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.