What do you say when one of the developing world’s leading industrial and technological nations, an emerging Asian giant knocking on the doors of global power status, goes shopping for the most rudimentary of aircraft? And this when the nation has a huge state-sector aircraft manufacturing industry, among the largest in the world, coupled with an impressive (at least on paper) design-development capability poised to take on challenges in fourth and even fifth generation fighter aircraft? Well, what one says is that the story of the Indian aircraft industry is one of self-reliance now fully in reverse gear, at best a story of incompetence and mismanagement, at worst a massive con job even in the vital defence sector.
The Defence Ministry announced last week that trials were about to commence in Jamnagar in Gujarat for evaluating 6 rival contenders for an Indian Air Force order for 75 Basic Trainer aircraft with a possible additional 106 aircraft to be manufactured by the defence PSU Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) through technology transfer. The Ministry’s Request for Proposal (RFP) calls for bids for “recently certified aircraft” indicating that the IAF wants these trainer aircraft to remain in its inventory for around two to three decades.
India has already acquired Hawk-132 Advanced Jet Trainers from the UK and, while the nation anxiously awaits the indigenous Intermediate Jet Trainer (IJT) from HAL, the Basic Trainer order will complete the modernization of the Trainer fleet of the IAF. At the same time, the long-delayed modernization of the active duty fleet is gathering momentum rapidly, what with the expanding SU-30 MKI fleet, the forthcoming upgradation of the Mirage 2000 and the highly anticipated acquisition of 126 or more Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA). But all kinds of uncertainty surrounds the ‘Tejas’ Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), and the soon-to-be-signed deals for development of a Fifth Generation Fighter as well as a Multi-Role Transport Aircraft are essentially Russian ventures with a fig leaf of co-development by India. All these involve at best some local manufacture under license and will not translate into building of design-development capability in India. In any case, with the Air Force requirements for the next several decades rapidly being filled through the foreign acquisition route, it appears that virtually the last door to self-reliant growth of the Indian aircraft industry has now been shut for several decades to come if not permanently, since the gap between indigenous capability and the demands of advanced aviation will only widen further.
Crisis in Trainers The crisis in Trainer aircraft has been many years in the making, and advanced planning could have averted it while also promoting indigenous capability and self-reliance. Fighter pilots are trained in stages, each stage calling for a more advanced type of aircraft. The Stage-1 basic or ab-initio training in which a recruit first learns how to fly is conducted in a Basic Trainer, usually a light propeller aircraft but with good aerobatic capabilities so that the rookie pilot can be put through his or her paces over a fairly wide range. Stage-2 or intermediate training is done on a jet aircraft which takes pilot capability to the next level whereas Stage-3 training is done on an Advanced Jet Trainer which prepares the pilot for the faster and more demanding fighter aircraft actually to be flown into action, each type of such active-service aircraft also having its own trainer version.
The massive and tragic upsurge in MiG-21 crashes and loss of young pilots’ lives in the ‘90s happened not because the aircraft were “flying coffins” as largely uninformed critics had unfairly labeled them, but because young pilots were sent out to fly MiGs with inadequate preparedness due to the lack of AJTs with the IAF. The pilots were forced to leap from HAL’s HJT-16 (Hindustan Jet Trainer) ‘Kiran’ Stage-2 Trainers into the fast and demanding MiG-21s. Despite full knowledge of this problem over more than a decade, no steps had been taken to indigenously build an advanced trainer, criminally ignoring the deaths of so many young pilots and the longer-term issue of building design-development capability. Even acquisitions were inordinately delayed. Discussions about the Hawk AJTs went on aimlessly for close to two decades, that sorry chapter at last being closed with the Hawk acquisition in 2008, although at much higher cost in both money and lives.
The crisis in training came to flashpoint when a safety team ordered the total grounding of the over 100-strong Basic Trainer fleet of HPT-32s (Hindustan Piston Trainer), after the latest in a long series of crashes in Medak in July 2009, killing both the experienced trainer pilots of the IAF Academy.
The Defence Ministry was left with no option but to approve a fast-track acquisition of proven Basic Trainers from the international market. Not for the first time, one may add. Repeatedly the aircraft industry boffins, defence ministry bureaucrats and an ignorant or uncaring political leadership have slept over shortages, failed to build up self-reliant capability through the many technology transfer and license manufacture agreements, did not develop indigenous upgrades or replacements, dilly-dallied over essential acquisitions and finally, when severe force depletion in the IAF reaches its worst and bargaining position is at its weakest, have gone in for massive foreign acquisitions at exorbitant costs, killing domestic capability in the process.
One may condone acquisitions of some high-end aircraft along with some license manufacturing, certainly as part of an overall process of indigenous capacity-building while maintaining and augmenting defence capability. But can there be any excuse in the case of simple propeller driven aircraft which nowadays are even sold abroad in kit form?
