gfiles magazine

July 17, 2011

Delay dogs big birds

DRDO suggests private sector entry into production of fighter planes

THE Defence Ministry is evaluating a proposal by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to take an urgent policy call on liberalizing and expanding production of fighter aircraft in the private sector. For five decades, the production of civil and military aircraft has remained the exclusive turf of the public sector Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL). The DRDO’s logic is simple: with several programmes for developing new aircraft on board, HAL will run aground in rolling out new combat and transport aircraft.
A policy decision may or may not be imminent on permission to a private sector company to establish production facilities for aircraft. But to cope with the increasing orders, DRDO and HAL have been scouting around the globe for setting up assembly line production facilities to step up their turnover.
Several rounds of negotiations have already been held with international vendors like Boeing, Lockheed, Saab, EADS and others. Big-ticket purchases of the C-130J Hercules, the P-3C Orion, and the C-17 Globemaster III, and the proposed purchase of 126 multi-role combat aircraft, all totalling $20 billion during this decade, involve offset riders worth $7-8 billion.
This means that, unless the production facilities are substantially stepped up, India will not be able to benefit from the offset rider. Further, over $3 billion has been sanctioned to develop the light combat aircraft (LCA) Tejas. The projected order includes two squadrons (40 fighters) of the LCA Mark-I that the IAF has already ordered, and an expected five squadrons (100 fighters) of the LCA Mark-II, and another two-three squadrons (40-60 fighters) for the Navy.
The Tejas Mark-I is scheduled to obtain Final Operational Clearance (FOC) by the end of 2012. A fighter is granted FOC when ready for combat missions, with all its weapons and sensors fitted, integrated and tested. The IAF is worried that Tejas, already long delayed, might not obtain its FOC on schedule.
The Tejas Mark-II, to be developed by 2014, will roll off production lines by 2018 and will reportedly perform 40% better than the Tejas-I.

The Tejas Mark-II, to be developed by 2014, will roll off production lines by 2018 and will reportedly perform 40% better than the Tejas-I. After this would come the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), which the DRDO says will be a “fifth-generation plus” fighter, more formidable than anything flying today. The DRDO claims the AMCA will be technologically ahead of the FGFA when it enters service at the end of this decade.
All of these would require highly sophisticated and efficient platforms for production, which are not yet there. Even if the setting up of these platforms begins now, it will take three to four years to test and sort out their glitches. Aviation engineers say efficient platforms can help sort out design problems, too, in a short span. This is crucial because the DRDOHAL customers, the IAF and the Navy, have a number of complaints about Tejas, for example. However, the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) designers claim that the “maintainability” of Tejas has already been established. Maintainability refers to how quickly and easily technicians can service and repair the fighter and how quickly it can get out of a hangar and into combat.
Of 200 “requests for action” or suggestions from IAF pilots and technicians for design changes that would ease maintenance, most have reportedly been implemented. Just 12-15 changes await implementation in the Mark-II.
For Tejas Mark-II, India has signed a $700 million contract under which the highly sophisticated engine will be produced domestically. This too involves establishment of completely new production lines.
The agency has sought to put at rest apprehension of further delay of the Tejas-II project on this count. It is pointed out that since the main subsystems of Tejas Mark-II will remain unchanged, except for electronics components, it will not need extensive flight testing, as most of its sub-systems will already have been test-flown on the Mark-I.
Unfortunately, even if the agency is able to deliver on the deadline, there remains a big question about the sustainability of the operation when India goes for production of FGFA, AMCA, multi-role transport aircraft, and the Sitara intermediate jet trainer.

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