With Parliament’s standing committee on defence intensifying scrutiny into India’s defence preparedness, the Indian Air Force (IAF) will be highlighting its near-desperate need for a basic trainer aircraft for its rookie pilots. For 10 months, the defence ministry (MoD) has blocked the purchase of 75 Pilatus PC-7 Mark II basic trainers, a contract worth around Rs 1,800 crore. This after a South Korean rival protested an alleged procedural violation by Swiss company, Pilatus, which emerged the lowest bidder in the evaluation process last year.
The IAF’s urgency stems from the grounding of its entire fleet of HPT-32 Deepak basic trainers since July 31, 2009, after the death of two instructor pilots in a horrific crash took the Deepak’s death toll to 19 pilots in 17 crashes. Alongside measures to make the HPT-32 safer, MoD gave the go-ahead for buying 75 modern basic trainers from the global market; simultaneously, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) was to develop and build 106 basic trainers, dubbed the Hindustan Turbo Trainer – 40 (HTT-40).
But the purchase of 75 trainers has run into trouble. After the opening of tenders from three global vendors on May 16, 2011, Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) protested that Pilatus’ had won by submitting an incomplete bid, which should disqualify it under the Defence Procurement Procedure of 2008 (DPP-2008). That would give KAI the contract, being the next-cheapest bidder and fully compliant with the DPP.
Despite sustained IAF pressure over the last 10 months to declare Pilatus the winner, defence minister Antony has dug in his heels, ordering that the Korean complaint be investigated fully. Antony insisted upon this even at a Cabinet committee on Security (CCS) meeting in January where the matter was discussed.
South Korea has used all the firepower at its command to seize the opportunity. After the Pilatus anomaly was detected, South Korea’s ambassador in New Delhi sent in a formal protest to MoD. A personal letter followed from South Korean defence minister, Kim Kwan-jin, requesting Antony for a “high-level review” of the “allegations on irregularity” in the deal. Sources familiar with Kim’s letter tell Business Standard, besides highlighting alleged irregularities in Pilatus’ quote, it also points out that the South Korean trainer is more contemporary than the Pilatus. It claims superior performance for the KT-1; and says that the Pilatus will get more expensive as the Swiss franc strengthens.
Antony’s prime concern, say sources close to the minister, is his oft-repeated insistence on following the DPP to the letter. The defence minister is also taking note of India’s unfolding strategic convergence with South Korea. In September 2010, Antony became the first Indian defence minister to visit that country, including a visit to KAI’s aircraft assembly line at Sacheon. According to HAL officials, KAI has offered to work with the Bangalore-based company in developing the HTT-40, the Indian-built basic trainer, so that there is commonality between the two basic trainers that the IAF flies.
South Korea is also growing its profile as a partner to the Indian Navy. The MoD is close to inking a $500-million contract with South Korean warship builder, Kang Nam Private Ltd, for three minesweepers. A serious play in the land systems market is unfolding from Samsung Techwin, which has tied up with Larsen & Toubro to offer the Indian Army the K-9 Thunder 155-millimetre self-propelled artillery gun.
However, pressure is growing on the MoD to announce the contract immediately. The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report on IAF pilots’ training, which was released on March 30, criticises “training mostly with outdated and ageing aircraft.” Even more worrisome are the compromises in training: rookie pilots are now doing just 25 hours of
basic training, as against 150 hours that are considered essential and which were provided earlier.
IAF is pressing hard for an early procurement. Last June, then IAF boss, Air Chief Marshal P V Naik, told the media that Pilatus was the lowest bidder, and that the PC-7 Mark II would enter IAF service within one to one and a half years. On January 17, current IAF chief, Air Chief Marshal N A K Browne publicly speculated that the CCS could clear the Pilatus contract that week. He said the first 12 Pilatus trainers would arrive in 2013 and that IAF rookie pilots would train in Switzerland until then.
The new basic trainer is expected to overcome the key shortfalls of the HPT-32, which did not even have an ejection system; in emergencies, pilots ejected manually. Poor instrumentation and avionics restricted training to good weather. The HPT-32 had no recording equipment, so instructors never knew when trainee pilots, flying solo, had violated flying procedures.