The Indian Air Force (IAF) chief’s letter, which reportedly recommended the purchase of more Pilatus PC-7Mk2 basic trainer aircraft under the option clause and the foreclosure of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited’s (HAL’s) trainer aircraft project due to delay and higher projected costs, led to a media brouhaha. This only indicates a lack of understanding of matters military and the pressures exerted by vested interests and arms merchants who lose out on a contract. Our polity, in its endeavour to “look clean”, has a history of taking knee-jerk decisions to put such projects on hold, unmindful of the long-term impact it has on defence preparedness. The results of the Bofors and HDW submarine fiascos are being felt now, in the capability voids that exist. Does it require the loss of an INS Sindhurakshak to wake us up, only to slumber again till the next void becomes tragically evident? One just hopes that the same does not befall the basic trainer case, and that the aircraft, which would be the bedrock for the IAF’s operational readiness, comes in time and in the required numbers.
I was part of the briefing in which air headquarters took the momentous decision to ground all HPT-32 aircraft training rookies, who were to fly frontline aircraft like the Sukhois, C-17s and Apaches in later their service careers. The HPT-32 had the reputation of being a flying stone when its engine quit mid air (far too frequently, with almost five to six incidents per year). Despite numerous modifications by HAL, the large number of accidents had affected the confidence of young trainees and instructors. The implications of the grounding were grave but had to be surmounted to maintain an uninterrupted feeder line to operational squadrons. It was amply clear that the IAF would have to do some smart jugglery with its Kirans, the other trainer aircraft, to keep the feeder line going.
Much against many tenets of training philosophy, severe cutbacks in training profiles have had to be enforced and endured for the past four years. The Surya Kiran aerobatic team was temporarily disbanded and its Kirans were sent to the Air Force Academy to augment the training effort. With the new Pilatus coming in, the system was getting back on track when this controversy threatened to derail the process. There is just one question that begs an answer: if the air force does not get its required number of trainers in time, how will it ensure the training of sufficient pilots to guard our skies, for the Kirans have been over-flogged and would be finishing their life too? And one cannot do basic training on the advanced jet trainer.
But how have our nation’s procurement plans come to be affected by the power of self-styled specialists, anonymous letters and disgruntled arms merchants? The answer is simple — they know that India has no indigenous industry to fall back on and a stalled contract will result in a re-tender, bringing them back in contention. The reality is that the recent tinkering with the rules in Defence Procurement Procedure 2013 is no solution, and the much-touted offset policy to facilitate the introduction of critical technology still remains only on paper.
These infirmities will persist unless the government demands accountability and punishes incompetence and slippages in the programme schedules of agencies entrusted with R&D and production. It is good that exit clauses in indigenous programmes have been incorporated so that the services retain their operational bite and national defence is not compromised by the non-delivery of defence public sector units (DPSUs). That this has become an unfortunate norm in technology intensive projects is no state secret. It is a reality that makes the services’ procurement wings as well as the defence ministry wring their hands in despair and foreign arms merchants laugh their way to the bank. The defence ministry press release shows that the IAF’s case for more Pilatus-7s is based on this fact alone — the inability of HAL to live up to its promise of fielding the indigenous HTT-40 trainer aircraft on time.
The writing is on the wall. The HAL example quoted here is symbolic of the widespread malaise of non-performance that afflicts our DPSUs and the Ordnance Factory Board. Incidentally, has anyone been made answerable for the void in the artillery arm of the army and the submarine capabilities of the navy due to interruptions in their re-equipping plans? And the 197-helicopter project seems to have had a second burial, with pilots continuing to fly the vintage Cheetahs and Chetaks.
In a recent Defence Research and Development Organisation seminar in Delhi, the defence minister openly said, “Perform or perish”. One hopes it is a true declaration of intent, with concrete action to follow. The next few months will be critical and should indicate which road the government is taking. In these pre-election days, one only hopes the cold logic of keeping the powder dry at all times remains the guiding star in decision-making.
The writer, a retired air vice marshal, was assistant chief of Integrated Defence Staff, in charge of tri-service procurements. He is currently a distinguished fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies, Delhi. Views are personal