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Atmanirbharta: Aircraft Production Ecosystem in India
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Air Marshal Anil Chopra | Date:15 Oct , 2022 0 Comments
Air Marshal Anil Chopra
Commanded a Mirage Squadron, two operational air bases and the IAF’s Flight Test Centre ASTE

The formal induction of the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) “Prachand” (Fierce) into the Indian Air Force (IAF) was done in a special ceremony presided by the Hon’ble Raksha Mantri, Shri Rajnath Singh. It was yet another long step forward for India’s defence indigenisation program. Clearly India has managed to get its aircraft production ecosystem in place on most counts. The Raksha Mantri said that self-reliance did not mean working in isolation from the rest of the world, but working in the country itself with their active participation and support. Defence Ministry notified the 3rd positive indigenisation list in April 2022 to further push Atmanirbharta Bharat (Make-in-India). The three lists till date cover 309 items which include towed artillery guns, short-range surface-to-air missiles, cruise missiles, offshore patrol vessels, next-generation corvettes, airborne early warning systems, tank engines, radars, rockets, naval utility helicopters, sensors, weapons and ammunition, anti-ship missile, anti-radiation missiles, among many more.

Aircraft building requires the highest levels of technology, higher than even space flight. Game changing technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), hypersonic, Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) all impact aerospace most. The obsolescence also sets in early.  Most countries do not easily part with aviation technologies. Therefore the greatest return on investment and achievement for a nation is in aircraft technologies. Let us assess where we stand on these counts.

Government Policy and Defence Budget Approach

In India’s annual defence budget for 2022-23, the special feature was that a sum of Rs 1.03 lakh crore ($13.7 billion), or 68% of the defence capital budget, was earmarked to be spent for acquiring only locally produced weapons and systems. This would thus give a boost to indigenous defence production. The growth oriented budget should give fillip to indigenisation or ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’. To promote local private defence industry, 25% of the defence R&D budget this year was set aside for giving to the academia, start-ups, and private industry, to encourage them for research and development of defence products and systems. The newly created seven Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs) out of the old Ordnance Factories (OF) got Rs 1,310 crore ($175 million) for their modernisation. Additionally, Rs 2,500 crore ($334 million) was set aside as Emergency Authorization Fund.

Innovations for Defence Excellence (iDEX) got Rs 60 crore. This would support improved environment for innovation and technology development by R&D institutes, academia, start- ups and innovators. Defence Testing Infrastructure Scheme (DTIS) got Rs 23 crore to create international standard testing infrastructure that can be also used by private sector to boost indigenous defence and aerospace manufacturing. Special Purpose Vehicles (SPV) will be encouraged between DRDO and private players. Private industry would also be supported for testing and certification through a nodal umbrella. Duty rates have now been re-aligned to allow ‘Make-in-India’ to be preferred. Simplified customs tariff for some items like helicopters, and some parts of aircraft etc. came into force from May 01, 2022. Similarly some of the existing exemptions on import of defence and security items will stop from of March 31, 2023. There are also proposed changes in Goods and Services Tax (GST) to make it friendly for local manufacture.

Increased defence production will also open avenues for exports and amortise costs. It will also generate jobs and support the nations target of reaching a US$ 5 trillion economy and Rs 1,75,000 crore (US$25 billion) defence production by 2025. In the high technology areas the foreign equipment manufactures would be more inclined to form Joint-Ventures (JV) and bring in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). Some of these JVs will also support defence exports. With defence manufacturing corridors already getting in place, clearly the tone and tenor of the defence budget has been to make India a defence production hub.  The Defence Acquisition Procedure, DAP 2020, is continuously being refined to improve environment for domestic industry growth.

Fighter Aircraft Production Ecosystem

Two squadrons of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) ‘Tejas’ aircraft are already flying. The more operationally capable 83 LCA Mk1A aircraft are on order and the first flight is expected later this year and deliveries will take place from 2024. The LCA two-seat variant is also being offered as a Lead in Fighter Trainer (LIFT). The Medium Weight Fighter (MWF) LCA Mk 2 design is frozen, the metal cutting is taking place and first flight is scheduled for end 2023, and the aircraft should induct in 2028 by when the Mk1A supplies would complete. The aircraft will be a 4.5 generation fighter of Rafale class. IAF requires nearly 200 LCA Mk 2 to replace the Jaguar, Mirage 2000, MiG 29 aircraft. The other LCA variant is the Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF) for Indian Navy. Significant LCA assemblies have been outsourced to the private sector. Meanwhile the rate of production needs to go up to around 24 aircraft a year for IAF to get back numbers.

