By Aritra Banerjee
Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul (MRO) is a critical component of aircraft operations. It is complex, vital, and requires specialised skills, expertise, and a license. In India, MRO for military aviation has traditionally been performed by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, the Indian Air Force, and foreign Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs). However, with the expansion of the aviation industry and the increasing involvement of private players in the establishment of MRO facilities within the country, the field is becoming increasingly competitive.
Military aircraft, including fighter jets, transport planes, helicopters, and trainers, are designed to operate in harsh conditions and must meet rigorous requirements for durability and performance. These aircraft are built with specialised materials to withstand extreme temperatures, stealth, and battle damage and are equipped with unique systems such as fire control radar, electronic warfare systems, and weapon control systems.
Maintenance is a crucial aspect of aircraft operations and plays a significant role in the overall cost of an aircraft over its lifetime. Designers typically plan MRO tasks, ranging from small to large in scope. These tasks differ from routine line maintenance, which is typically carried out by airline staff or uniformed personnel. MRO activities are complex, labour-intensive, and time-consuming and must be performed strictly in line with aviation safety regulations.
MRO is not limited to aircraft alone but also includes a wide range of equipment such as radars, communication systems, surface-to-air guided weapons, specialised vehicles, test equipment, ground equipment, and survival gear. These systems and equipment are also subject to rigorous MRO processes and quality control standards.
Military MRO In India
In India, MRO for military aircraft and systems is primarily carried out by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), Bharat Electronics Ltd, Base Repair Depots (BRDs), and, in some cases, by foreign OEMs. However, MRO done by foreign companies is often expensive and time-consuming and can be hindered by proprietary clauses and a lack of technology sharing from the OEMs. This makes it difficult for India to achieve self-sufficiency in MRO and can lead to delays and supply shortages for critical spare parts.
With a focus on self-reliance, the Indian Defense Forces are increasingly utilising platforms and equipment made in India. This includes military aircraft such as the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA Tejas), the Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH Dhruv), and the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH Tejas). Plans are also in place to bring similar defence equipment for all three services.
To support the maintenance and repair of these platforms, there is significant potential for outsourcing MRO work on different parts of aircraft or other systems. These services are primarily provided by defence public sector units (DPSUs) and foreign OEMs. However, private partners can be key in sharing the workload and improving efficiency.
As more companies enter the MRO market, there will also be opportunities to expand into related fields, such as spare parts manufacturing, consumable sales, and the repair and maintenance of ground equipment, test equipment, and speciality vehicles. These developments will also drive academic research and development in areas such as reliability improvement, cost and time reduction, and changes to MRO processes.
Military aircraft are significantly more complex than civilian aircraft, requiring specialised technology and expertise for MRO. India’s military aircraft and equipment come from various sources and age ranges, making MRO procedures particular to each type. Due to the specialised nature of military aircraft MRO, the number of qualified technicians is limited. However, this can be addressed through targeted training programs. The Indian government has recognised the potential for private companies to play a role in MRO work and has initiated efforts to connect them with skilled technicians and experienced veterans.
For existing equipment, defence establishments and public sector units (DPSUs) can work with private companies to divide and outsource MRO tasks. This will require support in the form of technology and other inputs from the government and DPSUs.
There is also potential for private partnerships in MRO for domestically-produced platforms, which can serve as regional hubs for maintenance support as they are exported. It is crucial for design and production agencies to prioritise MRO technology and capabilities in order to provide the best support for the longevity of these assets. Involvement in military MRO can also benefit India’s civil aviation industry through exposure to high-tech procedures and the development of new capabilities.
To perform MRO work, companies must also possess the necessary licenses and have access to the technology and repair procedures. Additionally, companies must also have a reliable supply of spare parts. This can be challenging, particularly for foreign-made equipment, as OEMs may be hesitant to share technology and spare parts.
One of the significant challenges in military aircraft MRO is the need for support in remote and harsh operational environments. MRO companies must be prepared to provide on-site support to field units, which requires significant investment in mobile facilities and equipment.
The Road Ahead
The Indian defence industry is shifting towards self-reliance, with a focus on utilising more domestically-produced military equipment and platforms. Private companies in India have begun to venture into military MRO, but the industry is not yet fully prepared for this task.
To ensure self-sufficiency, it is vital for MRO plans to be developed and implemented during the contracting stage of foreign equipment purchases. This includes convincing OEMs to transfer necessary technology and information to Indian agencies.
A collaborative effort between agencies in the defence and aviation industries can drive growth and advancement.