The Indian Air Force (IAF)’s efforts to modernise its transport arm gets a leg-up with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) finalising an agreement with Airbus Defence and Space, Spain, to acquire 56 C-295 MW aircraft to replace the IAF’s fleet of HS-748s.
The air force currently operates 56 HS 748s (or Avros, as they are popularly known), mostly for communication duties, and for carrying freight and mail. Some were customised for training navigators while others doubled as pilot trainers. The Avro was first inducted into the IAF in 1964, and the State-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has since built 89 of them; the domestic carrier Indian Airlines used 17 Avros for feeder services, while the remaining were in service with the IAF and paramilitary forces.
The C-295 is a twin-turboprop transport aircraft with a high-wing, rear-loading design and has a flight endurance of up to 11 hours carrying nearly 10 tonnes of cargo and 71 troops (or 50 paratroopers). Its short take-off and landing capability on make-shift runways makes it ideal for tactical airlift operations as it can deliver supplies and troops in difficult operational areas.
Under the Rs 22,000-crore deal, India will buy 16 C-295s off the shelf and build the rest 40 locally in partnership with Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL). Of the 40 planes made in India, the contract stipulates that 16 should have ‘30 percent indigenous components’, with the other 24 aircraft having ‘60 percent locally procured and produced items’.
The Airbus-TASL collaboration, which many observers describe as ‘historic’, is exclusive in more ways than one. The TASL is the first private company in India to manufacture a complete aircraft. This burnishes the ‘Make in India’ programme and opens up defence manufacturing — once the prerogative of defence public sector units (PSUs) — to private industry in a big way. As Ratan Tata, Chairman Emeritus of Tata Sons, tweeted: “This will create a domestic supply chain capability to international standards, which has never been undertaken before.”
Besides creating thousands of jobs, the joint venture will encourage micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) to make aircraft parts and spares, helping to develop a robust aerospace ecosystem in the subcontinent. To ensure global production standards, a statement issued by the MoD makes it clear that the TASL and its suppliers will be accredited with the National Aerospace and Defence Contractors Accreditation Program (Nadcap), and develop “specialised infrastructure in the form of hangars, buildings, aprons and taxiways.”
The IAF can heave a sigh of relief at the end of one of the most protracted negotiations in defence acquisition ever undertaken. For years, the air force tried to find a successor to the Avro which was never really suited for military transport. For instance, its original door had to be modified for loading large cargo, and for para-dropping troops and supplies without hitting the empennage. The HS-748’s performance was also questionable at hot and high airfields, and the IAF had to eventually turn to the more powerful and tail-loading Russian An-32 that could handle high altitude operations.
As it happened, in 2009, the MoD was finally convinced of the need to replace the HS-748. It still took another four years before the MoD floated a tender inviting international aerospace firms to identify Indian partners to make an aircraft in India through transfer of technology (ToT). After the initial round of bidding, in 2013, Airbus Military’s C-295 and the Italian Alenia Aermacchi’s C-27J emerged as the only contenders that could meet the ToT conditions.
These two companies then fought a price war for the contract in which Indian industry leaders such as the TASL, Reliance Industries and Larsen & Toubro showed keen interest. Airbus came out the winner, and it partnered with TASL, which has in the past teamed up with aerospace majors such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
The Airbus-Tata venture promises to be a game changer in India’s aerospace sector as the competition excluded the State-run Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), which used to corner big defence deals. The twist in the tale was provided by the IAF which lobbied hard to get the Defence Acquisition Council — which oversees procurement processes in the armed forces — to agree to an open competition.
The idea was to bring India’s private sector into aerospace manufacturing by promoting licensed manufacture in partnership with foreign vendors. HAL could not participate since the tender required international vendors to work exclusively with a private sector Indian company. HAL, in any case, has its hands full with projects like the SU-30MKI production, and upgrades to the Mirage 2000, MiG 29 and Jaguar fighter jets.
This is, therefore, a good opportunity for the industry to junk its poor research and development record, and prove its reliability by timely execution of projects, unlike the PSUs that are known for delays and cost overruns. Considering the C-295 is not just suitable for the air force, but for civilian users as well, these developments augur well for India to become a global aerospace hub sooner rather than later.
Prakash Chandra is former editor of the Indian Defence Review. He writes on aerospace and strategic affairs. Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.