The ministry of defence (MoD) on Wednesday declined to clear the Indian Air Force's (IAF) proposal for an Indian private sector company to build 56 medium transport aircraft in India. Instead, the ministry has asked the IAF why a new aircraft is needed at all. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar raised the question on Wednesday at a meeting of the ministry's apex Defence Acquisition Council (DAC). The IAF will be required to answer. The IAF has been arguing that replacing its ageing fleet of Avro HS-748 constitutes a domestic manufacturing opportunity for the private sector, building up a rival to public sector aerospace monopoly, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL). Accordingly, tenders were sent out to reputed global aerospace vendors, including US firms Boeing and Lockheed Martin; European multinational Airbus Defence & Space; Antonov of Ukraine; Swedish company Saab; Ilyushin of Russia; and Italian company Alenia Aeromacchi. They were required to select an Indian private sector partner (HAL was explicitly ruled out) that would build 40 aircraft in the country with foreign technology, within eight years. The first 16 aircraft were to be built abroad and delivered quickly. The response has been unenthusiastic, with only a single bid coming in by October 22, when the bids closed. That was from Airbus Defence and Space, which proposed to build the Airbus C295 medium transport aircraft in partnership with Tata Advanced Systems Ltd (TASL). Indian aerospace experts have written to the MoD pointing out glaring flaws in the so-called "Avro replacement programme". The first big question the IAF will be required to answer is: what operational role the new aircraft will play? The Avro itself has no operational role, being a "communications aircraft", an air taxi that flies senior officers around the country. Instead of replacing the Avro with a brand new aircraft, HAL has proposed extending the Avro's service life by replacing its current Rolls Royce Dart engines with modern, fuel-efficient engines.
HAL, which had built the Avro fleet between 1960s and 1980s, points out that each Avro flies barely 350-hour a year, and the airframes have thousands of hours of service life remaining. The defence minister is now asking why the Avro needs replacement at a cost earlier estimated at Rs 11,897 crore. Given the rupee's decline, the project cost would currently be closer to Rs 14,000 crore. The MoD is also questioning the wide variation between the Avro's specifications and those of the C295 aircraft that has been offered. The Avro is basically a civil airliner, with side doors for passengers and without military attributes like a fuselage that opens at the rear and a ramp for loading equipment quickly. The "Avro replacement" on the other hand has the specifications of a military tactical transport aircraft, including rear ramp, auxiliary power generator, and the capability to lift cargo to high altitude airfields like those on our border. Parrikar is wondering why the IAF needs 56 new tactical airlifters, given its large fleet of AN-32s (which are being upgraded); newly-bought C-130J Super Hercules and C-17 Globemaster III; and the ageing IL-76. In addition, India and Russia are jointly developing and building a brand new "Multi-role Transport Aircraft (MTA)", which would overlap with the "Avro replacement aircraft". Furthermore, the MoD has observed the "Avro replacement" was sanctioned as a 50-seater aircraft that could lift five tonnes of cargo. The Airbus C-295 is a 71-seat aircraft that can lift 9.25 tonnes of cargo. For the Tata Group, a cancellation of this project would be a blow. Its specialist defence manufacture company, Tata Advanced Systems Ltd (TASL), hopes to expand on the back of a C-295 production line. So far, TASL has garnered relatively small manufacturing orders - like helicopter cabins for Sikorsky; and C-130J parts for Lockheed Martin. Already, the MoD was reluctant to sign a contract with Airbus - Tata, since they were single vendors in the bidding. Now, the very rationale of replacing the Avro is being examined afresh.