HAL bags largest-ever indigenous defence procurement deal, but real test lies in honouring delivery schedule
If the company's track record is anything to go by, the speed of the project and not the capacity to manufacture LCA should raise concerns
In a major decision aimed at boosting the domestic aerospace industry, India on Wednesday approved a much-awaited deal with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) worth Rs 48,000 crore to procure 83 indigenously-developed Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas for the Indian Air Force.
The decision to procure the fleet was taken at a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said.
Touted as a 'game changer' for the domestic aviation industry, the news did provide a shot in the arm to HAL with its stocks surging by 10 percent on Thursday after the announcement of the deal. Singh commented that the move will strengthen government's self-reliance programme Atmanirbhar Bharat while commenting on HAL's capacity-building measures to ensure top of the line product. He said that 50 percent of the parts will be manufactured indigenously; this figure is expected to go up to 60 percent by the end of the programme.
R Madhavan, chairman and managing director of the HAL, said the production rate of Tejas is being augmented from eight to 16 aircraft per year through the creation of a new infrastructure in Bengaluru.
However, if the company's track record is anything to go by, the schedule of deliverables should raise concerns and not the PSU's capacity to manufacture it.
Long history with inordinate delays
The PSU was dragged into an unsavoury controversy over a deal with France's Dassault Aviation to home-produce 108 of the 126 Rafale aircraft ordered by India. The negotiations finally fell apart for reasons unknown, with the NDA-lead government eventually buying 36 aircraft in fly-away condition and blaming the HAL for the soured deal.
Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman had at the time insinuated that Dassault had refused to take responsibility of aircraft that would be produced by HAL. It insisted on signing separate contracts for 108 and 18 aircraft, India Today reported.
Stepping a little further back in time, HAL was facing criticism as its efforts to develop a basic trainer under the HTT 40 program was delayed by over five years. The HTT 40 was first promised in 2012 and the talk of procuring 106 units began in 2015. HAL rolled out the first prototype on 2 February 2016, and the production finally started only last year.
A deal for 106 aircraft was signed in August 2020, with the first batch of deliveries expected in 2022 and at least 70 aircraft expected by 2026, The Print reported. The second group of 36 aircraft will be procured after operationalisation of the HTT-40 within the Indian Air Force.
The delay in delivery of these aircraft meant that the IAF had to face a severe shortage in its fleet, forcing it to cut down on training programmes. The force currently relies on the Pilatus PC 7 turbo trainers for the first stage of training. In 2012, 75 of these aircraft were bought on an emergency basis but another deal purchase of 38 more aircraft was shelved last year as the Swiss manufacturer was facing corruption charges in the deal.
Another indigenous programme to develop an intermediate jet trainer (IJT), developed by HAL to replace the ageing Kiran aircraft fleet, was delayed by over 14 years. The project was sanctioned in July 1999 with a grant of Rs 180 crore. First powered by a French engine and then a Russian one, the aircraft was expected to get initial operational clearance by 2006 with deliveries to the IAF planned a year later. However, it only completed a crucial flight test in November last year, with no indication from IAF if it was any longer interested in ordering the aircraft, a report in Hindustan Times said.
The delay was caused reportedly after all efforts to prove the aircraft fit for service failed and HAL is believed to have consulted a US-based firm to rectify the aircraft at a cost of Rs 90 crore, The Economic Times reported.
There were similar delays in the delivery of Sukhoi 30 jets.
HAL was scheduled to deliver the last of a set of 140 Russian-origin fighters by 2014-15. But the last batch of 12 Sukhoi-30MKI fighters was delivered in 2019-20, while the delivery of another four was held up by the COVID-19 lockdown. The first squadron of the aircraft was commissioned finally in January 2020.
Delays were also reported in the overhaul of functioning Sukhois in the media. According to a New Indian Express article published in March 2019, a three-year delay on part of HAL caused over 20 SU-30 MKI fighters to be grounded.
"Initially, the schedule to complete the overhauling was 14 months but HAL wanted the time raised to 22 months. However, HAL has not been able to meet even this target as it takes around 27 months to overhaul/service one SU 30 MKI," the article states.
Every fighter jet goes for an equipment overhaul after completing 1,200 flight hours.
Air Force and Navy veterans have also criticised the PSU supposedly for its lower quality equipment and shoddy overhaul practices.
