Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on his visit to the United Kingdom this week, will cite the growing cooperation between UK-headquartered BAE Systems, and Bengaluru-based Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL).
Together, BAE Systems and HAL have created a major assembly line for the Hawk advanced jet trainer (AJT) in Bengaluru, which has built for the Indian Air Force (IAF) the world's largest Hawk fleet outside the UK. The IAF has already bought 123 Hawks (of which 17 remain to be delivered), and is wrapping up negotiations for another order of 20 Hawks.
Government sources say this 20-Hawk purchase, to equip the IAF's reputed aerobatics team, will figure in statements emerging from Modi's meetings with his British counterpart, David Cameron.
British foreign secretary, Philip Hammond has already declared, "Hawk trainers will be one of the subjects within the defence package we will want to talk about."
The buzz around the Hawk goes far beyond the order for 20 aircraft. Given the size of the Hawk fleet in this region, BAE Systems and HAL signed a three-part memorandum of understanding (MoU) in May, which transfers much of the Hawk's future to Bengaluru.
"The MoU has three proposals. First, providing better fleet support to the IAF's Hawks. Second, upgrading the IAF's Hawk fleet to make them better trainers. Third, co-developing and building an advanced version of the Hawk that could be exported from India worldwide," says HAL chief, T Suvarna Raju.
The first part of the MoU involves setting up maintenance and repair facilities, and a warehouse full of Hawk spares in India to respond instantaneously and slash downtime.
This would establish India as a regional hub for Hawks, not just for the IAF's 143 aircraft, but also another 351 Hawks in the neighbourhood. These include 33 Hawks in Australia; 60 in Indonesia, 20 in South Korea, 28 in Malaysia, 12 in Kenya, 13 in Zimbabwe, 24 in South Africa, 12 in Kuwait, 25 in Oman, 72 in Saudi Arabia, 46 in UAE and six in Bahrain.
"What we are looking at… is (establishing) a big warehouse in India full of regular use Indian Hawk and Jaguar components for the IAF and the Navy. When they need a part, it would be delivered to the point of use in less than thirty days… So it's a much more responsive supply chain solution to manage the fleet", says Dave Corfield, who heads BAE Systems' Hawk India division,Raju confirms "the warehouse would be managed by a joint venture company (JV), in which HAL and BAE Systems would have equal shares."
BAE Systems and HAL have proposed that maintenance of India's Hawks could take the form of "performance based logistics", in which the JV would guarantee the IAF a certain number of Hawks on the flight line everyday. The IAF, however, has not yet decided on this.
Upgrade to Hawk Mk 132 Plus
The second part of the BAE-HAL MoU relates to upgrading the IAF's Hawk fleet that is completing ten years in service. BAE Systems and HAL refer to the proposed upgrade as Hawk Mk 132 Plus.
"We came out to India and briefed Air Headquarters on what is technically feasible for an upgrade to the Mk 132 to provide more operational capability", says Corfield.
The IAF's Hawk Mk 132 is less capable than the versions acquired by UK, Oman, Saudi Arabia and South Africa. It is powered by the Rolls-Royce Adour 871 engine, which provides 1,000 pounds less thrust than the Adour 951 engine on the other Hawks.
While retaining the present engine, the Mk 132 Plus would get improved avionics for better training student pilots. Corfield says data-links would create the illusion of flying with radar: "The instructor in the back seat can manipulate scenarios that make the student feel there is an 'air-to-air' or 'air-to-ground' missile lock (on his Hawk); and he would take action to try and break that lock."
The other enhancements proposed for the Mk 132 Plus include nose-wheel steering, in-flight refuelling, on-board oxygen generating systems, twin mission computers, night vision compatible cockpits, ground proximity warning systems and traffic collision avoidance system.
The most ambitious part of the BAE-HAL agreement involves building an advanced version of the Hawk, which could be used beyond combat training as a light, manoeuvrable fighter that could operate in the narrow valleys of India's Himalayan frontier, where high-performance fighters cannot turn.
"We have done extensive modeling of the performance of this type of aircraft in the northern Himalayan theatre. It can do close air support in the valleys of the northern Himalayas. We see excellent air-to-ground performance; we are not pitching this as an air-to-air fighter", says Corfield.
Raju says this aircraft, which is currently unnamed, but is referred to as the Dream Hawk, or the Advanced Combat Hawk, would be built in Bengaluru, using the same assembly line as the IAF Hawks, and exported from here. The IAF has not expressed interest yet, but the export market - including countries like Afghanistan that cannot afford high-performance fighters - offers prospects.
"HAL and BAE Systems have done an analysis of potential customers around the globe… We see a demand in the accessible market for about 300 airplanes", says Corfield.
HAL plans to build the Dream Hawk's mission computer - the heart of its avionics package. Meanwhile BAE Systems has already designed a high-lift wing, which will allow the aircraft to operate from shorter airfields.
BAE Systems and HAL plan to display a demonstrator prototype of the Dream Hawk at Aero India 2017 and, immediately after that, the aircraft will start its flight-test programme. The project cost will be shared fifty-fifty between BAE Systems and HAL.