The fifth-generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) Preliminary Design Review (PDR) has been completed. The Critical Design Review (CDR) is planned to be completed by end 2022. The aircraft roll-out is planned in 2024 and the first flight in 2025. The approval from Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) was initiated in March 2022 and the same is expected shortly. The physical metal cutting will start thereafter. Most parts of the airframe are being made in India. Some systems like aero-engine are still imported. There are some other avionics and airborne radar that are being made through joint-ventures with friendly foreign companies. The weapons are mostly being made in India. Sixth generation technologies are on drawing boards. It can be seen that India has finally come of age in its fighter aircraft manufacturing eco-system. Clearly it is a long way since HAL HF-24 Marut was the first indigenous fighter-bomber aircraft made in India in 1960s.

Helicopter Production – Well Placed

For many decades, HAL license built over 300 Aerospatiale SA 315B and SA 316B Lama Alouette III variants called Cheetah, Lancer, Cheetal, Chetak and Chetan. These were flown by all the three armed forces and Coast Guard, and many private operators. The big success came with the indigenous Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) “Dhruv” nearly 340 of which have been built by HAL. A few have been exported. Nearly 90 armed ALH ‘Rudra’ have been built, and 75 more are on order. IAF’s first LCH “Prachand” squadron has just been formed at Jodhpur. The Indian Army is also inducting the LCH soon. There are nearly 200 confirmed orders between the two services. The Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) is also flying. The same will also induct in all the three services in large numbers. HAL plans to produce nearly 1,000 military helicopters in the coming years. The Indian Multirole Helicopter (IMRH) is a medium-lift helicopter currently under development by HAL. It would be used for air assault, air-attack, anti-submarine, anti-surface, military transport and VIP transport roles. IMRH is aimed to replace all the current Mil Mi-17 and Mil Mi-8 helicopters of the IAF. Clearly India should not have to buy helicopters from abroad hereafter.

Transport Production – Coming up Quickly

A nearly $3 billion deal has been signed with EADS-CASA for procuring 56 C-295MW transport aircraft for the IAF, to replace the Avro 748 transport aircraft. Another six aircraft will be required by Coast Guard.  16 aircraft will come in flyaway condition. Remaining 40 will built in India by a Tata Consortium within 10 years. This will be the first time a transport an operational aircraft is being in India, and also the first time any operational aircraft is being built by an Indian private sector company. India had earlier built the HS-748 and Dornier 228 in India under license production. Indigenous Hindustan 228 variant of the Dornier are being built for civil use. Meanwhile CSIR National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) have built the 14-seat ‘Saras’ aircraft. The same is under testing. Saras Mk 2, the 19-seater version is under development. The Indian Regional Jet (IRJ) is a regional airliner being designed by India’s National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) and to be by manufactured by HAL. The aircraft is planned to be a turboprop or a jet with a capacity of 80–100 passengers. The cost of the airliner will be 20 percent lower compared to its global competitors. India is thus gearing up the transport aircraft building eco-system.

Force Multipliers – Work in Progress

‘Netra’ is the DRDO Airborne Early Warning and Control System (AEW&CS). It is built around the Embraer ERJ 145 aircraft as the platform. Three are flying. Six AEW&C based on Airbus A320 platforms acquired from Air India and to be refurbished and modified in France to IAF/DRDO specifications. Since these aircraft will be through book transfer, the cost will be just around Rs 1,100 crore for all six.  These six Airbus aircraft will be have the indigenous Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar. This project could take around 6-8 years. Meanwhile DRDO had proposed an upgraded Netra AEW&CS based on EADS CASA C-295 to the IAF as it already supports a static radar dome configuration. DRDOs old plan of Airbus A330 based AWACS system seems to have been currently postponed. Interestingly Pakistan has four Saab 2000 Erieye AEW&C in service, and four Shaanxi Y-8 ZDK-03 variants called “Karakoram Eagle”. IAF operates three EL/W-2090 Phalcon AEW&C incorporated in a Beriev A-50 platform. Two more are being acquired. Larger AEW&C built in India will greatly improve ‘Make-in-India’ capability. Considering India’s size and global ambitions, IAF should have at least 10 AEW&C aircraft of each types.

IAF currently has six Ilyushin-78 Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA), and has been in a search for six additional FRA since 2006. First two attempts got aborted due to issues related to Life Cycle Costs and processes. The contest was between Airbus A-330 MRTT, IL-78 and Boeing KC-46A. DRDO had earlier proposed to locally modify Airbus A-330 aircraft into FRA. Now the decision to convert pre-owned Civil (Passenger) aircraft into FRA with cargo and transport capabilities, by HAL will further build defence production ecosystem with new capabilities and cost-effective solutions. The MoU between HAL and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) covers support to convert from passenger to freighter aircraft along with multi mission tanker transport (MMTT) conversions. IAI has been in the business of converting old airframes for the role. The probe and drogue system is used by the IAF’s Il-78. The Flying Boom, is predominantly used by US-designed aircraft and allows for transfer of larger volumes of fuel in shorter periods of time. Indian Navy’s P-8I maritime patrol jets and IAF’s C-17 heavy transport aircraft can only be refuelled via flying boom.

