Air Marshal M Matheswaran AVSM, VM, PhD (Retd)
In December 2022, the Indian Air Force (IAF) floated a Request for Information (RFI) on Medium Transport Aircraft (MTA) with a payload range of 18 – 26 tonne and in multiple roles. The MTA project, which has been on and off the screen for more than two decades, is another story in a series of inconclusive and indecisive projects. This time, however, the story is likely to be different. Significant push for ‘Make in India’, a climate of innovation and an energised private industry, critical geopolitical developments are all factors that will make the new MTA story far different from the earlier ones.
News agencies link the new projected MTA requirement to the ageing AN-32 that is soon to be phased out, a process that will be accelerated by the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Linking MTA to the AN-32 replacement reflects poor understanding of the requirements of the IAF and national interests.The MTA need was felt acutely with the rapid decline in the availability of An-12s in the 1980s and its final phasing out in 1991-92. For over two decades IAF’s transport airlift capability rested on just two platforms – the AN-32 aircraft in the light tactical airlift category of 5 to 7 tonne payload and the IL-76 aircraft in the heavy lift category of 45 tonne payload. The Avro with a 4-tonne payload functioned in the light communication and training roles. The main airlift capability consisted of a fleet of nearly 125 AN-32 aircraft and a fleet of 17 IL-76 aircraft. This airlift combination was inefficient and given the declining reliability and serviceability of IL-76, the AN-32 bore the brunt of the airlift requirement. The absence of an airlift capability in the 20 ton range was acutely felt and became the genesis of the medium transport aircraft (MTA) requirement as early as 2001.
It was also looked at as a strategic need to develop design and manufacturing capability for large transport aircraft. The Russians proposed a HAL-Ilyushin joint development project for a medium-lift aircraft in the 20-tonne payload category. From this initial proposal it took nearly eight years to formally sign an agreement for the joint development of the MTA. Designated as IL-214, the project was stuck in limbo for many years when India and HAL finally scrapped the program in 2016. There were significant reasons for this failure. In the early 2000s Russia was still enamoured by Europe and the West, a hangover from Yeltsin days. The Russian aerospace industry was yet to fully recover from the USSR collapse; many were in deep financial troubles. They pitched everything at extremely high costs, and high-cost projects were proposed in a forceful manner.
In 2004, the Russian President wrote to the Indian Prime Minister urging him to accelerate work on three major strategic issues: first was the FGFA (Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft) program, second was the MTA program, and the third was resolving the intellectual property issues, which was essentially Russia objecting to India outsourcing its spares from countries that were former Soviet republics. The third issue was resolved first smartly by India firmly stating that India’s national security was paramount and hence, India has the right to outsource from anyone who provided reliable and timely supplies. However, India agreed to give Russian industries priority and if they were unable to meet our requirements other options would be taken. The FGFA and MTA programs floundered for many years before they were finally scrapped. The reasons were clear – Russian industry’s unwillingness to meet India’s requirements of Technology access and transfer as also the exorbitant costs. The Ukraine conflict since 2014 and the current geopolitical situation would alter Russian aerospace industries’ outlook and provide India a new opportunity and a stronger bargaining position. It is in this context that the MTA RFI assumes great significance.
The MTA requirement should be seen in the correct perspective – IAF’s operational requirements and national interests-driven industrial strategy. It is important to understand the vacuum and opportunities that are emerging that should be leveraged by India. The IAF’s age-old Avro aircraft will now be replaced by the Airbus’ C-295 tactical transport, communication and training aircraft. While 16 aircraft will be supplied directly, the remaining 40 will be assembled over 5-7 years in the new Tata-Airbus facility being established in Vadodara. Over the last 15 years the Tatas have partnered with Boeing and Lockheed-Martin to set up aerostructure manufacturing facilities as part of their offset obligations. The C-295 facility will progress Tatas towards further growing their expertise towards becoming India’s first private sector aircraft manufacturing concern. It is still some time away. IAF’s AN-32 fleet, after the upgrade in 2009, has dwindled down to around 80 aircraft. Given the conditions of war in Ukraine and the non-functioning of Antonov (the OEM of AN-32) factories, it is inevitable that IAF’s workhorse will become increasingly difficult to sustain. Hence, the urgency to find a replacement. This provides an ideal opportunity to optimise IAF’s airlift capability.
With the induction of 11 x C-17 Globemaster aircraft from 2012, the IAF’s heavy/strategic airlift capability is well-established. Simultaneous induction of 17 x C-130J super Hercules aircraft for special operations requirements partially addressed the 20-tonne airlift gap. At its peak, the IAF operated over 200 aircraft of AN-32 and Avro combination, in the 4-7 tonne tactical airlift category. Given India’s rising stature and increased operational and strategic requirements, this number may still be relevant. The tactical/operational airlift requirement can meet operational and cost efficiency through an optimal mix of 20-tonne payload and 5-10 tonne payload airlift. The C-295 can fill the 5 to 10-tonne category, which means the orders will increase from the current 56 to well over 100 aircraft, thus ensuring the project becomes economically and technologically viable through a production run of at least 20 years, with significant value additions.
