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DRDO looks beyond HAL for Tejas production

Ajai Shukla  |  New Delhi 

Over the last two decades, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) and the DRDO’s Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) have cooperated closely in developing the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) to replace the ageing MiG-21s of the Indian Air Force. Now, with 40 fighters on order for the IAF’s first two Tejas squadrons, ADA is pushing HAL to outsource more of the Tejas’ production, including to the private sector, to boost production to the levels needed by the Indian Air Force (IAF).

A high-level HAL team is touring the production facilities of the world’s three biggest fighter manufacturers — Boeing and Lockheed Martin in the US; and Eurofighter in Europe — to examine how Tejas’ production can be raised from the eight fighters per year that HAL’s Tejas production line in Bangalore will start building next year. The IAF will eventually need 120-140 Tejas, while the Navy will require another 20-40 fighters.

The DRDO aeronautics chief, Prahlada, who also oversees ADA, told Business Standard, “We have asked HAL to find a way to step up Tejas production. They should look for alternatives, like more outsourcing, or setting up joint ventures [to build sub-systems of the Tejas]. This will also help HAL to grow. But each agency knows its own problems best… only they know where the shoe pinches! So, HAL knows best how to fix their problem.”

HAL, however, blames the slow production of Tejas fighters on the IAF’s placement of piecemeal orders. “We are also responsible to our shareholders. With an initial order for just 20 Tejas fighters, how much money could we have realistically invested in a production line?” asks P Soundara Rajan, HAL’s director, corporate planning and marketing. “So far, future Tejas orders of 100-120 more fighters are only plans. When an order is actually placed, we will be justified in upgrading our production line to produce more aircraft. Outsourcing to industry is something that we are already doing.”

Currently, HAL is building 40 Tejas fighters for the IAF, the initial IAF order of 20 fighters doubled recently with a second order. While HAL builds these 40 Tejas Mark I fighters, ADA will develop the Tejas Mark II, replacing the existing GE-404 engine with the more powerful GE-414 engine that powers the Swedish Gripen and the F-18 Super Hornet aircraft. ADA plans to develop the Tejas Mark II by 2014 and begin production the next year.

Behind the Tejas’ slow production rate is the fact that HAL simply has too much on its plate. The Aircraft R&D Centre (ARDC), the HAL department that has built the first 15 Tejas prototypes, is simultaneously developing the Tejas Mark II; the Sitara Intermediate Jet Trainer (IJT); the Indo-Russian Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA); the Indo-Russian Multi-Role Transport Aircraft (MRTA).

“Each Tejas is built individually, with the ARDC tweaking the design to incorporate multiple improvements and changes. Once the Tejas goes into serial production, like the MiG or Sukhoi-30 fighters, ARDC will have less work. But, presently, ARDC is highly loaded… and there is competition for attention and priority,” say HAL sources.

Despite that, there is no proposal for a second Tejas production line. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has nominated HAL as the DRDO’s only production agency for aircraft. But the DRDO believes the growing number of projects will leave no choice but to locate a private sector partner for building aircraft, a field monopolised since independence by HAL.

“The earlier (the MoD finds an alternative) the better it will be because, in a country as big as India, with so many ongoing aircraft development programmes, we need at least two integration agencies. Preferably one government one private… this will lead to competition, better productivity, and the spreading of risk,” says Prahlada.

While ARDC builds the last two Tejas prototypes, HAL has already begun work on the first of the 40 Mark I production fighters. Meanwhile, ARDC is completing the first naval LCA, which is designed to operate off aircraft carriers. The navy is likely to ask for a limited series of eight LCAs, which will also be built by ARDC.

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First Published: Thu, March 24 2011. 00:59 IST