one that truly honors the bravery and commitment of those who serve our nation.

The vitality, effectiveness, and progress of this esteemed aeronautics giant are not only crucial for bolstering the combat capabilities of our military but also for the advancement of our aerospace industry as a whole. Failing to ensure the success of HAL and its diverse projects would relegate India to a perpetual state of backwardness in the field of aeronautics, reliant on imports.

How Directionless Are They?

In 1940, during the critical Battle of Britain when the United Kingdom was locked in a life-and-death struggle against Germany, Winston Churchill took a decisive step by establishing the Ministry of Aircraft Production. This visionary move saw the appointment of Lord Beaverbrook, a prominent media mogul, as its leader. Under Beaverbrook's dynamic and innovative leadership, the production of fighters and bombers skyrocketed, providing the Royal Air Force (RAF) with the necessary aircraft to withstand the relentless onslaught of the Luftwaffe. Air Marshal Dowding, head of Fighter Command, acknowledged that it was Lord Beaverbrook who supplied them with the crucial machines.

Fast forward to today, and the Indian Air Force (IAF) also faces a dire situation due to a scarcity of aircraft. However, unlike the presence of a figure like Lord Beaverbrook, India lacks a visionary leader with the insight to chart a clear roadmap and provide guidance for harnessing the immense potential of our aeronautics industry. Regrettably, none of India's defense ministers since independence have exhibited the necessary foresight in this regard. The responsibility has fallen upon the lackadaisical Department of Defense Production & Supply, leaving Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) to plod along, expanding in size but not in skills, technology, or capability. A brief examination of HAL's history serves as an enlightening case in point.

HAL reached its pinnacle in June 1961 with the remarkable maiden flight of the HF-24 Marut. In a rare stroke of inspiration, the Indian government enlisted the expertise of German designer Dr. Kurt Tank to assist HAL in creating a jet fighter. The Marut, a sleek and elegant machine, held immense promise as a supersonic fighter. However, its performance fell short of expectations as it utilized two small turbojets, rendering it subsonic and somewhat underwhelming. Rather than persevering and exploring avenues for further development, the government made a stunning display of apathy and short sightedness by allowing the project to languish, leaving the Indian Air Force as a passive observer.

Besides the Marut and other domestically conceived aircraft, HAL has played a pivotal role in manufacturing approximately 3,000 aircraft since the 1950s. These include renowned models such as the Vampire, MiG-21, MiG-27, Jaguar, Sukhoi-30, and Hawk. Furthermore, HAL has manufactured several thousand aero-engines of British, French, and Russian origin to power these aircraft. However, it is important to note that these statistics primarily pertain to "kit-assembly" or "licensed production."

One of the IAF veterans stated that "The core issue lies in the fact that the government possesses both a significant stake in HAL and the authority to procure from it, often in situations where there is only one vendor available. To ensure that HAL's productivity and performance align with the standards set by private industry, it is crucial to contemplate the privatization of the company."

Lack of Confidence Or More of Overconfidence?

Given that the Indian military is HAL's largest customer and a significant source of revenue, it remains entirely reliant on the company for product support. However, a deep-seated lack of confidence persists in this public sector undertaking (PSU) for several valid reasons:

HAL's unionized employees exhibit a lackadaisical approach, resulting in low productivity and delayed deliveries, which has a detrimental impact on the organization's overall efficiency.

The existence of poor production-engineering standards within HAL hampers maintenance processes and prevents fleet standardization, posing challenges for the effective management of aircraft.

Inadequate quality control measures contribute to component failures and, consequently, an increased risk of accidents, further highlighting the need for stringent quality assurance protocols.

HAL's product support often falls short in responsiveness, leaving its customers stranded and without adequate assistance when facing issues or in need of timely support.

It is essential for HAL to address these significant concerns, fostering a culture of accountability, improving production-engineering standards, enhancing quality control mechanisms, and delivering responsive product support. By doing so, HAL can alleviate these shortcomings, instill confidence in its customers, and reinforce its position as a reliable and efficient player in the aerospace industry.

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