Indian Private Sector Big Way in Aircraft Production

A few big private industrial houses are now well established in aircraft defence manufacturing. Tata Aerospace and Defence (Tata A&D) have been making the AH-64 Apache combat helicopter fuselage. They are also making aero-structures for Boeing’s CH-47 Chinook helicopters. All C-130Js delivered to customers around the world have major aero-structure components from India producing 24 C-130 empennages annually. Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin company, also relies on Hyderabad-based Tata Advanced System Limited (TASL) as the manufacturing base for its global supply of cabin for the S-92 helicopter. Tata group is working with GE to manufacture CFM International LEAP engine components in India. Lockheed Martin selected TASL to produce F-16 wings in India. There are many private companies making defence electronics, large aero-components, advanced technology components and sub-systems. Dynamatic Technologies makes assemblies of vertical fins for Sukhoi 30 MKI fighters. They are also supplying aero-structures to Airbus for its A320 family of aircraft and the wide-body 330 aircraft. Hyderabad’s VEM technologies manufactures centre fuselage for LCA Tejas. Many Indian MSMEs and star-ups are entering defence production.

Optionally Manned Fighters and MUMT

Unmanned Aircraft technologies are now well proven and more and more aerial tasks are now assigned to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Optionally manned aircraft are flying. Unmanned aircraft are already taking-off and landing autonomously on moving ships. Autonomous air refuelling has been tested. Unmanned stealth bombers are evolving. Coordinated drone swarms of over 1,000 drones have been flown by many countries including India. Manned Unmanned aircraft Teaming (MUMT) has been tested and operational concepts put in place. Drones are already being used for all roles including ISR, logistic delivery, armed attack against ground and aerial targets, laser lasing, and as electronic warfare and communication platforms. Large unmanned cargo platforms are under design.

In India the initial MUMT experimentation is being led by HAL with the proposed LCA based CATS in collaboration with a Bengaluru based start-up, Newspace Research & Technologies. It will involve a recoverable wingman with combat radius of 350 km. The range would increase to 800 km for a kamikaze attack on target. The proposal is to have CATS Warrior (CW), CATS Hunter (CH), CATS-Air Launched Flexible Asset (ALFA) and CATS Infinity (CI).  CW autonomous wingman drone would be capable of take-off and landing from land and in sea from an aircraft carrier, it will team up with the existing fighter platforms of the IAF like Tejas, Su-30 MKI and Jaguar which will act like its mother-ship. It has a composite structure with an internal weapon bay. It will be powered by modified HAL PTAE-7 or HAL HTFE-25 turbofan engine. The CW will also serve as a ‘sensor amplifier’ for the LCA when flying at a distance ahead. The CW would be equipped with suitable ISR/ EW payloads and will internally mount air-to-air missiles or air-to-ground weapons. The CW itself could launch up to 24 ALFA-S swarm drones. HUNTER will essentially be a wingman that flies like an air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) that carry munitions to 300 km range. After delivering payload, it will be able to return and use its parachute for landing. ALFA is a system which carries 4 swarm drones inside its container. It can be launched from a combat aircraft. Both the SU 30 MKI and the Jaguar aircraft will be capable of carrying the ALFA-S. The first flight is expected by next year with induction by the end of the decade. CATS Infinity (CI) drone is to operate at a predetermined position at extremely high altitudes (65,000ft). It would use self-generating power (solar panels) so as to remain aloft for extended periods of time (up to 3 months). It will provide enhanced real-time ISR inputs for deep-strike aerial missions. The first prototype is likely to be completed by 2025.

Drone Ecosystem – India

For long, the Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) was responsible for UAV development in India. Lakshya and Nishant had little success. Tapas MALE and Ghatak UCAV look promising. DRDO must find private partners for UAVs. Adani Elbit Advanced Systems India Limited, is a joint venture (JV) between Adani Enterprises, India and Elbit Systems, Israel. They have also setup a “Design and Development centre for Defence Technologies”. The JV’s facility in Hyderabad is the nation’s first private UAV manufacturing complex and the only Hermes 900 production facility outside Israel. Many private players including start-ups have also entered drones and counter drone manufacturing for armed forces.  In addition to Newspace Research & Technologies, other drone start-ups include Paras Aerospace, Throttle Aerospace, General Aeronautics, Redwing Labs, Dhaksha Unmanned Systems, Urban Matrix Technologies, Thanos Technologies, and Auto Micro UAS, among many others.

