by Air Marshal SBP Sinha (r.)
As far as the history recalls, Seth Walchand Hirachand created Hindustan Aircraft Limited on 23rd December 1940 in Bangalore in collaboration with Intercontinental Aircraft Corporation of USA to manufacture Harlow trainers, Curtiss Hawk fighters and Vultee Vengeance bombers under licence during World War II period.
The company was placed under the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in January 1951. And, since then the company manufactured Prentice, Vampire, Gnat and their engines holding due licence. In fact, it is the company that designed and manufactured HT-2 trainer, the first Indian aircraft to have been airborne with its 1st sortie in August 1951.
Later, in 1960, it was decided to induct Avro HS-748 transport aircraft in the Indian Air Force (IAF) and it was also decided to assemble the aircraft from kits supplied from the UK in the Aircraft Manufacturing Depot created for this purpose in Air Force Station Kanpur. The jigs were made ready by mid-1960 and the Depot flew its first Indian assembled HS-748 on 1st November 1961.
Following these milestones the Government of India (GoI) established Aeronautics India Limited in August 1963 to manufacture MiG-21 under licence with a factory in Ozhar (Maharashtra) for aircraft and another in Koraput (Odisha) for their, and other engines.
GoI formed Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) on 1st October 1964, by merging Hindustan Aircraft Limited, Aircraft Manufacturing Depot and Aeronautics India Limited, all together. A consolidation happened.
The merger led to Hindustan Aircraft Limited becoming HAL Bangalore Division and Aircraft Manufacturing Depot becoming HAL Kanpur Division. The factory at Ozhar became HAL Nasik Division and the factory at Koraput became HAL Engine Division. Respectively.
HAL also created an Avionics Division in Hyderabad to support MiG-21 manufacturing and was also placed under the aegis of Department of Defence Production, MoD, GoI.
Post-independence, Hindustan Aircraft Limited, Aircraft Manufacturing Depot and HAL together have licence manufactured prenticebasic trainer aircrafts like, Vampire, Gnat and its variant Ajeet, Avro, three variants of MiG-21, Chetak, Cheetah, Jaguar, Dornier, MiG-27, Su-30 MKI, Hawk and engines for some of them under its licences.
HAL has aided to upgrade the MiG-21 Bis to MiG-21 BISON under its licence and was upgrading Mirage 2000s too. During this entire period of seven decades, Indian aviation industry stagnated due to lack of requisite infrastructure, test facilities and scientific base to indigenously developed aircrafts.
As a result, all types of aircraft were imported, and their components and spare parts continue to be largely imported as their indigenisation did not receive due attention because it was easier and cheaper to import than to develop them indigenously. This caused the capabilities of Indian aviation industry to not grow commensurate with the very large numbers and variety of aircraft manufactured over the last 70 years.
HAL indigenously designed and manufactured Pushpak trainer aircraft for flying clubs, Krishak for Air Observation role of Army, HT-2 and HPT-32 Basic Trainer Aircraft, HJT-16 ‘Kiran’ Intermediate Jet Trainer and HF-24 fighter. IAF operated nearly 150 HT-2 between 1953 to 1989 and nearly 125 HPT-32 between 1984 to 2009. Nearly 118 Mk I, 72 Mk IA and 50 Mk II variants of Kiran have been the backbone of pilot training in IAF over the last four decades and continues till date.
HF-24 ‘Marut’ was the 1st indigenously designed and developed (D&D) Indian fighter aircraft for the country. 1st HF-24 prototype flew on 17th June 1961 and 1st HF-24 was inducted in IAF on 1st April 1967. HF-24 was not only the 1st Indian jet fighter but also the 1st Asian jet fighter outside the USSR to go into successful manufacturing.
