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Transport aircraft futures for the Indian Air force

Saurav Jha http://@SJha1618

Updated: March 24, 2015, 12:12 PM IST
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Ever since the Ministry of Defence (MoD) issued its 2009 directive to prepare the military for a two front war, there has been a heightened sense of urgency in acquiring transport platforms that can move men and materiel over considerable distances at short notice. Prior to this, the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami had also brought to light the need to bring in longer ranged airborne platforms that can sustain humanitarian support across the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

Accordingly, the Indian Air force (IAF) is recapitalizing its entire transport fleet with a view to becoming more potent in out of area operations besides being able to support the Indian Army's (IA's) ever growing logistical requirements.

While in the short term, quick buys of American platforms through the foreign military sales (FMS) route such as Boeing's C-17 Globemaster III and Lockheed Martin's C-130Js have been effected, it is clear that the IAF's requirements need to be actually used to spur the progressive indigenization of its transport aircraft pool. Moreover the IAF's transport aircraft needs could well be used to seed a second domestic original equipment maker (OEM) besides HAL from within India's private sector.

India ordered 10 C-17s from Boeing in June 2011 for $ 4.1 billion. Described sometimes as both a tactical and strategic airlifter since it can land combat capable soldiers in remote locations or airdrop paratroops directly to specific points in addition to being able to carry a T-90 to a respectable altitude, the C-17's ability to back up over a 2 degree gradient also facilitates operation on both narrow taxiways as well as congested ramps. The plane according to the manufacturer has a maximum payload of 74,797 kg, a maximum range of 4320 kms and can take off and land in 3,000 feet or less.

The C-17's 'hot and high' capability is of particular interest to the IAF that has to contend with very varied terrain indeed. In a fast paced limited conflict the C-17's ability to operate from some relatively bare airstrips in all-weather conditions make it a useful asset for reinforcing remote regions along our Northern borders.

Boeing as per contract will also support India's C-17 fleet through the C-17 Globemaster III Sustainment Partnership which is a multinational 'performance-based logistics program'. And which apparently gives 'access to an extensive support network for worldwide parts availability and economies of scale' according to Boeing. It would however be interesting to see how this really turns out in the coming decades for the IAF given the vagaries of the Indo-US relationship.

Of course the C-17 is not the only American transport platform that has found favour with the IAF. Indeed the timely delivery of the first six C-130Js contracted from Lockheed Martin in 2008 (all six were delivered ahead of schedule in 2011) and currently based in Hindon gave India confidence with respect to being able to obtain aircraft from American production lines that are running hot. There is no doubt that the choice of American platforms at some level has been driven by their ability to deliver quickly at a time when India needs to be ready to face the possibility of a co-ordinated move by China and Pakistan in the logistically difficult northern sector.

The C-130J proved its usefulness during the 2011 Sikkim earthquake and a satisfied IAF chose to exercise the option clause from its prior contract with Lockheed Martin for six more C-130J-30s in late 2011.

One more C-130J is on order to replace the unit which crashed in early 2014 near Gwalior. Once delivered, the later tranche of C-130Js will be based at Panagarh in West Bengal and are expected to serve both the North East as well as island chains in the Bay of Bengal. IAF C-130Js though stripped of some US origin equipment such as high precision GPS receivers have had these replaced by indigenous substitutes that enable them to tie in with the IAF's AFNET.

They will also be able to receive signals from the Indian Regional Navigational Satellite System (IRNSS) in the very near future. Meanwhile, under the bilateral India-US Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) a roll on roll off ISR suite is likely to be inducted for the IAF's C-130Js, some of which are actually akin to the special forces supporting MC-130J variant in use with the USAF.

Meanwhile, any decision to order more new C-17s (by exercising the options clause for six more) will however be concomitant on the willingness of American majors to discharge standard offset requirements. At the moment the Americans have not been able to show the desired level of commitment to meet offset obligations. Their attempt to discharge offset obligations through transfers in 'kind' of simulators and supersonic wind tunnels has not gone down well with some sections in Indian industry. Even the trisonic wind tunnel, that DRDO is receiving as part of offsets for the C-17 deal, is actually a decades old American wind tunnel which is being stripped and sent to India with all the moving parts being replaced with new ones.

