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.