HF-24 was designed in HAL by a team of German aeronautical engineers led by Professor Kurt Tank. Despite having excellent aerodynamic design, the HF-24 countered the challenge of low thrust due to underpowered engines. HF-24 performed very honorably in the 1971 war with Pakistan. After inducting 147 HF-24, its manufacture was closed without any attempt to overcome aircraft’s limitations or a follow-up D&D plan for another fighter aircraft. Abrupt closure of the HF-24 project killed the D&D capability for fighters in India undoubtedly. It took India nearly 40 years to fly another indigenously built fighter aircraft of its own.
Indian Armed Forces operate over 300 ‘Dhruv’Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) indigenously designed and manufactured by HAL, including its weaponised version, with many more on orders. Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) and Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) indigenously developed by HAL are at advanced stage of flight testing and certification and both Indian Army and Air Force would induct them in large numbers, as we all know.
HTT-40 Basic Trainer Aircraft indigenously developed by HAL is also at an advanced stage of its flight testing and certification and would shortly be inducted in IAF in large numbers. HAL is also indigenously developing IJT-36 Intermediate Jet Trainer. Further, HAL is indigenously upgrading Jaguar to DARIN III standard that includes new radar, fully integrated electronic warfare suite, glass cockpit, new avionics and new weapon attack systems.
Developing fighter aircrafts is an extremely complex process involving cutting-edge technologies in numerous fields. Having realised the void in indigenous D&D capability, the Government established Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) as a Society under Societies Registration Act, XXI of 1860 on 16th June 1984 under Department of Defence Research & Development (DDR&D) to D&D various types of aircraft. ADA is overseen by its ‘General Body’ with ‘Raksha Mantri’ (Defence Minister) as the President and ‘Vitta Mantri’ (Finance Minister) as the Vice President. The ‘Governing Body’ chaired by Secretary, DDR&D & Chairman DRDO manages, administers, directs and controls the activities of ADA.
‘Tejas’ Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) project commenced in earnest after the Government approved ADA’s proposal for ‘LCA Full Scale Engineering Development Phase-1’ in June 1993. This was a period when most manufacturers were rolling out 4th generation fighters and developing 5th generation technologies.
Therefore, ADA had to leapfrog to catch up with latest cutting-edge technologies and cover technology gaps created over four decades by stoppage of the HF-24 project. Technology Demonstrator of Tejas, TD-1, flew its 1st flight seven and half years later on 4th January 2001. Since then, Tejas Mk-1 prototypes and Limited Series Production fighters flew over 4,400 development test flights culminating in Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) in December 2013 and Final Operational Clearance (FOC) in February 2019. Tejas development timelines are comparable with those of many other contemporary fighters designed elsewhere in the world.
In the process of D&D of ‘Tejas’, ADA has matured technologies related to unstable aerodynamics, composite structures, digital fly-by-wire flight control system, digital avionics, glass cockpit, open architecture mission computers, air data computer, computerised management of electrical, hydraulic, fuel, braking and environment control systems. Tejas Mk-1 has 61.8% indigenous components by cost and 179 of 344 Line Replaceable Units are indigenous while another 46 units are at different stages of indigenous development and certification. Most importantly, India has evolved a very robust flight-testing and certification process along with test facilities for design and qualification of most required technologies. The fact that Tejas has flown over 5,000 test flights without any major incident highlights the robustness of the D&D process. These matured technologies will form the baseline in development of all future fighters and shorten their development period.
As we speak, we must understand that in the absence of requisite industrial base, DRDO in the process of developing and maturing indigenous technologies to hand hold the Indian industry and carried them along to reach a level of manufacturing that adheres to very stringent quality assurance requirements specified for aviation equipment and become self-reliant in manufacture of aviation products and their life-cycle product support.
Tejas project highlights the success story of indigenous D&D, manufacturing, and induction of a ‘4+ Generation Fighter’ into IAF. Tejas programme has also provided an impetus to indigenous development of cutting-edge air-to-air missiles, a variety of smart stand-off air-to-ground weapons, advanced AESA radar for fighters and advanced electronic warfare systems to enhance survivability. Tejas project has made India ‘Atma Nirbhar’ (Self Reliant) in most contemporary technologies related to fighters.