Group Captain (Retd) Murli Menon criticised the PSU's "slipshod work and slippages in the quality of overhaul and timeframes, servicing, and quality control across the board, for aircraft and equipment alike" in his article published in IPCS.
"The initial stages of the Light Combat Aircraft's (LCA) conception were world class in terms of contemporary technology and tradecraft. However, the past few decades have seen this premier aircraft manufacturer slip down the abyss and being unable to provide even basic value for money," Menon wrote.
The article was published in the wake of the Mirage 2000 crash in Bengaluru in February 2019 that killed two pilots.
Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd), in an article for The Print, blamed the lack of accountability for a 'high' failure rate of HAL projects.
"That HAL had failed to acquire adequate aircraft/engine design and production skills became evident in a number of unsuccessful or abortive aircraft projects, coupled with a history of failures (often resulting in fatalities) in the IAF’s MiG-21 fleet and other HAL products. Remarkably, neither MoD, nor the airworthiness, quality control and aviation regulatory authorities in India, have ever held HAL accountable for lapses leading to mishaps," claimed Prakash.
Another article in The Indian Express quoted anonymous sources from the IAF who said the quality of Sukhoi jets indigenously manufactured was reportedly inferior to the jets procured from Russia in fly-away condition. The sources quoted in the article claimed that they "have seen the difference in the quality of the production standard between HAL-produced aircraft and the original Russian-supplied aircraft." They said that the home-produced aircraft had an array of issues that had to be pointed out from time to time, indicating a "lack of proper quality control and lack of awareness" at HAL.
HAL defends projects, says undue criticism heaped on it to 'score points'
The HAL has, however, blamed the delays on unpaid bills by the IAF, 'liquidity issues' and bureaucratic and technical delays. It has denied the concerns about quality on 'myths and wrong notions'.
In a 2018 interview to Business World, Madhvan had blamed the delay in the Sukhoi project on hold up in technology handover from the Russian side, frequent design changes by the IAF and other technological and bureaucratic delays.
"There is some delay on LCA (Light Combat Aircraft) as FOC (Full Operation Capacity) is yet to come. Even though the order was placed with us in 2006, the IOC (Initial Operation Capability) came in 2013 from Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and that is why we could not start production. Even after IOC, there were a large number of drawing changes and amendments, and as a result we could hardly produce anything in the first two years. Now, as we try to stabilise it, FOC is going to come in December (2018). If it doesn’t, there might be problems next year (2019), as we have set up assembly lines for 16 aircraft. This was also understood by the Secretary for Defence Production. Assuming that FOC comes in December, we are also making the structure parallely — believing that there will be no more changes in the drawing. So next year, we will be able to meet the targets. In case of a delay in FOC or other complications, we may not be able to meet the target. In respect of all other platforms we are on time."
Likewise, GS Jamadagni, a former HAL official, sought to dismantle the quality control 'myth' in a 2018 article for The Hindu. Jamadagni quoted data from a 1993 government committee on fighter aircraft accident that the rate of Technical Defect (TD) accidents on fighters, trainers, helicopters and transport aircraft of HAL origin is nearly 50 percent of the rate of accidents on aircraft of non-HAL origin of comparable technology and vintage.
"It established beyond doubt that HAL-made aircraft have been superior in quality and performance to those purchased directly from the OEM. In view of this, Dassault's demand for work share guarantee does not hold any water," he writes.
Gopal Sutar, Chief of Media Communications of HAL, also denies the IAF charge of "unsatisfactory performance in the past" in an article published in The Indian Express.
“The question of quality compromise does not arise in any of the HAL products. This is raised time and again just to score points. It seems that a very few understand how quality issues are taken care of in aerospace manufacturing. Generally, the quality is built into the product in the aerospace industry, and this includes our Su 30 MKI because of the nature of the production process. Besides, HAL has consistently stood guarantee for the quality of its products with the monitoring level of quality assurance by the Government-owned Quality Assurance’s authorities as a customer’s representative. So why raise the quality issue?” Sutar was quoted as saying in the article.
The debate on the aviation behemoth's capability and the rounds of allegations between IAF and HAL are decades old. The challenges hide between the need to develop an effective defence mechanism and enhancing state-run company's capacity to help it honour it's deadline and quality commitments.
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