Military & Aerospace

Meaning and Message of Building Fighter Jets in India
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 22 Mar , 2016

In what has been described as a strategic master stroke aimed at helping India position itself as a well equipped hub for the manufacturing of combat aircraft, featuring cutting edge technologies and advanced fighting systems, Defence Minister, Manohar Parrikar, recently spoke about a plan for the local manufacture of one or two more combat aircraft in the country.

…HAL whose domain knowledge and industrial expertise in aerospace and defence is quite substantial, need not be side-lined.

But much to the chagrin of the state owned aeronautical major, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), the responsibility of building the fighter jets would rest solely with the private sector companies in the country. As it is, HAL, which at one time had dominated the Indian aerospace sector, has also been excluded from the competition for the Avro replacement project.

During the previous UPA (United Progressive Alliance) regime, there were allegations that the then Defence Minister, A.K.Antony, favoured public sector defence enterprises much to the disadvantage of the private sector defence and aerospace industrial units in the country. Now the pendulum seems to have swung to the other extreme with the current NDA (National Democratic Alliance) dispensation showing “undue preference” to the private sector. Of course, the private entities need to be encouraged and supported to build up their capabilities and domain expertise to meet the requirements of the Indian defence forces. But at about the same time, HAL whose domain knowledge and industrial expertise in aerospace and defence is quite substantial, need not be side-lined.

The best option would be to involve both the private and public sector entities in taking up challenging aerospace projects so that there would be a better access to resources, expertise and industrial infrastructure. Indeed, the need of the hour is to harness the existing potentials by looking beyond the public private sector jurisdictional boundaries to realize the goal of defence self reliance speedily, efficiently and in an economically viable manner.

The Rafale combat aircraft along with the home grown, fourth generation supersonic Tejas LCA would help IAF reverse the trend of squadron depletion…

According to Parrikar, the proposal to build fighter jets in India is expected to spur competition among the global aerospace and defence majors to join hands with the Indian companies to initiate the process of creating industrial capacity in the country for the production of advanced fighter jets based on the Make in India flagship programme of the Indian Government. ”Under the Make in India process, we may have one or two more fighter jets produced in India by the private sector,” noted Parrikar. However, this line of approach meant to boost Indian aircraft industry will not have any impact on the ongoing process of discussions between India and France for the finalization of the deal to acquire 36 Rafale fighter aircraft under a government to government deal.

The Rafale combat aircraft along with the home grown, fourth generation supersonic Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) would help Indian Air Force (IAF) reverse the trend of squadron depletion following a programme to phase out obsolete and ageing Mig fighters forming a part of the frontline fighting formations.

Giving details, Parrikar pointed out that several offers are already under consideration and “through proper process we may select them to set up facilities in India under Make in India”. Meanwhile, HAL is concentrating on stepping up the production rate of Tejas. Following the termination of the prohibitively costly, Medium, Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender under which it was planned to buy 126 fighters, IAF will now acquire 120 Tejas fighters. The first twenty Tejas combat aircraft will adhere to the original version while the remaining 100 will have many state of the art features including an Advanced Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, mid -air refuelling capability and sophisticate electronic warfare suite.

Boeing, in partnership with an Indian entity, has offered to create an industrial complex capable of handling end to end aircraft manufacturing.

Against this backdrop, the Indian Government, said Parrikar, would soon give approval to HAL for the setting up of a second assembly line for Tejas. This would facilitate the doubling of Tejas production rate—from eight per year to sixteen per year. At the end of the day, Made in India Tejas will prove to be a “game changer” and “force multiplier” towards boosting the fighting punch of IAF which in the years ahead is planning to transform itself into a “trans-continental air power” with global reach.

Meanwhile, Boeing and Lockheed Martin of USA as well as Saab of Sweden, all of which had actively participated in the MMRCA contest, have come out with their own proposals to set up manufacturing facilities in India along with the transfer of relevant technology. For instance, Boeing, in partnership with an Indian entity, has offered to create an industrial complex capable of handling end to end aircraft manufacturing. To begin with, Boeing will help India produce Super Hornet combat jet. Our intent is to set up an industrial complex starting with Super Hornet and this will be embedded with our global supply chain capability,” said Pratyush Kumar, President of Boeing India. Giving details, he revealed that if Boeing wins Indian order, it would create an aviation manufacturing eco system in the country. Incidentally, for now defunct MMRCA contest, Boeing had offered a customised variant of Super Hornet named F/A-18IN.

On its part, US defence and aerospace heavy weight, Lockheed Martin has said that it is willing to help manufacture F-16 combat aircraft in India. According to Phil Shaw, Chief Executive of Lockheed Martin India Pvt Ltd “We are ready to manufacture F-16 India and support the Make in India initiate” F-16 known as Fighting Falcon was in the race for bagging the MMRCA order. But with the US Congress initiating the process to sell F-16 fighters to Pakistan, India would need to evaluate the Lockheed Martin offer with a great deal of caution and circumspection.

The Indian stake holders in the project including HAL, IAF and DRDO would need to come out with a clear picture on the Indian strategy meant to make this project a reality without further dithering and time lag.

Not to be left behind, Swedish defence major, Saab has offered to help India create a manufacturing facility for its advanced Gripen fighter aircraft. Saab was one of the contestants for the MMRCA tender. Saab has also offered to help India in the development of an upgraded version of Tejas and follow on fifth generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) being developed by the Bengaluru based Aeronautical Development Agency(ADA) of the Defence Research and Development Organisation(DRDO).

