Time for IAF to Control Aircraft Production

Issues Details: 
Vol 12 Issue 4. Sep - Oct 2018
Page No.: 
Sub Title: 
India’s Military Aircraft production, of which Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) is the prime production Agency, falls much short of its requirement
Air Marshal Anil Chopra, PVSM, AVSM, VM, VSM (Retd)
Tuesday, October 2, 2018

India’s Military Aircraft production, of which Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) is the prime production Agency, falls much short of its requirement. In pursuit of the quest to enhance production capacities, Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retd) makes a strong case for reversion to the earlier practice of appointing senior serving Air Force officers as Chairman of HAL to emphasise how that would go towards bringing in an aspect of ‘ownership’, pragmatic leadership and importantly, accountability and candid reportage.

A current hot aviation news is that the government is poised to hand over the entire Bangalore Complex (BC) of Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) to the Indian Air Force (IAF). An Air Marshal answerable to the Air Chief in Air HQ and Ministry of Defence (MoD) will head the complex.

IAF had earlier been often accused of letting slip out of their control all activities related to aircraft design and production in which IAF had significant command and control in initial years. Air Vice Marshal (AVM) Aspy Merwin Engineer was Managing Director (MD) HAL (1958-1960), and AVM Ranjan Dutt (1963-68). Air Marshal PC Lal (1966-69), Air Marshal OP Mehra (1971-73), Air Marshal Sarosh Jehangir Dastur (1975-80), Air Marshal LM Katre (1983-1984), and Air Marshal MSD Wollen (1984-1988) were HAL Chairmen.Four of these later became Air Chiefs. Gp Capt BK Kapur (1980-83),Wg Cdr IM Chopra (1988-1991) andWg Cdr RN Sharma (1992-93) were Chairmen but had joined when still young and had grown from within the HAL system. A large number of IAF officers of Wg Cdr and Gp Capt rank were General Managers (GMs) of various HAL divisions in the initial years. There have been no Ex-IAF Chairman or GM for last few decades. India's major shipyards Mazagon Docks Ltd (Mumbai), Hindustan Shipyard (Visakhapatnam), Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers (Kolkata), Goa Shipyard Limited (Goa), among many others are headed by retired Naval officers.

The Directorate of Quality Assurance  handles product quality assurance for Army related items. The Director General Quality Assurance (DGQA) has always been a senior serving Army officer. Similarly,Directorate of Quality Assurance (Naval) is headed by Naval officers. The Directorate General of Aeronautical Quality Assurance (DGAQA) which handles quality assurance of military aircraft, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), Aero Engines, Airborne Systems, Avionics, Armaments, among many others,has never had an IAF officer as the head, despite many being eminently qualified.

For many years now the internal promotees of HAL have been holding all key posts in the hierarchy. IAFperhaps used to think that these industrial functions may best be left for design and production houses, and IAF could interface with them through flight test centers and program review meetings. This situation came about primarily when the government set up Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) in 1984 to oversee the development of the nation's Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) programme.In view of inordinate delays in LCA program and quality control issues related to HAL production, a fresh move has begun for IAF to exercise greater control over aircraft design and production. Will such a move be allowed to succeed by the HAL unions or bureaucracy is still a moot question. Will such an appointment  really make a change or pay dividends is still a question mark. The move itself needs dispassionate analysis.

Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd

HAL was founded in 1940 as 'Hindustan Aircraft' and renamed in 1964 as Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. It is currently state owned (90 percent) with 10 percent private share holding. HAL designs and manufactures fighters, transport aircraft and helicopters and many of their major systems. It employs nearly 32,000 personnel, had assets worth Rs 5,15,523  crores (US$ 7.36 billion) in 2017, and revenue of Rs 1,95,969 crore (US$ 2.79 billion), and profit after tax of Rs 26,247 crore (US$ 374 million). The company has produced under license a large variety of aircraft including HS 748, Gnat, MiG-21 & 27, Jaguar, Dornier Do-228, Chetak/Cheetah helicopters, SU-30MKI, Hawk AJT among some other aircraft. It indigenously designed, developed and produced 147 HF-24 fighter jet. More recently it is producing the ADA developed LCA 'Tejas', and its in-house Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) and its variants.  HAL is also into overhauls and upgrades of many IAF aircraft and engines. HAL has also obtained several multimillion-dollar contracts from leading international aerospace firms such as Airbus, Boeing and Honeywell to manufacture aircraft spare parts and engines.

The immediate areas of concern are the need to quickly complete Final Operational Clearance (FOC) of  LCA Mk 1 and mark up annual production initially to 16 aircraft. The next set of challenges are to complete Design and Development (D&D) of already ordered 83 LCA Mk 1A.Tasks further down include developing the LCA Mk II and AMCA. Also,soon there will contract of the Ka-226T helicopters. Additional orders for 40 SU-30 MKI and its upgrade will keep HAL hands full. At the same time HAL has not been able to succeed in the Intermediate Jet Trainer (IJT). The midsized, 80-90 seat, Indian Regional Jet (IRJ) has still to take off. Similarly, the Saras small transport (20 seat) is still struggling.

