Till now, India’s defence aerospace industry has been the preserve of HAL. And HAL’s performance has been lacklustre, to put it mildly. Private sector participation will attract foreign manufacturers to form strategic partnerships with local companies. It will introduce some competition for HAL that will hopefully encourage it to pull up its socks. In the long term, it will surely boost domestic aerospace capability and promote exports. The Avro replacement programme seems ideal as an entry-level exercise. Since the foreign OEM must select the IPA and ensure increasing indigenisation, yet assume near-total responsibility for quality and delivery schedules, the success of the project is assured. It is also perfectly timed since no other fixed-wing fleet is expected to fall due for replacement for another decade or more that is within the capability of private industry to manufacture.
The precipitate drop in the combat strength of the Indian Air Force (IAF) continues to make headlines, and rightly so. The much-delayed Tejas, the elusive Rafale and the uncertain Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) are cause for concern if not alarm. However, this preoccupation with the fighter fleet tends to obscure some of the problems that the transport and helicopter arms face. Thankfully, the IAF’s transport fleet is in far better shape today than it has been for ages, primarily due to the induction of two exceedingly capable aircraft, the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III and the Lockheed Martin C-130J-30 Super Hercules. The Antonov An-32 light tactical transport is also undergoing extensive refurbishment and seems set to remain the workhorse of the fleet for the next 10 or 15 years.
The IAF has been finding it increasingly difficult to maintain the Avro fleet…
That is why the failure to attend to the ageing Avro is vexing. Indeed, the issues raised by the proposed project to replace the HS 748 Avro, manufactured under licence by the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), go far beyond the obvious need for a new tactical transport aircraft for the IAF. They concern the very future of the country’s aerospace industry in the defence sector.
State of the Fleet
Here is a snapshot of the IAF’s transport assets.
Boeing C-17 Globemaster III. Ten of these heavy-lift aircraft were purchased under a $4.1 billion deal dating to 2011. They equip 81 Skylord Squadron based at Air Force Station Hindan. With a payload capacity of 74.8 tonnes, the C-17 is a strategic leap forward for the IAF. The giant four-engine jet has a range of 2,400 nautical miles without refuelling. Ideally another six C-17s should be bought so that the IAF will have enough heavy-lift aircraft till mid-century or beyond. However, the window of opportunity is fast closing since Boeing will cease C-17 production in June, leaving just eight to ten unsold “white tails” available.
Ilyushin IL-76MD. The IAF began inducting its four-engine IL-76MD jets in1985. With their 43-tonne payload capacity these were for long the IAF’s heavy-lift champions. Although 17 aircraft remain on strength, the fleet is plagued by lack of spares and poor serviceability and only eight to ten aircraft are thought to be airworthy. They will continue in service for a few more years, supplementing the C-17s.
Lockheed Martin C-130J-30 Super Hercules. In 2008, a $1.2 billion contract was concluded to procure six C-130J-30 tactical transport aircraft for the IAF. This four-engine turboprop with a payload capacity of 19 tonnes or 92 fully equipped troops is the world’s most widely used military transport. The IAF’s C-130J-30s equip 77 Veiled Vipers Squadron also at Hindan. The fleet customised for Special Operations, for which the service lacked a dedicated platform thus far. One aircraft was unfortunately lost in March 2014. However, the government has authorised the purchase of one Super Hercules as replacement. Besides, another six are due for delivery starting 2017 and these are expected to be based at Panagarh, West Bengal. The fleet of 12 aircraft should be adequate to meet the IAF’s Special Operations requirements as also augment its heavy-lift capability.
HAL has been fighting tooth and tail against the Avro replacement project…
Antonov An-32. The twin-turboprop An-32s, stalwarts of the IAF’s transport fleet, were inducted between 1984 and 1991. Plunging serviceability over the past few years necessitated the signing of a $313.3-million agreement to upgrade the remaining 104 aircraft to An-32RE standard. Apart from increasing the An-32’s operational life from 25 to 40 years, the project includes advanced avionics, cockpit modification and noise and vibration reduction. The payload capacity is also being enhanced from 6.7 to 7.5 tonnes. However, the last five of 40 aircraft undergoing upgrade in Ukraine are reportedly stranded due to the conflict in that country. The balance 64 aircraft are due to be upgraded at the IAF’s No 1 Base Repair Depot at Kanpur by 2017-2018. But unless the situation in Ukraine is resolved, lack of adequate technical support and shortage of spares could mean slow progress.
