Air Vice Marshal Sharad Kumar Jain
The Indian Air Force (IAF) operates a wide range of weapon platforms/systems. These vary in terms of vintage, country of origin and level of technology. Sustenance of these assets is done through Base Repair Depots (BRDs), Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Divisions and the Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM).
The maintenance philosophy of the IAF is predominantly preventive maintenance that is periodic in nature, as mandated by the OEM. The technology for these maintenance schedules is obtained from the OEM during the acquisition stage and is adapted into the IAF’s existing structures and practices. Thus, whilst the IAF’s maintenance philosophy is robust, obsolescence and supply chain disruptions have remained the primary challenges to fleet sustenance.
Consequently, about three decades back, the IAF had embarked on a mission of ‘self-help’ that had been brought about by supply chain disruptions triggered by the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Indigenisation in the IAF is undertaken by the 13 BRDs and the Central Indigenisation and Manufacturing Depot (CIMD), which functions under the Command and Control of Headquarter Maintenance Command (HQ MC), thereby ensuring unity in effort in this critical task.
Nodal Technology Centres have also been established at BRDs to coordinate, facilitate and steer the development process. Whilst the changes were incremental and established over a period of time, the IAF’s achievements over the years in this regard have helped it tide over various critical periods, including the sanctions following the nuclear tests of May 98.
However, the IAF has had to learn and adapt along the way – both technologically, as well as organisationally. The process started with ‘Indigenisation and Substitution Cells’ that were established at BRDs from within existing resources. The lessons learnt were then codified into a ‘Manual of Indigenisation,’ which is aligned with the concerned regulations issued by the Centre for Military Airworthiness and Certification (CEMILAC).
The need for aligning with CEMILAC standards arises from the stringent requirements that are required for issuing airworthiness certifications. The stages involved include the generation of technical specifications, selection of material, preparation of engineering drawings, development of a prototype and finally, Qualification Acceptance Testing for airworthiness certification. Each indigenised component, regardless of its size, needs to meet these stringent airworthiness standards.
This includes what are referred to as ‘Aircraft General Spares’ which primarily comprise items such as nuts, bolts, washers, screws, split pins, sealing rings, gaskets, etc. Over 95% of such low technology-high volume requirement items are indigenised by BRDs. The next target for indigenisation were complex items affected by poor product support from foreign OEMs, items having high failure rates and/or long supply lead times. The indigenisation efforts in IAF are not limited to material spares but also include intellectual contribution in the Total Technical Life Review of aviation assets. This has entailed over 120 studies with respect to life reviews, upgrades and modifications.
With an ever-improving scientific and technological base in the country, the IAF has also initiated an outreach to Indian academia, industry and research and development (R&D) agencies. The requirements of the IAF are thus promulgated on the IAF’s website as well as the Srijan Defence Web Portal of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for wider visibility and transparency. Indigenous fleet sustenance in the coming years would hinge on five pillars. The first of these would seek to address the requirement of spares for Scheduled Maintenance, which would continue to be a high volume, low cost and low technology requirement even in the future.
There is also the need to indigenously develop complex components/LRUs, which would require innovative approaches by Indian entities capable of doing so. Manufacturing in a series production environment would continue to be beset by low volumes and technological complexities. This in turn, would require the assimilation of emerging manufacturing techniques like 3D printing, etc. Another low-volume requirement that would need to be addressed is that of aviation-grade raw materials, where the Indian industry can again contribute. ROH would be the ultimate target wherein we can evolve the requisite technology without ToT. One possible approach in this regard could be offering the Factory-in-Factory concept to Indian industries.
In the initial period of indigenisation by the IAF, the biggest support system for BRDs were local Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs). This collaborative approach needs to be expanded upon to include the current and improved technological base of the country. In the present scenario, indigenisation efforts of IAF is an area of value and aptly aligns with National Policy of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat.’
AVM Sharad Kumar Jain VSM is the Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Maintenance Planning)