HAL - IAF Issues

HAL has mastered, and 'seems content with', the 'screw-driver' approach of license manufacturing aircraft where they got the full production design drawings from foreign companies.  There are essentially three issues that have slowed aircraft development and production and that has often upset IAF plans for building its force levels.

HAL (and no less DRDO) have often overstated capability of having full know-how of world class technologies to be able to design world class aircraft. In the same breath they have overstated the timelines to deliver. With the result, most programs have only partially achieved the desired jointly evolved air staff qualification requirements and in that too they have been excessive delays. LCA is a classic case in point. IAF is forced to fly the MiG-21s even today which were to be replaced by LCA two decades back.

The second issue is the production quality control.IAF has been repeatedly pointing out production quality flaws. Russians have often questioned HAL's production quality standards. The fact that Dassault was unwilling to take responsibility of HAL's production quality in the Rafale contract was one of the key reasons for 126 Rafale MMRCA contract getting derailed. The other issue was the excessive production man-hours quoted by HAL (2.7 times in excess). Possible reasons for high man-hours for production in HAL could be inefficiency or encouragement/blind-eye to overtime, thus adding to employee numbers. Analysts have suggested that it is better to have high paid experts but cut the flab and make HAL 'lean and mean'.

The third issue is the costing. The Indian government and the public were somewhat stunned to read that HAL  had offered Tejas Mark-1A at Rs 463crore ($67.5 million) a price making it costlier than even the much bigger and operationally potent Sukhoi-30MKI which HAL themselves supply at Rs 415 crore ($60.5 million). Interestingly the Russian supplied SU-30 MKI cost Rs 330 crore ($48 million). The MoD had to immediately set up a committee to evaluate the shockingly high price sought by the Defence Public Sector Undertaking (DPSU). IAF can ill-afford to pay so much more from its meager Capital budget for the possible inefficiency of HAL, or maybe significant parts of the so called 'Make-in-India' aircraft are still sourced from abroad.

Alleged ASQR Changes by IAF

IAF is sometimes unfairly blamed for not encouraging indigenous production in their hurry to acquire state-of-the-art systems from abroad. IAF today is down to 31 Squadrons vis-a-vis authorized 42. This state has been reached because of unending wait for the LCA despite many specification dilutions and concessions by IAF. DRDO and HAL have often alleged that IAF has been constantly changing the ASQRs (Air Staff Quality Requirements) which reportedly delayed the project and increased D&D and aircraft cost.

MoD enquired and found that the same was not true. For Tejas Mk1, IAF had to make nearly 135 concessions because it was beyond the DRDO and HAL to be able to meet them. There have been no changes in ASQRs of Tejas Mk 1A since first formalized in 2014. Jointly agreed changes are made only in those  items which reach obsolescence. Since LCA Mk1 did not meet the IAF specifications, it was decided to have LCA Mk II which would hopefully meet the IAF specifications. Since Mk II would take long to develop, the Mk 1A variant had to be evolved to fill that gap. It clearly shows that IAF has been accommodating the indigenous industry at each stage. IAF is directly responsible to the nation for defence from the air and needs state of the weapons no less in quality than the ones with its adversaries. Pointing out deficiencies does not mean that IAF has not been fully backing the LCA program.

IAF's LCA Concerns

LCA Mk1 production (40 ordered) is still at snail's pace. Only 10 have been delivered in last nearly three years, all in Initial Operational Clearance (IOC). First twenty LCA Mk 1 are to be supplied in IOC and remaining 20 in Final Operational Clearance (FOC). FOC has still to be achieved. Meanwhile the LCA Mk1A Design and Development (D&D) completion is now pushed back to around 2021. Even partial parallel production will delay Mk1A deliveries well past 2023. Delays in LCA have forced IAF to propose procurement of 110 foreign fighters. If IAF was to pay the HAL proposed price for Tejas Mk1A, meaning over Rs 50,000 crore (US$ 7.25 billion) catering to annual escalations. IAF's Capital acquisition budget for next 15 years will be totally consumed by LCA and committed liabilities, leaving nothing for new acquisitions.    


Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) is responsible for military research and development. It has 52 laboratories which currently employs nearly 30,000, of which only 5,000 are scientists. This is indicative of poor teeth-to-tail ratio. Its annual budget is Rs 14,818 crore (US$ 2.2 billion). It is under the administrative control of the MoD. DRDO is involved directly in the LCA, SU-30 MKI avionics, MiG-27 and Jaguar upgrades, UAVs and EW suites of many aircraft. They are also making missiles and radar, and integrating the indigenous AEW&C 'Netra' on the Embraer platform and will be responsible for the development of the AMCA. DRDO also runs the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme, which includes the successful Akash and BrahMos missile programs. DRDO has plans for Long and medium range SAMs. DRDO lab directors grow from within mostly by seniority and many have very short tenures. IAF needs to essentially exercise greater control over agencies and labs related to aviation. These include ADA, Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) and Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE), Centre for Airborne Studies (CABS), and Defence Avionics Research Establishment (DARE).