This is where the new MTA will fit in as a critical project in India’s large transport aircraft manufacturing plans. The new MTA RFI has projected a payload range requirement of 18 to 30 tonne. This range provides good flexibility and provides room for OEMs to provide attractive options in addressing India’s ‘Make in India’ requirements. Although no numbers are mentioned, one can deduce a minimum number of 40 aircraft productions run, with 5 to 10 aircraft being procured directly. The scope for continued production beyond 40 is very bright, considering multiple roles, including civilian cargo applications and export prospects. Production efficiency, supply chain control, and lower costs should be the focus of this joint venture if it is to break into export markets.
The contenders for the MTA are Lockheed Martin’s C-130J Super Hercules (or the extended version of C-130J-30), Embraer’s C-390 Millennium, and Il-276. The airbus’ A400 Atlas, the most modern and versatile aircraft, rules itself out as its payload of 40 tonne takes it beyond the MTA stipulation of 18 to 30 tonne. Some of the stringent requirements of Indian operations are the ability to operate from forward airfields including Advanced Landing Grounds (ALGs), operations from high altitude airfields above 10000 ft amsl, ability to operate from semi-prepared surfaces, and the need for multiple role applications such as air-to-air refuelling, aerial tanker, airborne surveillance, paradropping, and special operations. Acquisition cost, technology transfer, and production in India for Indian and global markets will be major decision-influencing factors.
It is obvious that LM’s C-130J is the leading contender as the aircraft is already in IAF’s service for over a decade. The super Hercules is a very versatile aircraft and procured for special operations. It would be easier on the air force in terms of maintenance and avoidance of another type in the inventory.
However, there are challenges. Apart from being expensive, the aircraft is basically a 60-year-old design and is in the end of its production life, by some accounts the production will cease by 2029. If LM wins the contract, the production line can be shifted or re-established in India, but the major challenges will be with respect to 100s of tier 1 to tier 3 suppliers who will most certainly shift to new projects. To retain them will push the costs higher for sustaining the supply chain, and it will be impossible to recreate them in India. The second and the most important part is about technology access and transfer. US policies continue to be stringent on technology controls even for a 60-year-old design. The real reason is commercial, a capitalist ideology of profit maximisation through market control. Indian manufacturers will remain a license producer with peripheral value addition freedom.
Embraer’s C-390 Millennium is a new design and a jet aircraft with significant advantages in speed, range and operational efficiency. It is a versatile aircraft with fly-by-wire controls, glass cockpit, payload capability of 26 tonne and optimised for multiple roles. Embraer has expressed keenness for production in India. The advantage of going in for a new-generation aircraft production is significant from technology acquisition and indigenous industry development perspective. The negative aspect of this contender is its considerable use of American origin products such as engines, avionics, and sensors which may interfere with Embraer’s freedom as it competes with C-130 J. If India can handle this issue, the C-390 may be the most eminent choice. The third contender is IL-276, which was to have been the earlier JV development of MTA by HAL and Ilyushin. The Russian company would be more than willing to accommodate India’s interests, including replacing Russian engines with Western engines. More importantly, the Russian aerospace industry has transformed enormously in western style avionics and systems. The inherent Russian design strength on flight controls, aerostructures, sensors, and materials will continue to be present. Besides, the ease of establishing a production line with HAL is an added advantage. If Russia can seriously address those concerns which forced India to walk out from FGFA and MTA programs, the IL-276 is again a good option from the new generation perspective.
The MTA is an excellent opportunity for India to jumpstart its transport aircraft manufacturing capability. India must learn to leverage its procurement effectively. HAL is the only agency that has the experience and expertise, despite the inefficiencies of the public sector, of producing transport aircraft, Avro and Dornier. It completed the series modification of the AN-32 upgrade aircraft after the development completion by Antonov. In terms of design experience, HAL and NAL have made the SARAS prototype that is still under developmental testing. For a new entrant from the private sector, it takes a minimum of two to three decades to reach significant value addition capability, as the Tatas are learning, in aircraft manufacturing. The MTA project, if leveraged well, can become a great success story in creating a private-public industrial ecosystem for transport aircraft manufacturing in the country. At the end of the day decisions on projects such as the MTA are strategic. Meeting the operational requirements of the Air Force is just the first step. Geopolitical advantages and strategic partnerships, and India’s national interests in creating technology capabilities that lead to economic and technological sovereignty are the factors that should govern the final decision.
The author is the former DCIDS (PP and FD). He is currently the Founder-President of The Peninsula Foundation at Chennai.
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