The offset policy after all has been setup to create the maximum possible level of work share possibilities for the emerging Indian military industrial complex. And it should not be forgotten that these sizeable orders were placed by India at a difficult time for American industry in general. For instance Boeing's Long Beach C-17 production line was kept humming through 2014 in no small measure due to these Indian orders.
What we see above is precisely the reason why the turn towards US transport types does not mean that the Russians are out of the game as far as the IAF's future transport fleet is concerned. Indeed while the Americans are dithering on discharging even standard offset requirements, Russia is involved with India in over 200 joint military projects.

And despite DTTI, it is Russia and to a more limited extent Israel and France, with whom India will continue to be engaged in substantive co-development ventures in the medium to longer term. Indeed after the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft Program and the Brahmos, the Indo-Russian Medium Transport Aircraft (MTA) is the largest collaborative project between India and Russia. In October 2012, a preliminary design phase (PDP) agreement was signed between UAC transport aircraft (UAC-TA), HAL and MTA Limited (MTAL), which is the 50:50 Indo-Russian joint venture that is executing the development of this aircraft.

Following the PDP contract, at least 31 Indian engineers have been based in UAC-TA since December 2012.

HAL is also simultaneously carrying out its share of the MTA development workload at the Aircraft R&D Centre in Bangalore. Of course, it is HAL's Transport Aircraft Division (TAD) in Kanpur that will produce the prototypes besides undertaking serial production once development is complete. HAL's other divisions will contribute in terms of components and sub-assemblies. At least 205 MTAs are projected to be built for the Indian and Russian militaries plus exports.

The MTA for which 45 initial orders from the IAF are projected should be seen as a modern successor to the now retired An-12 and its payload capability will be between 15 to 20 tons. Its maximum, cruise speed will be just under 800 kms/hr with a maximum targeted range capability of over 2600 kms. The fuselage length is projected at 115 feet, extending another 15 feet if the tail section is taken into account with a total wingspan of 129 feet. This is expected to allow the MTA to carry fully equipped soldiers seated six-abreast across a 11-foot cabin cross section, along with a pair of standard sized IA trucks.

Be that as it may the IAF continues to be unsatisfied with the Aviadvigatel PS-90A76 engine that Ilyushin is proposing for the MTA. The PS-90A76 has already been selected for the Il-76MD-90/90A transport and was identified as the primary candidate for powering the development prototype of the MTA as well as the initial batch of production aircraft which are slated to roll out by 2020. However according to sources in HAL the IAF wants an engine that can relight at an altitude that is beyond the capabilities of the PS-90A76 or that of any contemporary high bypass turbofan for that matter.

The final engine choice however will be decided by MTAL and the more contemporary PS-14 engine developed for Irkut's MS-21 narrowbody airliner is under consideration especially so that the IAF's 'hot and high' requirements are more easily met. At the moment the maximum airfield elevation that the proposed MTA could operate from is 10,800ft and the IAF wants to see if this can be enhanced to 13,400ft. The PS-14 might help approach this targeted increase in high altitude operational capability.

The newest prospect as far as the Indian private sector is concerned in the realm of transport procurements by the IAF was supposed to be the planned move to acquire a replacement for the venerable HS-748(Avro), something that the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) had cleared as a valid requirement in 2012. The Avro replacement tender involves the procurement of at least 56 transport aircraft, 16 of which will be bought off the shelf from a foreign OEM with the remaining forty produced in India by an Indian production agency (IPA) from the private sector.

After fulfilling the initial contract the IPA will also be allowed to supply planes to the domestic sector or indeed export them.

Moreover in the future, the Avro successor could also start replacing the An-32 fleet which is currently undergoing an upgrade programme. Indeed as mentioned above the MTA is better seen as a modern analogue to the An-12 rather than something that can also subsume the role of the An-32. This means that the real worth of the Avro contract is far in excess of the Rs 13000 crore figure currently being projected for the tender.

