Above: A weaponised Dhruv painted in display colours at Aero India 09
Left: A Tejas LCA taxi-ing out for an aerobatics display at Aero India 09
by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 19th Feb 09
The recent Aero India 2009 exposition in Bangalore highlighted the successes, as well as the challenges, lying ahead for Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), India’s only major aeronautical developer and manufacturer. On the plus side is the growing acceptance of HAL’s flagship Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH). India’s military has ordered 159 Dhruvs and the air show marked HAL’s first success in a global tender with the delivery of 5 Dhruv helicopters to Ecuador. The Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) also demonstrated, with an exhilarating display of aerobatics, that it has overcome many of the challenges that had stalled it for decades.
One swallow, however, or even two swallows as in this case, do not a summer make. HAL’s biggest ongoing helicopter programme, the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH), is encountering delays: its first flight has been postponed by a year to the end of 2009. HAL’s ambitious timeline for the LCH rested on a plan to recycle many of the technologies already proven in the Dhruv; the company failed to provide a cushion for the uncertainties of aeronautical design. Such overconfidence runs the risk of undermining the confidence of the military, painfully created by the success of the Dhruv and Tejas programmes.
HAL also faces a crucial test in the MoD order for 187 Light Utility Helicopters, which it must develop and start to deliver by 2015-16. A delay in this programme will not just undermine user confidence, but invoke penalty clauses; for each year of delay, the MoD will reduce the number of helicopter that it will buy from HAL, procuring them instead from the international market.
The new, tough, competitive playing field is changing mindsets in HAL; there is far greater reliance on commercially available foreign components and sub-systems, with HAL playing the role of an integrator and a developer of key technologies that money cannot buy. Even foreign advice is now acceptable; to overcome persistent technological challenges that continue to dog the Tejas programme, it has been decided to hire German-Spanish aeronautical giant, EADS, as a consultant.
While the abandonment of autarky is welcome, foreign assistance comes with its own pitfalls. This paper has already reported the EADS strategy to leverage its consultancy for the Tejas while participating in the multi-billion dollar competition to supply 126 medium fighters to India. It will be HAL’s difficult task to collaborate with foreign partners while simultaneously making decisions based on cold self-interest.
HAL, as India’s only aeronautical manufacturer, must also lead in creating a suitable developmental framework for building the military aircraft of the future. Currently, several government agencies --- the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO); the National Aeronautical Laboratory (NAL); and HAL itself --- compete for design programmes. HAL is negotiating with Russia for building the 5th Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA); simultaneously, the DRDO has outlined plans to build a Medium Combat Aircraft (MCA). Instead, project-specific consortiums need to be built (as it was for the LCA) for each programme, harnessing the individual strengths of each of these organisations, as well as R&D capabilities within the private sector and academia.
India’s military-aeronautical development has only taken its first baby steps. Overconfidence and turf battles cannot be allowed to undermine the creation of structures and processes for building the enormously expensive aerial platforms that consume so much of India’s defence budget.