Major Drone events have been held in the country that were attended Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has been personally driving this capability. The private sector has thus been rightly galvanised for mid-sized drones. As per Drone Federation of India the manufacturing of drones and related systems is happening in India, but key components like battery, motor, sensors, semiconductor, GPS, and camera are still being outsourced. Select countries have developed mass production capabilities against aggregated demand of such components. India needs to get into such mass production. IAF’s Mehar Baba I competition helped identify drone swarm start-ups, and Mehar Baba II has already begun.

Microchip Technologies

Microchips are critical for all avionics, electro-optical systems, aerial weapons, DEWs, communications equipment, among others. Indigenisation is crucial for cyber and electronic warfare. There is global shortage of micro-ships. India has decided to invest large sums in their India manufacture. Secure, jam-proof data-links will be required for UAVs and for drone swarms, in addition to practically all other aviation activities.

Indigenous Aero-Engine Critical

DRDO’s Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE) has struggled to make a turbo-jet engine for many decades. There are very few aero-engine manufacturers in the world and they closely guard technologies. World over, many engines are being made by consortiums or joint-ventures. The core engine is normally the same for fast fighter jets and for large airliner engines. India has a significant market for both. Joint Venture is the only way ahead, and it could be win-win for both. India has been speaking to the French aero-engine major Safran. The cost and extent of technology transfer is apparently still an issue. India also needs small engines for UAVs and cruise missiles. There are some Bengaluru based companies into small engines. Electric and hybrid engines is where the future is. India must invest in such research also.

Advanced Weapons Approach

Precision and range are the two critical requirements for both air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons. India has a successful missile and weapons program, including the Astra, Akash, BrahMos, among others. Astra Mk 3, and BrahMos II need to be accelerated. In many cases we have partnered with Russia and Israel. The JV route is working well. Gradually, critical components like weapon sensor heads and control systems must be increasingly Indian. Hypersonic and Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) are areas of future action. These two need to be driven actively. Reusable DEW including laser and microwave, and sixth-generation missiles with longer ranges, higher survivability, and combining air-to-air and air-to-ground features are is being evolved.

Technology Road Map India

Breakthrough disruptive technologies keep changing the status quo. High-bandwidth high-speed networks, AI, quantum computing, robotics, are going to change the way air war is fought. Keeping abreast with new technologies is important. The aerial platforms must be built around modularity that will ease regular upgrades.  Artificial Intelligence (AI), smart structures, and hybrid systems will dictate the future. Demand for streaming high-quality data requires bandwidth, which involves innovating sensor/processing systems. Network-centric payload processing units enable on-board data fusion prior to sending to digital links. Gallium Nitride (GaN) is a semiconductor material that is more efficient, easier to cool, and improves reliability for radars. The Passive Aero-elastic Tailored (PAT), a uniquely designed composite wing will be lighter, more structurally efficient. It will reduce weight and conserve fuel. Hypersonic cruise, fuel cell technologies, hybrid sensors, improved human-machine interface using data analytics and bio-mimicry, combination of materials, apertures and radio frequencies that ensure survival in enemy territory are under development. Things will be build faster, better and more affordably, using 3D printing yet ensuring quality and safety standards. Additive 3D manufacture creates a world with spare parts on demand, faster maintenance and repairs, more effective electronics, and customized weapons. The development of a hypersonic aircraft would forever change ability to respond to conflict. Nano-materials will control sizes, shapes and compositions, and significantly reduce weight yet create stronger structures for air and spacecraft, and simultaneously drive down costs.

Way Ahead – Be a Major Arms Exporter

The sense of purpose with which Atmanirbharta is being driven, the defence production in India would get a major boost. According to the Defence Ministry, the indigenous content of LCA-Tejas was 75.5 by numbers and 59.7% by value of the aircraft in 2016. It planned to reach 70 percent by value in LCA Mk2, and is targeted to be 80 percent by 2030. Building the AMCA, the mid-sized regional jet, large UAV and Medium helicopter are important stages ahead.

About eight years back, our defence exports were around Rs 800 crore to Rs 900 crore and today we have hit the Rs 13,000 crore target by exporting defence items and technology to other nations. Due to PM’s Make in India pitch, by 2025 this Rs 13,000 crore export would reach nearly Rs 40,000 crore to Rs 50,000 crore. As Rakasha Mantri Rajnath Singh said, The “AmritKal” is between now and 2047, when India celebrates 100 years of independence In this period the country would not only be among the top two economies but also be among the top defence exporter.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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