Unfortunately this program seems to have fallen prey to a lack of wider private sector interest and pulls and pressures between the public and private sectors. Currently this tender faces a single vendor situation with only an Airbus-Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL) consortium remaining in the fray with their C-295W offering which has upgraded engines with enhanced hot and high performance.

All other private sector contenders for the program offering a potential locally built version of a foreign design have pulled out since.

What is more HAL which was kept out of this bid, began suggesting that refurbished Avros could potentially do the job and that the C-295 constitutes a far more capable and expensive prospect to be dubbed as a replacement for the Avros.

However the IAF seems to want a replacement cargo aircraft with a rear ramp and that rules out the Avro since it doesn't have one.

MoD which is currently said to be evaluating the future course of action for the Avro replacement program, has meanwhile awarded HAL some new work in the transport aircraft arena which should keep it engaged for a while. HAL has recently secured an IAF order to build 14 new Dornier Do-228s at TAD, besides export orders to certain IOR countries. TAD is now also a Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) approved facility to maintain and repair Do 228 and Avro aircraft.

This should keep TAD, Kanpur busy till the MTA fructifies. And the need for the MTA given India's expanding global footprint is never likely to diminish.

In fact, if one looks at HAL's ongoing and future programmes it is quite clear that the company is certainly not going to be wanting for orders. Indeed some would say that HAL is already oversubscribed and the Indian aerospace sector needs a second OEM to meet prospective military requirements in a timely manner.

And that is precisely why the Avro replacement tender had been reserved for the Indian private sector in a bid to create a second major aircraft integrator albeit through the license production route.

Unfortunately, the Avro tender as we can see ran into the feared single vendor situation which as per current Defence Procurement Procedures calls for re-tendering unless otherwise cleared by the DAC to be progressed on a nomination basis.

But then, nominating a private consortium for a program in India usually proves to be a little different from nominating a public sector entity for the same.

Which is why there have been calls to re-tender the program with 'relaxed parameters', that would allow more than one private sector bidder to qualify. Subsequently, the standard 'lowest bidder or L-1 route' would be followed to select the winning consortium. To be frank however, the L-1 route may not be an optimal path to pursue for key Indian aerospace programmes in general. The aerospace sector is ultimately about capabilities and quality, and while a company may end up getting selected via the L-1 process, especially if the parameters not be set high enough, it could well turn out that the said company is actually unable to deliver a cost effective or timely solution, if at all. That would of course defeat the entire purpose of adhering to the L-1 process in the first place.

In the Avro replacement tender, technology absorption potential of the IPA and current track record is certainly critical to the success of the program. And today there are only a few private players in India who are actually well positioned to achieve this. In fact that is precisely why you are faced with a single vendor situation anyway.

It must be said, that TASL is certainly a domestic Indian player that has the potential to leverage its foreign partnership for the Avro replacement tender. TASL seems to have grown significantly since 2009, by leveraging foreign collaborations to develop aerospace manufacturing capability dovetailed to the international market which naturally puts a premium on quality and efficiency. Today the company delivers to Sikorsky, six S-92 helicopter cabins a month, for which it builds 4-5000 components in house and can turn out a helicopter cabin every 4.5 days.

Through its JV with Lockheed Martin, TASL also builds aero-structures such as C-130J centre wing box spares and empennage sections for the export market. Interestingly, TASL has now graduated to producing the 'green aircraft' for both the Dornier Do-228NG as well as the Pilatus PC-12, with deliveries expected to commence in the second quarter of 2015. 'Green Aircraft' of course refers to a fully flyable airframe that has an empty interior and sports a green hue due to an anti-corrosion coating. It is also involved in building components as well as integrating ground based mission control systems for key DRDO missile programs.

Now if the DAC thinks that the IAF should indeed go ahead with an Avro replacement at this point it could well avoid going through another round of cumbersome tendering and consider progressing on a nomination basis. If the idea behind reserving the Avro replacement tender for the private sector was to expedite the setting up of a second major aircraft integrating facility in India outside of HAL such a decision can certainly be justified on strategic grounds, especially given that no other private player has chosen to bid for the program anyway.

Follow Saurav Jha on twitter @SJha1618.

First Published: March 24, 2015, 12:12 PM IST

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