New Delhi: Indian Air Force (IAF) chief, Air Chief Marshal N A K Browne, has sugarcoated his bid to import 106 basic trainer aircraft from Pilatus Aircraft Co, by proposing that Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) build the trainers in Bangalore to blueprints supplied by the Swiss company.
HAL, which is designing its own basic trainer for the IAF - the Hindustan Turbo Trainer-40 (HTT-40) - has flatly rejected the proposal. The company has allocated Rs 130 crore of its own money to continue developing the HTT-40, which is projected to fly by 2015.
Browne's new ploy follows Defence Minister A K Antony's cold-shouldering of a letter from the IAF chief, demanding an over-the-counter purchase of 106 PC-7 Mark II trainers from Pilatus. Such a purchase would be a windfall for the Swiss company worth at least Swiss Francs 750 million (Rs 5,000 crore).
Last year, the IAF purchased 75 PC-7 Mark II trainers for 557 million Swiss Francs (Rs 3,725 crore). Pilatus has delivered at least 15 of those trainers.
When the purchase of 75 trainers from the global market was approved in 2009, it was decided that HAL would simultaneously design and build 106 trainers. But, in July, as reported first by Business Standard the IAF chief wrote to Antony, savaging HAL's proposal and recommending this order be handed to Pilatus.
In his unprecedented attack on HAL, which builds a range of aircraft for the IAF, Browne alleged the HTT-40 trainer would cost Rs 43.59 crore per aircraft, which inflation would raise to Rs 64.77 crore in 2020. Arguing for Pilatus, Browne's letter falsely claimed the PC-7 Mark II costs just Rs 30 crore per aircraft when, in fact, India was already paying Pilatus about Rs 40 crore (Swiss Francs 6.09 million) for each trainer supplied.
The IAF confirms it approached HAL to build 106 PC-7 Mark IIs under license from Pilatus, even while rubbishing HAL's ability to design and build the HTT-40. An IAF statement to Business Standard says, "IAF had invited HAL to manufacture the balance PC-7 Mk II required by IAF under license in India. However, in their own interest HAL declined to participate in license manufacture of the PC-7 Mk II."
Turned away by HAL, Browne bizarrely claimed during the Air Force Day functions on October 8 that the IAF's base repair depots (BRDs) - set up to maintain and overhaul aircraft and engines - could also build aircraft. The IAF chief declared, "The 14 base repair depots (BRDs) have grown in both capability and capacity in a manner that the day is not far when it will be able to develop its own medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA)."
A reality check was quickly provided by the IAF's maintenance chief, Air Marshal
P Kanakaraj, who admitted that assembling aircraft "(would) be a quantum jump in the working of the maintenance command… We are bound to make mistakes initially, so pilot-less aircraft are an ideal platform to start off."
Asked to comment on whether BRDs would now build Pilatus trainers, the IAF responded: "No decision has been taken on manufacturing the trainer aircraft in Base Repair Depot. As and when any decision is taken at a later stage, you would be informed."
Meanwhile, the IAF is squeezing HAL to reflect a higher price for the HTT-40. At a recent meeting in HAL Bangalore, Air Marshal Fernandes flew down from Air Headquarters in New Delhi to demand that a slew of inputs, including the cost of development, be factored into the cost.
Ironically, the IAF glosses over the most compelling argument for an indigenous trainer - the cost of spares, maintenance, overhauls and upgrades during 40 years of operational service. These "life-cycle costs", which add up to at least thrice the procurement cost of an aircraft, would be significantly higher in the case of Pilatus, also creating a dependency on the continuation of the Pilatus manufacturing line.
Business Standard has also highlighted the murkiness around the decision to award Pilatus the contract. A range of crucial performance benchmarks were diluted by the IAF after it was decided to buy 75 trainers from the global market, even as HAL developed 106 trainers. Diluting these benchmarks made the PC-7 Mark II eligible for purchase.
The IAF, which pushed through the proposal to import 75 trainers while HAL designed and built 106 HTT-40s now argues that operating two different types of trainers would complicate administration and logistics.