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.
For a variety of reasons no other OEM applied. Alenia, for instance, expressed the view that the low fleet size of 56 “may not allow a comprehensive satisfactory industrial return oriented to a serious technology transfer.” Antonov was unable to bid on account of Ukraine’s ongoing civil war. Although a single bid is never ideal, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) is fully empowered to accept it taking into account an “existing exceptional situation”. Some analysts propose a retender. However, there is very little hope that another RFP will bring in new players, as the original one was sent to all leading aircraft manufacturers. Some OEMs lack suitable aircraft while others seem uninterested. Retendering would also mean a further delay of a year or two in the much-delayed project. In late February, the government set up an independent committee to look into various relevant issues consequent to the single-vendor situation. The committee submitted its report in the second half of March 2015. However, the DAC failed to decide the issue at its meeting held on March 28.
Make HAL Compete
A question that often arises is: Why are India’s defence aerospace needs so dependent on imports? The answer, in a nutshell, is because the domestic private sector is missing from the picture. Brazil provides a compelling example of what private industry can do. In 1969, Empresa Brasileira de Aeronáutica (Embraer) was created as a government-owned corporation. It performed desultorily for several years and was on the verge of bankruptcy by 1990. However, after its privatisation in December 1994, it quickly rose to become one of the world’s most successful aerospace OEMs.
The government does realise that if Indian aerospace is to soar, HAL’s monopoly needs to be broken…
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 government does realise that if Indian aerospace is to soar, HAL’s monopoly needs to be broken and that private industry must be able to compete with HAL on a level playing field. But HAL has been fighting tooth and tail against the Avro replacement project. It has offered instead to extend the life of the fleet, mainly by replacing the Rolls-Royce Dart engines with modern fuel-efficient ones. However, integrating a new engine with a vintage airframe presents problems of its own. Given HAL’s track record it would take several years and huge sums to execute, with little or no assurance of the outcome. And a mere engine upgrade is no panacea because the Avros are subject to numerous technical snags and low serviceability.
It is a common misconception that upgrades are cheap and quick. Nothing could be further from the truth. For instance, the HAL project to modernise the IAF’s 49 Mirage 2000 fighters will last almost ten years and reportedly cost about Rs 345 crore per aircraft. Indeed the single-vendor impasse and blind opposition to the Avro replacement project seem to have made this an open season for misconceived notions, strange proposals and curious questions.
Stranger and Stranger Still?
First off is the proposal to replace the Avro with the Multi-role Transport Aircraft (MTA). In September 2010, HAL signed an agreement with Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) to co-develop the MTA. The twin-jet is intended as replacement for the An-32RE. It may have a cruise speed of 430 knots, a range of up to 1,460 nautical miles and a payload capacity of about 18.5 tonnes. The IAF plans to order 45 aircraft initially and a follow-up order is possible.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) is questioning the wide variation between the Avro’s specifications and those of the more capable Airbus C295 aircraft…
However, the MTA programme is hugely delayed. There are doubts about the plane’s suitability for high-altitude operations and its projected costs and production schedule. Even if these sticking points are speedily resolved, its first flight is unlikely before 2019-2020 and production in meaningful numbers is doubtful before 2025. Since the need to replace the Avro is urgent, is it prudent to consider the MTA for the role?
Stranger still is the fear that the Avro replacement project might somehow stymie or conflict with the proposed Regional Transport Aircraft (RTA). The 70- to 90-seat RTA that HAL and National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) jointly plan to develop indigenously is being designed as a passenger plane, totally unsuitable for military airlift. The two projects are as different as chalk and cheese.
Recently, the DAC asked why the IAF needed a new aircraft in place of the Avro. True, the IAF can meander along for some more time with the Avro. It can forego its long overdue replacement just as it has been forced to make do without the MMRCA combat jet for so many years. Just as it continues to keep the MiG-21 flying, long after that worthy fighter should have gone into peaceful retirement. Just as it had no choice but to wait endlessly till the killer HPT-32 basic trainer was replaced by the Pilatus PC-7 Mk II.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) is also reportedly questioning the wide variation between the Avro’s specifications and those of the more capable Airbus C295 aircraft offered as its replacement. If this reasoning were applied at the higher end of the spectrum, how was the 74.8-tonne payload capacity C-17 acquired to ultimately replace the 43-tonne payload IL-76? And projecting the logic of equivalence further backward the IAF would perhaps still be stuck in the period when the 28-seat or 2.7-tonne payload capacity Douglas DC-3 Dakota was the service’s star lifter!
Besides isn’t it ironical that although the 9.25 tonne payload capacity of the C295 is considered “too much” to replace the Avro, the 18.5 tonne MTA is under serious consideration for the purpose? The IAF needs a much more capable aircraft than the Avro because its role has been dramatically expanded since the early 1960s when the Avro was first inducted. From being a mainly defensive and purely tactical air force, the IAF is well on the way to becoming a largely strategic air force with growing responsibilities that stretch far beyond the country’s boundaries. Apart from the heavy-lift capability of the transport fleet it needs to have the wherewithal for a variety of tactical options in the light-to-medium payload capacity range.
In fact, once the An-32RE retires from service, latest by 2030, the smallest tactical aircraft in the IAF’s transport fleet would be the 18.5-tonne payload capacity MTA. A smaller capacity aircraft in the five to ten tonne class would be sorely needed. If the Avro were replaced by a more versatile aircraft like the C295 with a rear-loading ramp that could fly longer distances and undertake para-dropping and ferrying vehicles and outsized cargo, it would surely be a valuable addition to the IAF’s inventory. And considering the 50-50 possibility that the MTA might not materialise at all, the aircraft that now replaces the Avro might need to be produced in far greater numbers to replace the An-32RE as well. Surely all this was part of the discussion while drafting the Qualitative Requirements (QRs) for the RFP? Yet the very need of replacing the Avro is again being questioned.
Looking Beyond the Humble Avro
Lastly, a more recent call to “prioritise” defence spending may be another shrewd way to scuttle the Avro replacement project. Prioritisation is eminently sensible in view of the country’s strained finances. But India cannot be a true aerospace power without a strong defence aerospace industry and ignoring the crying need to encourage the private aerospace industry, in the guise of prioritisation, amounts to being penny-wise pound-foolish. Indeed, the long-term strategic gain of the Avro replacement project far outweighs the necessity or otherwise of a new transport aircraft.
An alternative must be urgently found to the stranglehold that the Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs) have held over aerospace for the past half century, a reign marked by uncertain quality and huge cost and time overruns. A business-as-usual approach (“HAL can do it”) or merely increasing the Foreign Direct Investment limit will not work. The best way forward is to encourage private industry to develop a strong defence aerospace capability and compete with HAL. The Avro replacement project will enable the IAF to make a timely transition to a new and better transport aircraft. More importantly, it is a vital first step towards the meaningful participation of the private sector in defence aerospace, a move that will immediately boost “Make in India” and might ultimately help an Embraer of India emerge. Such an opportunity is unlikely to recur for a long time. It must be grabbed with both hands.