Time for a hard look at the aviation industry
India has steadfastly refused to review the organisational model of the MoD, which remains frozen in time. Therefore, the inter-service rivalry results in wasteful duplications and a military-industrial complex that is only accountable to its bureaucratic masters and not to the ultimate users
OVER the past few months, a raging controversy has gathered steam involving the Indian Air Force and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) being a mute spectator. The genesis of the case is the grounding in 2009, of the HAL built HPT 32 trainer aircraft that was being used by the IAF for basic training of its pilots, due to repeated accidents and HAL’s inability to arrive at solutions.
…the IAF will be compelled to resort to an ad hoc training system, which will have a negative opportunity cost attached to it, in terms of a weaker training foundation.
At the time the then Chief of Air Staff had said that the aircraft fleet had experienced 108 engine failures and mishaps resulting in 23 fatalities. A fatal accident involving two experienced flying instructors broke the proverbial camel’s back, leading to the final grounding of the aircraft. It also left the IAF without a basic trainer aircraft, which is a critical tool in laying the foundation on which is based the future mental and operational potential of any military pilot.
To fill this deep void, the MoD cleared the acquisition of 181 basic trainer aircraft in 2009 with immediate import of 75 aircraft and the remaining 106 to be made up of the proposed indigenous HAL design, the HTT 40. Consequently an order was placed for the purchase of 75 Pilatus PC II from Switzerland through import and the initial batch of Pilatus trainers has since been received. After a gap of over four years, the IAF will be settling down to an established training pattern for at least part of the trainees whose number will progressively grow as the number of trainer aircraft increases.
In the interim, the IAF will be compelled to resort to an ad hoc training system, which will have a negative opportunity cost attached to it, in terms of a weaker training foundation. This, though unquantifiable, will no doubt reflect on both operational capability and safety record of the IAF in times to come.
As reported, the IAF is keen that the MoD exercises the option clause in the Pilatus contract to procure another 36 aircraft with the shortfall of the remaining 70 trainers also to be made through later purchases of this aircraft. If this proposal is accepted by the MOD, it will sound the death knell of HAL’s HTT 40 project.
As warfare and technology have evolved, they have continued to develop organisational models for not just their armed forces, but also found the right balance for interfacing with the complex aerospace business…
Not unnaturally, HAL is unhappy with this development. The spark, which seems to have ignited this open fight, is a purported letter by the Air Chief to the Defence Minister in support of the IAF’s proposal, including the supposed cost benefits of importing the aircraft. Those against closing of the HAL project are not only questioning the cost benefit argument, but casting indirect aspersions on the very integrity of the IAF by hints of import preference and undue favoritism.
That the current spat is being played out in the public domain is unfortunate since both the organisations come directly under the defence ministry. It is not this writer’s case to wade into the details of the arguments on either side of the present controversy, but to look at the larger picture of why the perennial love-hate relationship between IAF and HAL never seems to die. The debate on whose view should prevail is by no means new.
The IAF is often accused both by HAL and the Defence Research and Development Organisation of changing staff requirements mid-stream, of being pro-import and against self-reliance in their choice of platforms and systems. The IAF’s grouse is that HAL and DRDO are given first lien on meeting their requirements based on inflated claims and then failing to meet these commitments of performance, time frames and costs.
Parameters of the debate may differ but they are of little consequence until the national security establishment is able to define its priorities. The fundamental question that arises is whether our defense research and development and production are there to serve the needs of the armed forces or is it that the armed forces must play second fiddle to sustain a military industrial complex that is bureaucratically driven with an archaic mindset out of tune with the technological and commercial realities of today.
If we look to some of the industrialised countries that run very successful aerospace industries and who are the benefactors of obtaining our contracts, it is evident that their countries have arrived at a unique model for managing this dilemma. As warfare and technology have evolved, they have continued to develop organisational models for not just their armed forces, but also found the right balance for interfacing with the complex aerospace business in a way that serves the needs of the armed forces and also the commercial and strategic interests of the industry and the national economy itself.
Today HAL is one of the largest aerospace companies in Asia with the IAF as its captive customer.
Unfortunately we, in India, have steadfastly refused to review the organisational model of the MoD, which remains frozen in time. We are hence witness to inter service rivalry that results in wasteful duplications and a military-industrial complex that is only accountable to its bureaucratic masters and not to the ultimate users. The MoD becomes the arbiter in disputes like the present one and with no professionals within it to guide it; every thing comes down to personalities and ad hocism. Since there is neither an aerospace vision nor strategy, we are condemned to continuing imports and licence manufacture. This can then be blamed on the IAF!
Today HAL is one of the largest aerospace companies in Asia with the IAF as its captive customer. It is no exaggeration to say that the IAF and HAL are locked in an embrace from which neither can disengage without delivering a mortal blow to the other. But rather than promoting cohesiveness and mutual support and add the Air Officer-in-Charge Maintenance to the HAL’s board along with the Deputy Chief of Air Staff, one finds that even the Deputy Chief of the Air Staff has been taken off the board and relegated to the position of a permanent invitee.
No aerospace company in the world today attempts to cover every aerospace activity as does HAL. The last known was probably the erstwhile Soviet Union where some of their aircraft factories were reduced to making domestic goods! Also no aerospace company in the world attempts to be totally self-reliant because technologies needed are diverse and need cross linkages to be dynamic, efficient and economical.
The time has now come for the government to take a hard look at how our entire aerospace industry is being organised and managed.
The time has now come for the government to take a hard look at how our entire aerospace industry is being organised and managed. It should devise a national aeronautics policy that caters to the requirements of all the stakeholders duly harmonised where necessary and put in place an aeronautics commission along with a dedicated department of aeronautics and supporting institutional bodies. These should be tasked with strategising and achieving the scientific, technological and industrial goals in furtherance of this policy. A proposal to this effect was first mooted by the Aeronautical Society of India under the presidentship of Dr APJ Abdul Kalam and later modified and submitted to the government in 2004. This writer recalls being part of the initiative. It would be worth opening this for serious debate and implementation.
In the meantime, is it too much to hope for the MoD and HAL to focus on the bigger challenges facing the military-industrial complex and not grudge the IAF having its small way in getting a basic trainer of it’s choice? In the larger interest of the future combat potential and safety of our pilots, is this not the morally upright decision for our Defence Minister to take?
Courtesy: The Tribune.