Insider Perspective

Late WgCdr IM Chopra, former CMD HAL had analyzed the HAL industrial picture on a much wider canvas a few years back. He wrote that HAL was no centre of excellence. Their design capability is limited but production skills are much better. Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and IT industry are of world standard. We can also acknowledge that missile technology has been developed reasonably well. DRDOs performance in many other programs has been not up to the mark.

HAL hardly does any R&D other than development connected with a production project. HAL's design capability is very limited. Design engineers at the middle level are good with analytical ability but the leaders are absent. The HF-24 Marut reached from design to first flight in five years, a unique achievement perhaps not even achieved in the West. This schedule became a reality because German aeronautical engineer, Dr. Kurt Tank who headed the project was an extremely good leader. LCA was a very ambitious program, and collaboration with a company in the West should have been explored. It would have greatly saved time. Composite Technology has been absorbed well as a large amount of composites have been used for fuselage structure. Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH-Dhruv) he said was a success story though there may have been slippages.

The strength of HAL lies in production and overhaul. Optimistic schedules given in HAL project reports are sometimes difficult to meet. Sometimes the imported price is cheaper because of tooling cost and the high man-hours taken at HAL because of the learning. He felt it was possible to induce private sector to set up high-tech units for building accessories etc. All are interested in indigenization but there are difficulties to achieve it in high technology items. For technology developed in India, again the quantities required are too little unless export market is available. Indigenization achieved by the Indian Navy is substantial, but large numbers of items used in ships are of lower technology compared to aircraft.The growth/performance of PSUs suffers due to bureaucratic delays and interference.I think ISRO does not suffer from bureaucratic interference as Chairman is also Secretary of Department of Space reporting directly to the Prime Minister.

Can an IAF Officer Succeed?

The government proposal to hand over HAL (BC) to IAF is to minimize time and cost overruns on the LCA program, including the Mk II variant. With nearly 32,000 employees, HAL supposedly has a powerful employees union. It is contended that it will not be easy for IAF officers to control/interface with them. Historical fact is to the contrary. Those who worked closely with HAL and DRDO over the years say that the best management employee relations were when senior IAF officers were in the chair. There was respect and aura about them. They exuded great leadership qualities and human-management skills acquired in their years of service. If the naval shipyards can be run so successfully by retired naval officers, such a thing should not be an issue. Normal Indian industrial workers want to achieve for the nation and if well motivated will do no less. Such motivation can be better delivered by a combat leader.

Another advantage the IAF officer will have is that he would not have been part of the local politics (likes and dislikes) that are there in many organizations in which you grow. Military officers are more likely to accept and own up organizational incapability and seek/find early solutions. An IAF officer (end user) is more likely to understand the operational deployment, flight safety implications, maintenance aspects, documentation, and significance of each system.

It is often said that bureaucracy would find it easier to deal with a civilian set up because they can exercise greater control and have more flexibility, and may oppose such a move. Any HAL management must be released of bureaucratic control. An IAF officer is more likely to keep the political and IAF leadership in the know of true ground reality.There is serious opposition from within the HAL. A clear political will and signal should put this to rest. 

Way Ahead Command and Control

HAL was expected to produce 18 Tejas fighters every year, and that was the only way IAF could phase out old aircraft to retain some semblance of numbers. But only three aircraft per year have been produced in three years. One issue seems to be the coordination and ownership of the Tejas project between the HAL, IAF and Aeronautical Development Authority (ADA). On the lines of indigenous Ship production which is controlled entirely from design to production by serving and retired Naval officers and personnel, MoD is now asking for a senior member of IAF to take charge of the aircraft building process. IAF has had a Project Management Team in ADA since 2004. The delays in the LCA perhaps needed early whip-crack. IAF has been keeping the MoD informed in writing and kept recording delays and observations (many flight safety critical) in minutes of the meetings. But no one ever came hard on the ADA program managers who kept giving unachievable hope and deadlines. LCA Tejas is too important and its success is of national importance and critical for survival of indigenous aviation industry. Test pilots have confirmed that the aircraft flies well. Touchwood we have not lost a single aircraft till date since its first flight in 2001. LCA program will be on for next thirty odd years and it will be followed by the DRDO-HAL Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) so it will be a good idea for IAF to take charge of this important project now. To begin with the entire fixed wing complex of HAL Bangalore division should be handed over to IAF. The government proposal to bring ADA, ADE and GTRE, all of which contribute directly to the aviation programs, under control of IAF brings hope and would put the IAF in the driver's seat.

Also, this entire business of costing of aircraft by HAL needs a detailed review and areas of inefficiency plugged. The DGAQA must be headed by an IAF officer preferably of Engineering branch. Only in this manner the entire aircraft building cycle from design, production and operational logistics can be efficiently managed.


Air Marshal Anil Chopra, is a pioneer of the Mirage 2000 fleet. He also commanded two operational air bases and the IAF’s Flight Test Center ASTE. He is a former member of Armed Forces Tribunal Lucknow
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