In the context of the changed economic and industrial environment in the country, Indian private sector industrial entities are busy forging alliances with the global aerospace and defence majors in a big way to produce aerospace systems and fighting platforms in the country. For instance, Tata Advanced Systems Ltd (TASL), a high tech arm of the Tata Group of Industries, has joined hands with Boeing to set up a facility for the production of the fuselage of Apache helicopter. On another front, Airbus Helicopters of Europe and India’s Mahindra Defence have entered into an agreement to float a joint venture that bids to “become the first private Indian helicopter manufacturer under the Make in India initiative.” According to Piere De Bausset, President, Airbus India, Airbus group is fully well conscious of India’s aspirations to increase the strength of its private aerospace sector through Make in India.

Indeed, Parrikar is right in his observation, “There has been a renewed enthusiasm among the Defence Public Sector Units(DPSUs) and the private sector in the development and production of platforms and systems for the Indian defence forces. The Government has been consistently trying to indigenise and speed up deliveries to the armed forces”.

But amidst these high profile developments, there is a concern that whether India would be in a position to take forward its discussion with Russia for the project for the joint development of Fight Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) to its logical conclusion. The Indian stake holders in the project including HAL, IAF and DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation) would need to come out with a clear picture on the Indian strategy meant to make this project a reality without further dithering and time lag.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Radhakrishna Rao

Strategic analyst specializing in aeronautics, defence, space technology and international security.

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3 thoughts on “Meaning and Message of Building Fighter Jets in India

  1. Yes, you are right that the pendulum seems to have swung the Private sector way, but the swing started in the UPA regime. Notwithstanding, why is the HAL being sidelined? Yes, it has bags of experience, but it also carries a truckload of unwanted baggage. HAL has been making the doors for Airbus; it has also been making other aircraft parts, parts for ISRO, which indicate that it can produce high quality stuff at competitive rates. But, when it come to supplying aircraft for the Armed Forces, IAF in particular, all quality control is thrown out of the window. I can quote from personal experience from as early as mid-1970s.
    The HAL has never ever stuck to time schedules or the quoted prices. It is now at the receiving end and is trying to show results. The Tejas, LUH, Strike Helicopters, Trainers, are all well behind schedule. Take the latest of the HTT-40. HAL continued with the production even when AF had asked the MoD to close production. Why..because in its heart it knew that it would be simple to convince the MoD to force the IAF to purchase the ac, the training pattern of the IAF be damned. The IJT has been accepted by the RM in Parliament as a failure with major design flaws. This was in 2014. Now in 2016 the ac is getting ready for certification! Design an ac is not child’s play..that too a trainer, which will have to be flown by rookie pilots.
    Ask any private sector to form a JV with HAL, rather than a foreign company, I would like to hear the answer. The thrust should be on the private sector, with an equal thrust on HAL to use its expertise and produce quality stuff, either on its own or in a JV with someone else. Let us not try to reinvent the wheel, let us absorb technology that exists, and then leap frog to make in India.

  2. The Indian Government should accept Lockheeds proposal, to shift the production line of the F-16IN Super Viper, to India under the ‘Make in India’ iniative. The IAF needs light single-engined Mach 2+ fighters, to replace the aging MIG-21, which are being phased out. IAF has a shortage od about 400 fighters. The advanced F-16IN Super Viper being offered to India could fill the shortage in IAF & also be exported from India to other countries. It is a win-win situation for both Lockheed, USA and HAL, India. The Indian government should grab this golden opportunity from both, LOCKHEED and BOEING to maniufacture the advanced F-16IN ‘super viper’ anf the advance F/A-18E/F ‘super hornet’ in India. THIS WILL BE A TREMENDOUS BOOST TO ‘make in india’ iniative.


    Anup Kumar Chaturvedi

  3. The communists have spoiled the work culture of the workers particularly in PSUs.. They are not interested to produce quality material and only interested in getting more money. Another problem in PSU is procurement of quality spare parts from the market. Have you made any study to find out the cause of Mig 21 failures.? My study is given below:-
    Majority of educated people do not know the functioning of the public sector production units, except those who have worked there. HAL is also not different from other units. So far as my knowledge goes all the trouble started after the disintegration of Soviet Union.In majority of the cases failures are occurring due to O rings, oil seal , springs and filters. Due to non- availability of spares from Russia. HAL might have started using indigenously manufactured items. From my experience it is not easy to get good vendors who can manufacture quality material. This is more relevant in rubber components. We still not get the same life like imported ones. In that case we have to replace after some working hours. No foreign company is willing to part with the technology of these small components which are causing failure more than any other parts. Apollo 13 failed due to O ring. In order to keep up the production target, HAL might have overhauled engines with indigenous components. It is easy to manufacture fighter planes, Locos, tanks Warships etc. But it is very difficult to maintain. For example fuel pump. Fuel pumps have many small parts O rings, valve seats , small springs and oil seal etc. In the Govt organization procurement rules are very rigid. Where as it is easy to private company. When I was working in TISCO one small part become defective and rolling mill production stopped. Within 12 hours, the spare part was air lifted from the original manufacturer. If it is in Govt. it will take months. The other day one DRO scientist told me they are not getting suitable ICS.’s.

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