India’s aviation industry traces its roots to December 1940, when industrialist Seth Walchand Hirachand (1882-1953) established Hindustan Aircraft Limited (HAL) in Bangalore, with American technical assistance and capital and land provided by the Mysore government. Soon after outbreak of WW II, the Government of India (GoI), realizing the strategic significance of this enterprise, bought a one-third stake in HAL.
With a retired, RAF Air Marshal, as its first Director, HAL had barely started licenced production, when it was nationalised, in 1943, and handed over to the US Army Air Forces. Functioning as an Aircraft Maintenance Depot, HAL repaired and serviced hundreds of flying boats, fighters, bombers and transport aircraft for the USAAF during the war. Bangalore, thus, became the hub of aviation industrial support to Allied forces deployed in the SE Asia Command, and produced thousands of aeronautical technicians.
Soon after independence, HAL’s Chief Designer, the eminent aeronautical engineer Dr VM Ghatage, boldly embarked on three aircraft design projects: each of them attaining a substantial degree of success. Thus, over the next decade, HAL manufactured more than 400 Ghatage-designed aircraft, namely: the HT-2 basic trainer for the IAF, the Krishak observation aircraft for the Army and the Pushpak light-aircraft for civil aviation. Dr Ghatage’s last outstanding achievement was design of the HJT-16, Kiran, jet trainer, of which 190 were built and served the IAF for nearly three decades.
HAL’s crowning glory, however, came in June 1961 with the flight of the HF-24, Marut, the first jet fighter-bomber, designed and built in Asia. The GoI, in a rare flash of inspiration, had acquired the services of WW II German designer Dr Kurt Tank, in 1956, to help HAL design a jet fighter. An aerodynamically elegant design, the Marut had huge potential as a supersonic fighter, but powered by two, small British Orpheus turbo-jets its performance remained sub-sonic and sub-par.
It is disheartening to note that having initiated a far-sighted project, both the GoI, and HAL failed to display the vision and zeal necessary to salvage this national endeavour, of strategic importance. The IAF, too, remained a mute spectator, as HAL shut the Marut line after delivering just 147 aircraft.
Apart from the Marut, HAL has, since the 1950s, undertaken production of (an estimated) 3000 aircraft, including types like the Vampire, MiG-21, MiG-27, Jaguar, Sukhoi-30 and Hawk. The company has also built a few thousand aero-engines. These statistics, however, refer only to ‘kit-assembly’ or ‘licenced production’, and disappointingly, the HAL management failed to acquire, for its personnel, any aircraft/engine design and production skills. So, when the time came for modernizing 125 ‘HAL-built’ MiG-21s, India had to approach Russia and Israel.
This brings us to the well-known saga of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), Tejas, designed by DRDO’s Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), and now under production in HAL. A CAG report of 2015 reads, “LCA was required to be inducted into IAF by 1994…the programme was riddled with delays right from the sanction of 1983, and even after three decades, it is yet to be inducted into IAF.” Further, it says, “Though ADA claimed achievement of 70% indigenisation; half of these sub-systems are developed with imported electronic components and accessories etc.”
The Tejas was ‘notionally’ inducted into service in 2016, but no lessons had been learnt from the aborted Marut project. Once again, all agencies involved – the GoI, DRDO and HAL – showed a lackadaisical approach, by failing to resolutely address hurdles that cropped up, and the prestigious LCA programme languished. As for the IAF, this 2015 CAG comment describes its indifference; “User involvement right from inception is essential for effective and efficient completion of any project. However, active Air HQ participation in the LCA Programme started only in 2006 (23 years after inception).”
A project, complementary to the LCA, taken up by the DRDO, was the development of a turbo-jet engine. Initiated in 1986, thirty-two years of irresolute project-management and sporadic development have seen the prototype, named ‘Kaveri’, yet to qualify for production. Without casting any aspersions, it is clearly a combination of absent political vision and direction, combined with insipid project-management that has thwarted most of our aeronautical programmes. We must introspect how, starting from a similar base in the 1950s, the aeronautical industries of China, Brazil, South Korea and Turkey, have left India miles behind? More importantly, should we persevere with the same unsuccessful model forever? Not if we take a leaf out of the Indian Navy’s (IN) book.
The navy’s leadership’s, having persuaded the GoI, in 1960, to embark on indigenous warship building, insisted on taking full ‘ownership’ of naval ship-design and construction, as well as management of all shipyards. This has seen a hugely successful programme, delivering warships, ranging from patrol-boats, frigates and destroyers to submarines and aircraft-carriers to the IN. The success of the DRDO-funded nuclear submarine project, too, is attributable to the fact that it is staffed by IN personnel and headed by a Vice Admiral, granted powers of Secretary to the GoI. Two excellent lessons emerge from the navy’s rewarding shipbuilding experience, for application to India’s aeronautical industry.
Firstly, the GoI must mandate intimate involvement of user Service(s) in every project; from the concept/design stage onwards. It is significant that a few years ago, Army, Navy and Air Force members on the HAL Board of Directors were ejected to make place for MoD bureaucrats. In the recommended model, the user must commit funds as well as personnel, to the project. Decisions related to project-management, including design and other changes would be taken, expeditiously, in a collegiate fashion by users and designers.
Secondly, repeated ‘heartbreaks’ have demonstrated that rapid decision-making and imaginative project-management are not the forte of scientists or bureaucrats. The GoI must, therefore bring about a paradigm-shift and utilize the huge pool of technical experience and leadership-talent available in the armed-forces, to place suitably qualified officers in the driving-seat of projects considered critical for national security.