By Ajai Shukla
In a sharp rebuff to Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), the ministry of defence (MoD) has rejected the public sector aerospace company’s proposal to build basic trainer aircraft for the Indian Air Force (IAF). This comes after the MoD discovered that HAL-built trainers would cost twice as much as proven aircraft procured from the international market.
After a fatal crash in July 2009, the IAF had grounded its entire basic trainer fleet of vintage HPT-32 Deepak aircraft. To train rookie pilots, the IAF initiated a fast-track procurement of 75 trainers on the international market. Sensing an opportunity, HAL entered the fray, proposing it develop an indigenous trainer aircraft, dubbed the Hindustan Turbo Trainer - 40 (HTT-40), and manufacture 106 of those for the IAF.
But when the MoD compared prices, it found that thousands of crore extra would be paid for HAL-built trainers. In September, the MoD summarily scrapped HAL’s proposal to build the HTT-40.
“Why should we pay HAL Rs 60 crore per basic trainer, when we can buy proven trainers from abroad for Rs 30 crore?” an MoD official told Business Standard.
“We would be willing to pay higher rates to build indigenous capability in strategic defence equipment. But can HAL argue that the capability to build basic trainers is strategically vital,” noted the official.
On May 24, 2012, the MoD signed a contract with Swiss aerospace manufacturer, Pilatus Aircraft Ltd, to buy 75 PC-7 Mark II basic trainers for some Rs 2,900 crore, defence minister AK Antony told parliament in August.
Now, with HAL’s proposal to build 106 trainers rejected, as many as 181 Pilatus trainers may be bought.
Contacted for comments, HAL did not deny its trainer aircraft project had been shot down. “We treat all MOD issues/proposals as confidential… All our projects are conceived with national interest in mind though, at times, some of those take time to fructify,” responded a HAL spokesperson by email.
But HAL continues to dabble, so far unsuccessfully, in developing a trainer. Its long-running project to build an Intermediate Jet Trainer (IJT) has sputtered along for 13 years already. The IJT project —which had its first flight in 2003 — underwent a serious setback last year when a trainer crashed, fortunately without loss of life.
The IJT, to which pilots will graduate after completing “Stage-1” training on the Pilatus PC-7 Mark II trainer, is intended to replace the obsolescent Kiran Mark II. After “Stage-2” training on the IJT, pilots will graduate to “Stage-3” training on the Hawk advanced jet trainer. Only after that will they fly IAF frontline combat aircraft.
The decision to buy the Pilatus PC-7 Mark II has had its own share of controversy. One of the contenders for this contract, Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), protested in writing that Pilatus should be disqualified, as it had submitted an incomplete bid. That would have given KAI the contract, as the next-cheapest, fully-compliant bidder. For ten months, the contract was on hold as the MoD investigated KAI’s complaint.
Seoul piled on the pressure, with South Korean defence minister, Kim Kwan-jin, personally writing to Antony requesting a “high-level review” of the “allegations on irregularity” in the deal. But that did not work. On May 2, 2012, Antony informed Parliament that KAI’s petition “has been found to be devoid of merit.”
The Pilatus PC-7 Mark II is expected to overcome key drawbacks in the HPT-32, which did not have an ejection system; in emergencies, pilots ejected manually. Poor instrumentation and avionics restricted training to good weather. The HPT-32 had no recording equipment, so instructors never knew when trainee pilots, flying solo, had violated flying procedures. The PC-7 Mark II is capable of aerobatics, instrument and night flying and tactical operations. It is a hybrid aircraft, with a PC-9 airframe mated with a smaller, PC-7 engine to lower procurement, flying and maintenance costs. It is in service with several air forces, including South Africa and Malaysia.