Stuck at the basics of aircraft design

Anil Chopra | Updated on October 07, 2013

In the flight path... Speedy decisions will boost the IAF.

We could import basic training aircraft and release HAL resources to work on the next level.

The Indian Air Force needs to take a call on how it is to acquire a new set of trainer aircraft, balancing indigenisation concerns with practical considerations. There is a considerable degree of conceptual confusion here.

It took over a decade to decide on and acquire the Advanced Jet Trainer (AJT). The British Hawk Mk 132 finally entered service in the IAF in early 2008 for advanced jet training.

The Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd built basic trainer HPT-32 was being used for initial training for years.

However, it had repeated engine failures. When two experienced instructors were killed in July 2009, it triggered the permanent grounding of the aircraft. India very correctly decided on a fast-track acquisition of the Basic Training Aircraft (BTA), selecting the Pilatus PC-7 Mk II from among five contenders.

The aircraft joined the IAF early this year. Some 75 aircraft have been contracted, with an option to buyg 38 more.

In 2009, it was decided that HAL would design and build 106 basic trainers. The ground position today is that after just displaying a mock-up at an Aero India exhibition, there is no viable design proposal by HAL. The issue of whether the remaining BTAs should be indigenously developed or procured from abroad came into the public domain after a report in the media implied that the IAF was trying to scuttle the development of the BTA by HAL. These articles indirectly pitted the Defence Ministry, the IAF and HAL against each other.

HAL-IAF connection

The fact is, the IAF is proud to fly indigenous aircraft. The IAF trained its pilots on HAL-built HT-2 aircraft till it was replaced by HPT-32 in 1984.

The IAF was also happy with the HAL-built Kiran jet trainer, an aircraft with which it flew its showcase aerobatics team, Surya Kiran.

The bulk of IAF’s inventory comprises HAL-produced aircraft. The Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA), and the Medium Transport Aircraft (MTA) programmes are fully backed by the IAF.

Any attempt to bring about a rift between the IAF and HAL is neither reasonable nor in the national interest.

Aircraft take time to design, develop, produce or procure. The HAL Intermediate Jet Trainer (IJT) has also been running way behind schedule. Any further delay in the IJT may force the IAF temporarily into two-stage training with Pilatus and Hawk aircraft when the aging and overextended Kirans retire.

Call on BTA

In this context, the time has come to take a call on further basic trainers.

The IAF has no choice but to seek more tried and tested Pilatus PC-7 Mk II.

Another issue is whether the IAF should have two different aircraft as its basic trainers. It would involve two sets of flying instructors, technical personnel, infrastructure, simulators, training aids, spare inventories, among other things. The duplication will cause significant extra expenditure.

On the other hand, a single type is better from the operational, maintenance and logistics point of view. If timely decisions are not taken, the IAF’s basic and intermediate training may get seriously hampered.

A large part of the yet to develop HAL basic trainers will have to be procured from abroad. We do not have expertise on turboprop engine, ejection seat, and a large number of other systems. Even the aircraft design itself is likely to be through foreign consultancy.

When many parts of the so-called indigenous aircraft are imported, as in this case, the cost will naturally be much higher than the imported variant.

The UK-built Hawk aircraft cost us Rs 87 crore vis-à-vis the HAL-built one at Rs 98 crore. The cost increase for indigenous Su-30s was much starker.

Operational logic

It may be in the national interest to licence-produce the PC-7 Mk II in India if numbers were to go up significantly.

The delivery time-frames to the IAF should remain non-negotiable. HAL could thus concentrate all design and development energies on the intermediate trainer without affecting the IAF’s training requirements.

People keep making repeated references to the navy’s control over dockyards and shipbuilding compared to the lack of IAF control over HAL’s activities. The IAF has a large number of base repair depots of its own which are engaged in overhauling, upgrading and assembling aircraft and aggregates.

These personnel are on IAF’s payroll. Spare capacity can easily take on licence production such as the Pilatus PC-7 Mk II. Man-hours saved could bring down costs substantially and allow HAL to concentrate on the IJT.

The repeated references to grounding of the HPT-32 fleet vis-à-vis not grounding the MiG-21 lack operational logic. One is a basic training aircraft flown by novice pilots, and the other an operational aircraft flying combat exercises.

The country requires some minimum deterrence and war fighting capability. While we await the LCA, surely we do not want the IAF to become smaller than its Pakistani counterpart overnight?

In this competitive world it has become common for the manufacturer who doesn’t get the contract to hire people to pull down the winner.

Having served on technical oversight committees, I can say the processes on this count are fairly streamlined.

All specification changes at all stages follow a proper logic, and are well documented and approved at various levels.

The HAL and IAF both function under the Ministry of Defence. The IAF is a near captive customer of HAL.

Strengthening the IAF’s presence in the HAL management at all levels should greatly improve both output and understanding. It is time to put the nation first and not let a good aircraft and IAF training be made hostage to extraneous issues.

(The author is a retired Air Marshal and former head of the IAF’s HR and Training.)

Published on October 07, 2013

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