IAF’s 45 Squadron is fully operational and mission ready with 16 IOC Tejas Mk-1 while 18 Squadron is in the process of inducting FOC Tejas Mk-1. IAF’s contract for 83 Tejas Mk-1A from HAL is signed in February 2021 as the largest fighter procurement through a single contract as IAF thus far had procured around 36 to 40 fighters at any one time to equip two squadrons and repeated several such tranches to build larger fleets. Delivery of all 83 Tejas Mk-1A, consisting of 73 single-seater and 10 two-seaters, will start three years after contract signature and will be completed in five years between February 2024 and February 2029.
1st prototype of 4.5 Generation Tejas Mk-2, a bigger and more potent fighter, is planned to roll out in August 2022, and undertake its 1st flight by September 2023 and its manufacturing will commence from 2026. The aircraft will be equipped with state-of-the-art indigenous AESA radar, Infrared Search and Track (IRST) system for passive detection, Unified Electronic Warfare Suite (UEWS), Missile Approach Warning System (MAWS) and On-Board Oxygen Generation System (OBOGS) which in turn will create Indian ‘Original Equipment Manufacturers’ for AESA radar, IRST, UEWS, MAWS, OBOGS and provide a great boost to Indian aviation industry. OBOGS technology of Tejas has been adapted to provide ‘medical oxygen’ at a very large scale to hospitals to help them fight the COVID-19 pandemic. IAF plans to induct 10-12 Tejas Mk-2 squadrons.
Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), India’s Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft, being developed indigenously, and will be a twin-engine fighter with very advanced stealth technologies, serpentine air intakes, internal weapons bay, conformal antenna, flushed air data system, retractable air-to-air refuelling probe and multi-sensor data fusion with capability to operate in net-centric environment. AMCA will have supercruise capability, which enables fighters to accelerate and fly at supersonic speed without afterburners. AMCA will also be equipped with state-of-the-art indigenous AESA radar, IRST, UEWS, MAWS and OBOGS. To ensure expeditious development, AMCA will be manufactured in two variants. AMCA Mk-1, the 1st variant, will have two F414-GE-INS6 engines that are also being installed on Tejas Mk-2. AMCA Mk-2, the 2nd variant, will have two more powerful indigenously developed engines to achieve super-cruise capability. Government approval is being sought to indigenously develop the more powerful engine for AMCA in partnership with a reputed international engine company as part of the ‘Make in India’ initiative of the GoI. 1st AMCA prototype is planned to roll out in 2024 followed by 1st flight a year later. AMCA Mk-1 manufacturing will commence in 2034. IAF plans to induct seven AMCA squadrons.
After successfully validating naval technologies on Naval Tejas for operations from aircraft carriers, ADA has initiated D&D of a Twin-Engine Deck-Based Fighter (TEDBF) to meet future needs of the Indian Navy.
India is one of the few nations in the world having contemporary and strategic capabilities to design, develop and manufacture fighters, helicopters and trainer aircraft. Indigenous D&D programmes have saved the country billions of dollars in foreign exchange and have generated huge numbers of direct and indirect employment in the country. Manufacture of ALH, LCH, LUH, HTT-40, Tejas Mk-1 and Tejas Mk-1A creates an opportunity for exponential growth of the Indian aviation industry. Manufacture of Tejas Mk 2, AMCA and TEDBF with maximum indigenous onboard systems and subsystems will open new vistas for the Indian aviation industry to grow further and specialise.
All together these indigenous projects contribute immensely to ‘Make in India’ and ‘Atma Nirbhar Bharat’ campaigns of the Government while providing strategic, sovereign and robust options for manufacture of all future fighters, helicopters and trainer aircraft in India.
About the author: – Air Marshal SBP Sinha (r.) is the former Deputy Chief of Air Staff & Air Officer Commanding-in Chief of Central Air Command. He currently holds the DRDO Chair (Prof MGK Menon Chair).