Military & Aerospace

IAF’s Trainer Fleet: Need for Revamp!
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Issue Vol. 29.4 Oct-Dec 2014 | Date : 09 Feb , 2015

Intermediate Jet Trainer (IJT)

In the absence of a basic trainer, the pilot training for the first two stages was being carried out in the HJT-16 or Kiran, a HAL product which first flew in 1964 and entered service in 1968. The first IAF pilot was trained on it in June 1970. Nearly 250 Kiran variants were produced but HAL is finding it difficult to maintain the diminishing fleet (around 80 now) due to paucity of spares. The Kiran Mk II was inducted in 1989, but the Mark I and IA are much older airframes with questionable safety and airworthiness status. Flying the Kiran beyond 2015 could be hazardous. There is also the incongruity that pilots now fly the Pilatus at the basic stage and use modern sophisticated avionics in a glass cockpit and then graduate to the Kiran which is a last generation design. The IAF is constrained to continue in this ridiculous state despite having projected the need for a replacement well in time.

HAL’s HTT-40 is still far from operationalisation and is likely to be ready to enter service only by 2018…

In 1997, HAL did indeed begin work on designing an IJT to be called HJT-36 (Sitara). Two prototypes were manufactured, the first of which flew on March 07, 2003, and was christened “Sitara”. Unfortunately, the basic aircraft design weight increased, therefore, the initially selected French Larzac engine thrust was found inadequate. HAL decided to replace it with the Russian AL-55I engine. The IJT development cost was now revised to Rs 467 crore from the initial Rs 180 crore. The date for Initial Operational Clearance, earlier scheduled for March 2004, was revised to March 2007. Contract for initial 12 aircraft was signed in March 2006 at a total cost of Rs 486.82 crore. The value of the order for 73 IJT aircraft with associated spares and equipment was around Rs 6,200 crore. The heavier Russian engine has more than neutralised the additional thrust and final performance may remain in question.

There is a school of thought that it may end up close to the performance of Pilatus PC7 Mk II. IJT deliveries were to be completed by March 2010. The IAF orders were to grow in the years to come. However, to date, not a single aircraft has actually been delivered to the IAF. The project has been dogged by delays due to engine selection, flight test accidents and flying control problems. The latest news is that the IJT is afflicted with a number of serious aerodynamic problems and is overweight. Hence it would have to be redesigned. The time frame for availability of HAL’s IJT has now become uncertain. This implies that the IAF will now have to explore other options for an IJT as the Kiran fleet will run out of life in the near future and need replacement.

Besides extending the life of the Kiran beyond safe limits, another option could be the use of Pilatus PC-7 for basic and intermediate stages until HAL ultimately produces the Sitara. A variation of this option could be use of PC-9 for the intermediate stage. The PC-9 is essentially the same as PC-7 except that it has under-wing hard points for armament training. This interim measure would ensure that the substantial amount of investment made by HAL would not be wasted. However, both these options are based on the premise that the Sitara would meet the IAF’s requirements satisfactorily. Going by HAL’s track record, the probability of that happening is very low. Thus the only option that ensures that the IAF is not deprived of a safe and efficient aircraft to produce professional pilots worthy of its stature and dimension is to get a modern IJT to fill the gap between the Pilatus PC-7 and the Hawk which are already part of the training system.

The IJT development cost has now been revised to Rs 467 crore from the initial Rs 180 crore…

In this context, it may be mentioned that the Defence Consultative Committee of the Parliament has, on many occasions, raised the issue of delays in the Sitara programme and the resultant bearing on IAF’s flying training. According to a Press Release by the Defence Ministry on August 05, the Defence Minister Arun Jaitley has informed the Parliament in a written reply to a member’s question that, “HAL, which has been developing the Intermediate Jet Trainer (IJT), as a replacement for the Kiran aircraft, has not so far been able to resolve critical wing and airframe design and development issues related to stall and spin. In order to meet the emergent situation created due to inordinate delay in the IJT project, the IAF has already initiated the process for extending the technical life of the Kiran aircraft. The IAF has also initiated action to look for alternatives for the Sitara IJT.”