Trainer aircraft is one area in which the Indian aircraft industry has had reasonable success. The HPT-32 ‘Deepak’ had been designed and built in HAL in the 1970s at a time when at least some effort at building a self-reliant capability was being made. The HJT-16 ‘Kiran’ intermediate jet trainer made in the 1960s has been a reliable and consistent if unspectacular performer for the IAF and remains even today the mainstay of the IAF’s Stage-2 training. Its successor the HJT-36 ‘Sitara’ is undergoing prototype development and had its maiden test flight in 2009 but its future has been somewhat clouded by two crashes, one during the prestigious Aero India 2007 air show in Bangalore. Anyway, that is another story, let us now get back to the HPT-32 Basic trainer.
The simple propeller-driven plane was powered by the venerable US-made AVCO Lycoming O-540 series engine which also powered many popular aircraft internationally for decades. From the very start, however, there were problems with the aircraft-engine combination in the HPT-32 especially in fuel supply under certain conditions which, combined with the total inability of the aircraft to glide even short distances in the absence of power, rendered it extremely vulnerable.
Over the years, over 70 HPT-32 accidents occurred and the IAF lost 19 pilots in 17 crashes due to engine failures and fuel transmission problems. HAL’s attempts to tinker with the engine proved to be a cure worse than the disease, so much so that Lycoming refused to re-enter the picture unless the myriad modifications made were first undone, an impossible job! The grounding of the HPT-32s has completely crippled the IAF’s training programme. The IAF and Defence Ministry were so desperate that they are even considering the extreme measure of retro-fitting parachutes to the entire aircraft, a highly dubious scheme being quite doubtful.
As it usually does, HAL did indeed make noises over the years claiming to be developing a new and better Basic Trainer to replace the ageing and problematic HPT-32. True to form, none of these came to fruition if indeed the efforts if any were more than just a smokescreen.
At the renowned Farnborough International Air Show in 1984, HAL unveiled a prototype of the HTT-34 (Hindustan Turbo-Trainer) which was meant to be an upgraded version of the HPT-32. The HTT-34 airframe, which was only a slightly modified version of the HPT-32, was fitted with an Allison 250 series turboprop engine. HAL rolled out a pre-production prototype in Kanpur in 1989 and announced that the Nigerian Air Force had ordered 48 aircraft. But nothing has been heard since then on the HTT-34 even though HAL’s website continues to list it among the aircraft developed by the company!
As late as in 2009, HAL declared its intention to “co-develop” a new HTT-40 Basic Trainer along with a foreign partner, and even put out Requests for Information (RFI) in March 2010 for engines and compatible propellers. Senior HAL officials told the press that whereas it would take 4-5 years to develop a Trainer on its own — why it had not done so in over two decades being besides the point! — roping in an established partner who has already designed a similar trainer would not only shorten time frames but also offer the IAF a top-of-the-line product. HAL spokespersons said they hoped to finalize the trainer’s specifications and our partner by March 2010.
It now appears that the fiction of this “indigenous” Trainer continues to be maintained. Even the current Basic Trainer acquisition is being touted as an order for 75 bought-out aircraft while a further 106 aircraft would be “co-developed” with HAL. Clearly, this is only poor camouflage for the fact that 75 aircraft would be purchased outright while the remaining 106 would be manufactured in HAL under license and simply re-christened HTT-40!
Trainers on offer The 6 aircraft being tried out in Jamnagar are the Grob 120 TP from Germany (see photo), Embraer EMB 312 ‘Super Tucano’ from Brazil, the KT-1 from Korean Aerospace Industries, Pilatus PC-7 from Switzerland and the Finmeccanica M-311 of Italy.
In the opinion of this writer, the frontrunner on merits should be the German Grob 120 TP, while the Italian M-311 should not have been included in the trials in the first place since it is a jet aircraft not suitable as an ab-initio trainer.
The Grob is already in service with Germany, Canada, France and Israel. It has advanced capabilities allowing the training envelope to be stretched into segments usually reserved for Stage-2 training. What may also be of interest to India is the offer which Grob is likely to make to make India a partner in its global manufacturing and supply chain for major components of the aircraft, especially airframe elements made of composite materials in which India is building good capabilities as well as in avionics in which Elbit of Israel and HAL already have a joint venture called HALBIT. The Grob also has additional desirable features such as a glass cockpit and ejection seats for both pilots, and is believed to have serious price advantages compared with other contenders.
Readers should take note of the fact that, yet again, India is in the position of considering an offer from Brazil’s Embraer, this time for Basic Trainer. India has already acquired 4 Embraer aircraft for its VVIP fleet and is considering the possibility of using an Embraer platform for some of its reconnaissance and early warning aircraft. True, Brazil and Argentina in South America have an old aircraft tradition dating back almost to the Wright Brothers era, and some of its industrial sectors are comparable to their European counterparts. But it is equally true that, whereas Brazil and India had aircraft industries of equivalent size, technological level and manufacturing capability about half a century ago, Brazil has moved far ahead of India. Embraer is now a serious global aviation major and has a strong presence in short-medium range passenger aircraft, no mean achievement considering the highly competitive environment and the stringent safety requirements and international regulatory standards for civilian aircraft. Embraer’s small aircraft for a variety of applications, trainers and executive jets are increasingly making a mark internationally.
India could easily have done the same but has failed. The acquisition of basic trainers for the IAF is the latest stark reminder of this monumental and continuing failure to build capabilities in the Indian aircraft industry.