Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Questions Hover Over ‘HAL’s Safety Record’ Amidst Major Export Aspirations; Private Sector Must Be Involved Say Experts On ‘Industry Reform’

By Aritra Banerjee

Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) once again featured prominently in aircraft crash-linked headlines in October. The spotlight fell on the quality of the indigenous equipment coming from HAL’s production line after an Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) claimed the lives of five Indian Army personnel. The design and safety issues that have plagued the Navratna Public Sector Undertaking (PSU) are deeply intertwined with the robustness of India’s military-industrial complex and the country’s reputation regarding defence exports.

To better understand this nexus, Indian Aerospace and Defence spoke with highly placed sources who have comprehensive air safety experience and are privy to HAL’s functioning. The sources included senior Indian Air Force (IAF) officers, including former deputy chiefs, a helicopter pilot serving in the Army Aviation Corps (AAC), and a pair of military aviation veterans with subject matter experience from their service in the IAF and working in the private sector.

These trusted sources revealed that the technical defects in HAL-designed and manufactured products could largely be attributed to the PSU itself. Although design-related issues contributed to a few crashes, the reliability and production quality issues, which are seen as significant factors in indigenously-built aircraft accidents, are more concerning.

Issues With HAL’s Aircraft

Illustrating the issue with an example, sources told IADB that with some products, HAL might provide the end user with a certain number of flying hours. However, the equipment fails half or one-fourth of the time guaranteed.

“Material failures” before the intended shelf life is completed are a part of reliability issues often indirectly related to HAL’s design. Instances of fuel leaks are an example of such failures. Sources told us that they happen when pipes are not correctly fitted. “A pipe from one aircraft can not be fitted on another plane due to a lack of commonality of parts; doing so may create several tolerance issues,” one source said.

Reliability issues have been identified as one of the most significant lapses in HAL-designed and manufactured products. Consequently, aerial assets are seen failing before their intended shelf life. Sources confirmed that some “bad aircraft losses” have taken place due to longstanding issues with the ALH. These include engine problems and instances of the rotary wing flying off. 

A source told IADB that issues like these “have been directly attributed to HAL”. For instance, the 2019 Mirage 2000 accident occurred when the aircraft was coming out of a HAL facility in Bangalore. The incident was blamed on “poor workmanship” during fitment. A highly placed source knowledgeable about the matter told IADB that “HAL had glossed over it; however, the IAF forced the company to identify the issues.” 

Another example is the case of a SU-30 fuel leak that led to a crash in 2009. This was attributed to HAL, too. There have also been Fly By Wire (FBW) issues which point to the state-owned manufacturer. “Some more ALH losses and some Su-30 production cases are instances of bad losses,” the source revealed. 

HAL’s internal quality, and by extension the quality of its overhaul division, was described as “weak” by a source. They said that HAL’s production technology and production quality both need to improve significantly. 

Helicopter maintenance repair and overhaul (MRO) delays concerning HAL is an ongoing issue; this had been discussed by DG Army Aviation, Lt Gen. AK Suri, and Lt Gen. SK Upadhya (r) from Adani Aerospace Defence during a panel discussion at the recent Aero MRO India 2022.

Export Potential Hampered

HAL’s image and safety and reliability record have impinged on the country’s export potential in the past. A source said, “look at the Ecuador example. HAL exported ALH, which met with a bad accident there. HAL provided poor spares support and ended up shaming the domestic industry at large and spoilt the country’s name.” They said that “part of the lack of exports is a result of these issues.”

This is not an isolated incident. During the Rafale procurement process, there was a stage where Dassault was hesitant to get into a deal with HAL, one source revealed. “One of the holding points in Dassault Aviation’s joint production with HAL was that the French Aerospace and Defense giant refused to take ownership of the quality control of what HAL manufactures,” the source clarified. 

The IAF reportedly told Dassault Aviation that since they are entering into a contract with them [Dassault Aviation], the guarantee and warranty would be required to be taken by the French company. According to sources privy to this deal, Dassault Aviation asked the IAF how they could be expected to guarantee the quality of what HAL produces. 

The instance paints a rather vivid image of a lack of confidence in HAL for the production, despite setting up the production facility as per the plan for Rafale, which would have been top-of-the-line.

Industry View

Industry watchers believe HAL’s production facilities are archaic compared to global production facilities of the same scale. The Navratna PSU’s facilities seemingly even fall short of foreign facilities in India that were established decades ago. 

Production processes and quality are key issues and critical for the nature of projects undertaken by HAL. The Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas Mk1A is already under order, and several allied countries have shown interest in the product. The LCA Tejas MK2 DNT is also in progress, and the order will be placed; Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) Prachand and ALH Mk4 are under the order. It is against this backdrop that longstanding issues and their impact stands out.

The upgradation of production technology and capabilities is especially relevant in the context of the new LCA Tejas Mk1A production and the subsequent production of the LCA Tejas Mk2s, which need to be top-of-the-line to be globally competitive. A source said that HAL’s LCA facility is “nowhere close” to the aircraft facilities set up by private sector companies despite being “produced in the same era”. 

One instance that a source narrated to the publication is especially helpful in grasping this context. “Wings made by a private sector player, significant components, and accessories utilise the private sector’s cost competitiveness and reliability. The level of accountability will be significantly higher as any untoward incident will result in the loss of contracts or lead the company to shut down its shop.” This has not been the case with HAL due to “a certain mindset and politicisation” of the company.

In other words, the private sector brings in a scalability and accountability advantage. However, there are political issues. Several voices have suggested that HAL does not want the private sector to penetrate the defence production market significantly as they are likely to be more competitive and hurt HAL in the long run. 

These have been described as critical industrial issues which HAL can overcome with the proper levels of investment. These challenges need to be resolved as the services are expected to see the induction of several HAL aircraft in the near future. These platforms would serve as the backbone of India’s military operations at a time when the geopolitical security situation is sensitive.

“HAL needs to involve the private sector, not merely as small parts vendors/sub-vendors, which is considered very low-key work. HAL should let go of turf and facilitate a level playing field. Outsourcing to the private sector is critical,” one source opined. 

They said that HAL must realise that involving the private sector can increase the production rate and utilise the entire ecosystem. When the numbers are high, the ecosystem has to grow. The level of private sector accountability must be used. 

HAL should utilise the private sector to feed into their chain substantially and utilise their cost competitiveness and accountability to produce better stuff. 

HAL production challenges have been a common denominator in aircraft crashes and require organisational reform. 

This view was reinforced by Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal Vivek Ram Chaudhari, in a recent interview where he hinted at some scepticism over the ability of HAL to deliver critical indigenous aircraft projects on time. The IAF Chief highlighted his expectations from the Navratna PSU, saying, “HAL should look at setting up a robust framework for support and sustenance of all its platforms. This would require an increased engagement with MSMEs and other private enterprises to ensure a complete supply chain.”

HAL production challenges have been a common denominator in aircraft crashes and require organisational reform. 

HAL did not respond to IADB’s request for comment at the time of print, any response if received will be added as a rejoinder in the e-magazine.

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