Hawker Siddeley/HAL HS 748 Avro. The 5.1-tonne payload capacity HS 748 Avro is a medium-sized twin-turboprop airliner originally designed by the British firm Avro in the late 1950s. From the early 1960s onwards, they were licence-produced in India by HAL. HAL built 89 Avros, 72 for the IAF and 17 for Indian Airlines. The last aircraft was manufactured in 1988. About 56 planes remain in IAF service, employed primarily for troop transport, communication, load-lift tasks and training.
Dornier Do-228. The Do-228 twin-turboprop light utility aircraft was acquired from 1988 onwards. Recently, HAL bagged a contract to supply 14 more Do-228s to the IAF, to add to the existing fleet of 40 aircraft. The fleet is in fairly good shape and should last beyond 2030.
Overall, the IAF’s strategic airlift capability has witnessed a significant surge in recent years. Gone are the days when a handful of IL-76s had to shoulder the entire heavy-lift burden of the IAF. However, a purely strategic force cannot meet the range of contingencies that may warrant the use of air power. A balanced fleet, in which heavy-lift, medium and light aircraft feature, is essential. Indeed, the majority of routine transport missions fall within the purview of tactical aircraft. If medium and light aircraft are inadequate, larger and costlier planes will have to be used to transport loads more suited to a tactical airlifter. So while the total airlift capability of the IAF has undoubtedly increased, the fleet is getting skewed towards the heavier end.
Why are India’s defence aerospace needs so dependent on imports…?
The Avro Replacement Project: A Tortuous Tale
For many years now the IAF has been finding it increasingly difficult to maintain the Avro fleet. Serviceability is low and technical snags are frequent. The aircraft are effectively obsolete. It was initially proposed to buy a replacement from the global market since no company manufactures such planes in India. HAL was the only possibility as an indigenous manufacturer but in view of its heavy commitment towards a large number of vital programmes, this was not considered feasible. Besides, it was recognised early on that replacing the Avro might be a right-sized debut project for private industry.
Accordingly, a Request For Proposal (RFP) for this project, estimated at about $2.5 billion, was issued to several global Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) on May 08, 2013. These included Casa/EADS, now renamed Airbus Military (Spain), Saab (Sweden), Alenia Aermacchi (Italy), Boeing and Lockheed Martin (United States), Antonov (Ukraine), Ilyushin (Russia) and Embraer (Brazil). The RFP specified that the aircraft would be purchased from the foreign OEM which had to nominate an Indian Production Agency (IPA) and choose other suppliers within the country. The first 16 aircraft would be bought off-the-shelf while 40 must be produced in India with indigenous content pegged at 30 per cent for the first 16 and 60 per cent for the remaining 24 planes. An obligation to provide lifetime product support and maintenance was included. It was envisaged that the project would also help private industry gain competence in Transfer of Technology (ToT). Although the foreign OEM would be the main contractor with ultimate responsibility, the private parties involved could build upon the capability thus acquired and take part independently in more complex programmes later.
However, the project was repeatedly delayed. The last date for submitting bids was extended from October 08 to December 08, 2013, after some OEMs requested for more time. Next, the then Minister for Heavy Industries Praful Patel wanted that public sector undertakings be allowed to participate alongside the private sector. Although this demand flew in the face of the basic intention to give private industry a chance, the government succumbed to pressure and again postponed the date to March 08, 2014. Later, last year’s general election came in handy for further procrastination in decision making.
One point that emerged was that the small number of 40 aircraft to be produced indigenously might not make the project viable for private investment. Unfortunately the government did not step in and clarify that there might be substantial demand from the para-military forces later and that exports too would be permissible on a case-by-case basis. Since the present government wishes to promote defence exports, the new aircraft should have bright prospects overseas.
Finally only one vendor emerged on October 22, 2014 – with the Tata-Airbus consortium, Airbus Defence & Space and Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL), offering the Airbus C295. According to the bid, Airbus, one of the world’s foremost aircraft OEMs will supply 16 C295s in flyaway condition and TASL, part of India’s iconic Tata Group as the IPA for the programme, will manufacture/assemble the remaining 40 in India. TASL will undertake structural assembly, final aircraft assembly, systems integration and testing, management of the indigenous supply chain and other responsibilities.
So what is the platform on offer? The C295 is a combat-proven high-performing medium transport aircraft. With a maximum take-off weight of 23,200 kg, cruise speed of 480 kmph and range of 1,300 km at maximum payload, it carries 71 troops or a payload of 9.25 tonnes. Powered by two Pratt & Whitney PW-127G turboprop engines, it is designed for tactical airlift, search-and-rescue, maritime patrol and environmental surveillance missions. It is a high-wing, rear-loader transport that enables easy loading of mission pallets, passengers, cargo and litters for medical evacuation, communication and logistic duties or paratrooper operations. It has proved cost-efficient to operate and offers large savings over comparable aircraft over its service life.