(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
September 19, 2010
SELF-RELIANCE IN REVERSE GEAR
WHAT do you say when one of the developing world’s leading industrial and technological nations, an emerging Asian giant knocking on the doors of global power status, goes shopping for the most rudimentary of aircraft? And this when the nation has a huge state-sector aircraft manufacturing industry, among the largest in the world, coupled with an impressive (at least on paper) design development capability poised to take on challenges in fourth and even fifth generation fighter aircraft? Well, what one says is that the story of the Indian aircraft industry is one of self-reliance now fully in reverse gear --- at its best a story of incompetence and mismanagement, and at its worst a massive con job even in the vital defence sector.
The defence ministry announced last week that trials were about to commence in Jamnagar in Gujarat for evaluating six rival contenders for an Indian Air Force order for 75 Basic Trainer aircraft with a possible additional 106 aircraft to be manufactured by the defence PSU Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) through technology transfer. The ministry’s “request for proposal” (RFP) calls for bids for “recently certified aircraft,” indicating that the IAF wants these trainer aircraft to remain in its inventory for around two to three decades.
The crisis in Trainer aircraft has been in the making for many years, and advanced planning could have averted it while also promoting indigenous capability and self-reliance.
Fighter pilots are trained in stages, each stage calling for a more advanced type of aircraft. The Stage-1 basic or ab initio training, in which a recruit first learns how to fly, is conducted in a Basic Trainer, usually a light propeller aircraft but with good aerobatic capabilities so that the rookie pilot can be put through his or her paces over a fairly wide range. Stage-2 or intermediate training is done on a jet aircraft which takes pilot capability to the next level, whereas Stage-3 training is done on an Advanced Jet Trainer which prepares the pilot for the faster and more demanding fighter aircraft actually to be flown into action. Each type of such active-service aircraft also has its own trainer version.
The massive and tragic upsurge in MiG-21 crashes and the loss of young pilots’ lives in the 1990s happened not because the aircraft were “flying coffins,” as largely uninformed critics had unfairly labelled them, but because young pilots were sent out to fly MiGs with inadequate preparedness due to the lack of AJTs with the IAF. The pilots were forced to leap from HAL’s HJT-16 (Hindustan Jet Trainer) ‘Kiran’ Stage-2 Trainers into the fast and demanding MiG-21s. Despite full knowledge of this problem over more than a decade, no steps had been taken to indigenously build an advanced trainer, criminally ignoring the deaths of so many young pilots and the longer term issue of building design development capability. Even acquisitions were inordinately delayed. Discussions about the Hawk AJTs went on aimlessly for close to two decades, and that sorry chapter was at last closed with the Hawk acquisition in 2008, although at much higher costs in both money and lives.
The crisis in
to a flashpoint when a safety team ordered the total grounding of the
100-strong Basic Trainer fleet of HPT-32s (Hindustan Piston Trainer).
came after the latest in a long series of crashes in Medak in July
killing both the experienced trainer pilots of the
The defence ministry was left with no option but to approve a fast-track acquisition of proven Basic Trainers from the international market. Not for the first time, one may add. Repeatedly the aircraft industry boffins, defence ministry bureaucrats and an ignorant or uncaring political leadership have slept over the shortages. They have failed to build up self-reliant capability through the many technology transfer and license manufacture agreements, did not develop the indigenous upgrades or replacements, and dilly-dallied over essential acquisitions. And finally, when severe force depletion in the IAF has reached its worst and bargaining position is at its weakest, they have gone in for massive foreign acquisitions at exorbitant costs, killing domestic capability in the process.
One may condone the acquisitions of some high-end aircraft along with some license manufacturing, certainly as part of an overall process of indigenous capacity building while maintaining and augmenting defence capability. But can there be any excuse in the case of simple propeller driven aircraft which nowadays are even sold abroad in kit form?
Trainer aircraft is one area in which the Indian aircraft industry has had reasonable successes. The HPT-32 ‘Deepak’ had been designed and built in HAL in the 1970s --- at a time when at least some effort at building a self-reliant capability was being made. The HJT-16 ‘Kiran’ intermediate jet trainer, made in the 1960s, has been a reliable and consistent if unspectacular performer for the IAF and remains even today the mainstay of the IAF’s Stage-2 training. Its successor --- the HJT-36 ‘Sitara’ --- is undergoing prototype development and had its maiden test flight in 2009 but its future has been somewhat clouded by two crashes, one during the prestigious Aero India 2007 air show in Bangalore. Anyway, that is another story; let us now get back to the HPT-32 Basic trainer.
The simple propeller-driven plane was powered by the venerable US-made AVCO Lycoming O-540 series engine which also powered many popular aircraft internationally for decades. From the very start, however, there were problems with the aircraft-engine combination in the HPT-32, especially in fuel supply under certain conditions, which, combined with the total inability of the aircraft to glide even short distances in the absence of power, rendered it extremely vulnerable.
Over the years, over 70 HPT-32 accidents occurred and the IAF lost 19 pilots in 17 crashes due to engine failures and fuel transmission problems. HAL’s attempts to tinker with the engine proved to be a cure worse than the disease, so much so that Lycoming refused to re-enter the picture unless the myriad modifications made were first undone, an impossible job! The grounding of the HPT-32s has completely crippled the IAF’s training programme. The IAF and defence ministry were so desperate that they are even considering the extreme measure of retro-fitting parachutes to the entire aircraft, a highly dubious scheme being quite doubtful.
As it usually does, HAL did indeed make noises over the years, claiming to be developing a new and better Basic Trainer to replace the ageing and problematic HPT-32. True to form, none of these came to fruition. Indeed the efforts, if any, were not more than a smokescreen.
Farnborough International Air Show in 1984, HAL unveiled a prototype of
HTT-34 (Hindustan Turbo-Trainer) which was meant to be an upgraded
the HPT-32. The HTT-34 airframe, which was only a slightly modified
the HPT-32, was fitted with an Allison 250 series turboprop engine. HAL
out a pre-production prototype in
As late as in 2009, HAL declared its intention to “co-develop” a new HTT-40 Basic Trainer along with a foreign partner, and even put out “requests for information” (RFI) in March 2010 for engines and compatible propellers. Senior HAL officials told the press that whereas it would take four to five years to develop a Trainer on its own --- why it had not done so in over two decades being besides the point --- roping in an established partner who has already designed a similar trainer would not only shorten the time frame but also offer the IAF a top-of-the-line product. HAL spokespersons said they hoped to finalise the trainer’s specifications and our partner by March 2010.
It now appears that the fiction of this “indigenous” Trainer continues to be maintained. Even the current Basic Trainer acquisition is being touted as an order for 75 bought-out aircraft while a further 106 aircraft would be “co-developed” with the HAL. Clearly, this is only poor camouflage for the fact that 75 aircraft would be purchased outright while the remaining 106 would be manufactured in HAL under license and simply re-christened HTT-40!
The six aircraft being tried out in Jamnagar are the Grob 120 TP from Germany (see photo), Embraer EMB 312 ‘Super Tucano’ from Brazil, the KT-1 from Korean Aerospace Industries, Pilatus PC-7 from Switzerland and the Finmeccanica M-311 of Italy.
In the opinion of this writer, the frontrunner on merits should be the German Grob 120 TP, while the Italian M-311 should not have been included in the trials in the first place since it is a jet aircraft not suitable as an ab initio trainer.
The Grob is
should take note
of the fact that, yet again,