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'Make in India' for HAL trainer, import of Swiss trainer capped

Council orders IAF to buy indigenous HTT-40 trainer

Ajai Shukla  |  New Delhi 

Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) has prevailed over the Indian Air Force (IAF) in a long-running battle over the basic trainer aircraft on which IAF rookies will learn to fly.

Backing HAL and “Make in India”, the ministry of defence (MoD) ruled on Saturday that the IAF would have to buy the Hindustan Turbo Trainer — 40 (HTT-40), which HAL is developing in Bengaluru.

Until the HTT-40 is delivered, the IAF will make do with 75 PC-7 Mark II trainers it has already bought from Pilatus of Switzerland. Under an “Options Clause” of that contract, the purchase of 38 more Pilatus trainers was sanctioned on Saturday. These would cost about Swiss francs 230 million (Rs 1,500 crore).

After a meeting of the MoD’s apex Defence Acquisition Council (DAC), which arrived at this decision, a senior MoD official, briefing the media, said: “The DAC has ordered the IAF to order the HTT-40 in adequate number, to make this project commercially viable.”

The IAF has steadfastly opposed the HTT-40 project. As Business Standard revealed (July 29, 2013, “Indian Air Force at war with Hindustan Aeronautics; wants to import, not build, a trainer”) then IAF boss, Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne, wrote to Antony, incorrectly claiming that the HTT-40 was costlier than the PC-7 Mk II.

HAL rebutted that claim, convincing the MoD that the HTT-40 would cost Rs 38.5 crore, compared to the Swiss Francs 6.09 million price of Pilatus trainer, which comes to Rs 39.5 crore. When life-cycle costs were factored in, the indigenous HTT-40 would be far cheaper over four decades of service.

Last month, Business Standard — which has followed and reported this issue in detail — revealed (February 14, “Defence ministry official questions whether Pilatus was cheapest trainer”), that a key MoD procurement official had written to Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar that the PC-7 Mark II trainer was actually far more expensive than had been originally assessed.

With the IAF digging in its heels and blocking funding, HAL has put Rs 300 crore of its own into the HTT-40. Senior project managers say the trainer is on track to fly this year, and enter service by 2017-18.

The DAC has ordered strict monitoring of the HTT-40 project, to guard against delays. “The progress of the project will be monitored by a Committee that will report regularly to the DAC”, said the MoD official who briefed the media.

IAF pilots undergo three stages of training. In basic training, or Stage-1, rookie pilots learn to fly on simple aircraft like the PC-7 Mk I, and the HTT-40. They graduate to Stage-2 training on intermediate trainers like the Sitara, which HAL is developing. In Stage-3 training, which is done on Hawk advanced jet trainers, pilots prepare to fly frontline IAF fighters.

With the Navy and Army air wings steadily expanding, these services are likely to buy their own HTT-40s, in case the trainer proves an unqualified success. HAL has also proposed the HTT-40 for import, positioning it as a weaponised light attack aircraft.

The IAF grounded its earlier basic trainer, the HPT-32, after a fatal crash in 2009 that killed two pilots. Experts say the HPT-32’s safety record did not warrant peremptory grounding of its 110-trainer fleet.

Over 30 years of flying, in which 2,000 IAF pilots were trained and the HPT-32 logged 400,000 hours, there have been 17 crashes in which 19 IAF pilots were killed.

While grounding the HPT-32, the IAF continues to fly the MiG-21, which has a far more worrying safety record. In June 2003, the IAF head, Air Chief Marshal S Krishnaswamy, told the media that 98 MiG-21 crashes had claimed 43 lives in 5,53,000 sorties between 1994-2003.

Over the years, according to MoD figures tabled in Parliament, 482 IAF MiGs (of all types) have crashed, killing 171 IAF pilots, eight other servicemen, and 39 civilians. Yet none of these fighters were grounded.

In another procurement decision on Saturday, the DAC okayed the tendering of a Rs 32,000 crore project to build 12 modern “mine counter measure vehicles”, or MCMVs, in India. Foreign shipyards will bid to partner Goa Shipyard Ltd in building these 600-1,000 tonne vessels that detect and defuse mines, which an enemy could deploy to deter movement of our commercial vessels and battleships. An earlier tender for these vessels was withdrawn amidst allegations of corruption.

In addition, the DAC cleared the Rs 533 crore purchase of one C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft from US company, Lockheed Martin, to replace one that crashed last year.

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First Published: Sun, March 01 2015. 23:30 IST