Te­jas pro­duc­tion dis­rupted as IAF sits on pro­pos­als

Business Standard - - FRONT PAGE - AJAI SHUKLA

For 10 months now, Hin­dus­tan Aero­nau­tics Ltd’s (HAL’s) pro­posal to man­u­fac­ture 83 Te­jas Mark 1A fight­ers, which the min­istry of de­fence (MoD) green-lighted in De­cem­ber 2017, has been pend­ing with the In­dian Air Force (IAF). With no clear­ance forth­com­ing from the

IAF’s “tech­ni­cal eval­u­a­tion com­mit­tee” (TEC), the pro­ject remains in limbo.

HAL’s com­mer­cial bid remains un­opened and an ac­tual pro­duc­tion or­der, at a price to be fixed by a “cost-ne­go­ti­at­ing com­mit­tee”, is nowhere in sight.

This Te­jas Mark 1A or­der, worth ~50,000 crore in the es­ti­ma­tion of De­fence Min­is­ter Nir­mala Sithara­man, con­sti­tutes half the or­ders worth ~100,000 crore that she told Par­lia­ment had been given to HAL, and then later clar­i­fied were “in the pipe­line”. The pipe­line should have a clearly de­fined length. The De­fence Pro­cure­ment Pro­ce­dure of 2016 (DPP-2016) re­quires the TEC to com­plete its eval­u­a­tion in 10 weeks. It has al­ready been with the IAF for 10 months.

Con­tacted for com­ment, the IAF has not re­sponded.

HAL Chair­man R Mad­ha­van says the or­der is vi­tal for smooth pro­duc­tion. This year, HAL’s Te­jas in­te­gra­tion line will de­liver eight fight­ers, and will also ramp up pro­duc­tion to 16 fight­ers a year. How­ever, there are only 20 more Te­jas Mark 1 fight­ers on or­der. That means, with­out the or­der for 83 Te­jas Mark 1A air­craft, the line will grind to a halt in 2020. For now, HAL’s only hope is that prospec­tive for­eign cus­tomers, such as Malaysia, place or­ders for the Te­jas, which would keep its pro­duc­tion line go­ing. As Busi­ness Stan­dard re­ported last Tues­day, the Royal Malaysian Air Force could buy up to 30 Te­jas Mark 1 fight­ers.

“We can­not af­ford Te­jas pro­duc­tion com­ing to a stop. Stopand-start pro­duc­tion has fi­nan­cial costs, and dis­rupts the sup­ply chain. And de­lay raises labour costs and for­eign ex­change ap­pre­ci­a­tion,” says Mad­ha­van.

The IAF coun­ters that HAL is still to de­liver two or­ders it has re­ceived for 20 fight­ers each. But, in fact, the or­der is only for 32 fight­ers, not 40.

“We can­not af­ford Te­jas pro­duc­tion com­ing to a stop. Stop-and-start pro­duc­tion has fi­nan­cial costs, and dis­rupts the sup­ply chain” R Mad­ha­van HAL Chair­man

The re­main­ing eight fight­ers are the twin-seat trainer vari­ant, for which the IAF is still to is­sue the “air staff re­quire­ments” (ASRs) – or the spec­i­fi­ca­tions to which they must be built.

This de­lay is hap­pen­ing be­cause, in 2016, the IAF sud­denly de­manded that its twin­seat train­ers must also have mid-air-re­fu­elling ca­pa­bil­ity. This ca­pa­bil­ity had ear­lier been de­cided for only the sin­gle-seat fighter, but was not re­quired in the twin-seat train­ers. The IAF’s change of mind in­volves sig­nif­i­cant re-en­gi­neer­ing, since the long, droop­ing nose of the twin­seater presents ad­di­tional chal­lenges.

HAL can start this de­vel­op­ment only when the IAF is­sues the ASRs for mid-air re­fu­elling for the twin-seat vari­ant. There­after, the de­vel­op­ment would take at least two years. Only then can the twin-seat Te­jas – eight train­ers from the first or­der of 40 air­craft and 10 from the 83 Mark 1A or­der – en­ter pro­duc­tion.

Un­til then, only two Te­jas train­ers ex­ist – pro­to­types built years ago. With no twin-seat train­ers be­ing built, there are se­ri­ous prob­lems in train­ing Te­jas pilots. Since the ex­ist­ing two twin-seaters are needed for the flight-test pro­gramme, rookie Te­jas pilots must rely on mainly sim­u­la­tor train­ing, rather than real fly­ing.

In the Te­jas assem­bly hangar, Busi­ness Stan­dard saw two spank­ing new Te­jas fight­ers ready for de­liv­ery. An­other two were get­ting their fi­nal touches. When those are de­liv­ered by March 31, HAL will have – for the first time – achieved the pro­duc­tion mile­stone of eight fight­ers per year.

The IAF charges HAL with hav­ing taken too long to reach this level of pro­duc­tion. But the HAL chief as­cribes that to the IAF con­stantly shift­ing goal­posts. “Much of the de­lay is due to chang­ing Te­jas spec­i­fi­ca­tions. Te­jas pro­duc­tion was cleared in 2013. But, from that time till to­day, there have been over 300 changes to the fighter. We need to freeze a sin­gle stan­dard for the fighter,” points out Mad­ha­van. En­demic de­lays in the Te­jas pro­gramme – whether due to de­vel­op­men­tal de­lay by

the De­fence R&D Or­gan­i­sa­tion, pro­duc­tion de­lay by HAL or the ab­sence of over­sight and own­er­ship by the IAF – have had se­vere fi­nan­cial reper­cus­sions.

In 2006, the con­tract for the first 20 Te­jas Mark 1 was con­cluded at a price of ~106 crore per fighter. In 2015, when pro­duc­tion fi­nally got un­der­way, HAL sub­mit­ted a re­quest ask­ing for it to be in­creased to ~194 crore. The sec­ond batch of 20 fight­ers will likely top ~200 crore apiece. And the 83 Te­jas Mark 1A, with sig­nif­i­cant (and ex­pen­sive) ca­pa­bil­ity en­hance­ments de­manded by the IAF – in­clud­ing ad­vanced radar, elec­tronic war­fare sys­tems and bet­ter main­tain­abil­ity – will likely cost over ~400 crore per fighter.

“Ul­ti­mately, the blame lies with the air force, which has treated the Te­jas pro­ject like a step-child. The Te­jas has grown in ca­pa­bil­ity, but the IAF has pre­ferred re­ly­ing on for­eign fight­ers like the Rafale. Now, if or­ders for the Te­jas Mark 1A are not placed early, its cost will rise, giv­ing the IAF yet an­other rea­son to op­pose it,” says Bharat Kar­nad of the Cen­tre for Pol­icy Re­search.

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