Indeed a Request for Information (RFI) for an IJT was issued by the Defence Ministry in February 2014. It is hoped that the interest of the IAF is kept above that of HAL and a suitable IJT is selected and inducted at the earliest hopefully before the Kiran fleet runs out of steam or their accident statistics assumes alarming proportions as in the case of the HPT-32.

Advanced Jet Trainer (AJT)

The British Aerospace (BAe) Hawk 132 was the choice for the IAF as its AJT and the order was placed in 2004 for two batches of 66 and 57 aircraft respectively. Of the total 123 Hawks, 106 are for the IAF and 17 to the Indian Navy. The first 24 aircraft were delivered directly by BAE Systems, while HAL produced the remaining 42 aircraft from the first tranche. There have been problems with spares and there was a time when the serviceability figure dropped below 75 per cent, an unusually low figure for a new machine. However, as far as the performance for its role is concerned, the aircraft has proved to be a good choice and the IAF is satisfied with it.

The time frame for availability of HAL’s IJT has now become uncertain…

Indeed, the aircraft was also selected for the IAF’s formation team, the Surya Kirans which was using the Kiran Mark II since its inception. The Hawk is also the aircraft operated since 1979 by the British Royal Air Force aerobatics team, the Red Arrows. The IAF has placed orders to 20 Hawk aircraft to equip the aerobatic team of the IAF.


The gap between the Pilatus PC 7 and the Hawk needs to be filled by a suitable replacement for the Kiran which is anachronistic and in any case on its last legs. Ideally, all the three types of trainers for the fighter stream (BTA, IJT and AJT) should have been selected keeping in mind commonality in cockpit and avionics design so that the progressive ascension through the three stages only represented incremental performance while retaining similar (if not identical) cockpit displays. However, the IAF does not have the luxury of such choices being hemmed in by a lobbying HAL and an interminable bureaucratic procurement process. Perhaps the selection of the IJT could keep this factor in mind as a desirable criterion if not an essential one.

The gap between the Pilatus PC 7 and the Hawk needs to be filled by a suitable replacement for the Kiran…

One area in which the IAF has been lethargic is the use of simulators. Modern flight simulator industry has elevated the look and feel of flight simulators to unimaginable proximity to the real. The latest CAE-built 737-800 simulator takes reality to a new level. The visual display wraps around the cockpit for 200 degrees, is 48 inches high and the high resolution visuals very close to the real thing. It is heartening to note that the IAF has ordered four simulators for the Hawk. It is to be hoped that the IJT deal also comes with an adequate number of simulators to enhance training standards, improve safety, and reduce cost on actual flying by substituting for it.

There is also a need to look at the option of the IAF assuming the role of production of the Pilatus PC 7 at one of its Base Repair Depots. A Pilatus team that inspected the facility at one of the IAF’s BRDs is confident that it will be able to produce the aircraft. The South African Air Force is already producing Pilatus trainer on its own and as per knowledgeable sources, the IAF’s facility is considered to be even better. Not only would this eliminate the constant griping about HAL’s performance but it would also reduce the cost of production considerably. One estimate pegs the cost at half that of HAL.

Flying training is the bedrock of the IAF’s professional capability and any compromise therein is a recipe for future ailments. More importantly, the frailties resulting from enervated flying training could lead to ignominious performance in the face of either of our two neighbours, never too far from the possibility of a limited skirmish, if not a large scale conflagration on our borders with them.

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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.

About the Author

Gp Capt AK Sachdev

Director - Operations, EIH Ltd.

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2 thoughts on “IAF’s Trainer Fleet: Need for Revamp!

  1. The Indian Navy has 41 ships under various stages of construction, all designed in India and all being manufactured in Indian shipyards. In contrast, IAF is slipping backwards in indigenisation. Keep in mind that it is more than 60 years since the HT-2 was designed and developed in India. Today we are importing its replacement. The big difference with the Navy is that the latter does its own design and takes active interest in the development and manufacture of its weapon systems.

    Secondly, the Kiran has served us well. It is high time we develop a Kiran Mark III with a more powerful engine, glass cockpit and modern avionics.

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