Friday, May 24, 2024

Safety On The Backburner: Why HAL’s Faltering Will Not Stop

By Aritra Banerjee

An Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) belonging to the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) was compelled to make an emergency landing in Kochi, Kerala on 26 March, while pilots were performing tests on the aircraft. According to ICG officials, the helicopter was hovering at approximately 25 feet when it was forced to land.

The cause of the forced landing remains unclear, and an investigation has been launched to determine the exact circumstances that led to the incident. The coast guard had highlighted (at the time of print) that “efforts are underway to resume operations of the ALH Dhruv fleet.”

This occurrence marks the second ALH-related incident and the third safety related issue faced by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) produced helicopters in less than 20 days.

One of the Indian Navy’s Advanced Light Helicopters (ALH) crashed earlier this month on 8 March. The personnel onboard performed a “controlled ditching in the water” after the aircraft experienced a “sudden loss of power” and a “rapid loss of height”. It was the Indian Navy ALH fleet’s first-ever serious accident. The service suspended operations of the entire fleet of these choppers which remains in force (at the time of press).

On 16 March, an Army Aviation Cheetah helicopter met a similar fate. This one took place in Arunachal Pradesh. Both pilots onboard died. It was the second deadly crash in Arunachal Pradesh in less than six months. The previous accident, an Army ALH crash that claimed the lives of five personnel in October 2022, is still fresh in memory.

These incidents put state-owned HAL under scrutiny yet again. Inevitably, the navratna public sector undertaking’s (PSU) dodgy past with military aircraft safety caught the spotlight.

Nearly a dozen and a half major accidents of the ALH have occurred across the services. The trend of multiple crashes is observed amongst other HAL-developed and serviced aircraft as well.

Aftermath of the ICG ALH crash which took place on 26 March 2023

HAL’s Glaring Faults

The difference now, however, lies in the causes these crashes have been attributed to. Earlier, it was a mixed bag of reasons, ranging from human error to weather conditions to technical faults. More recently, though, critical technical failures have been cited as the sole cause of these unfortunate and sometimes fatal events.

According to senior military officials, technical defects in HAL-designed and manufactured products could largely be attributed to the PSU itself. HAL’s production challenges have been a common denominator in aircraft crashes. While design-related issues have contributed to a few crashes, reliability and production quality are significant factors in indigenously-built aircraft accidents.

HAL’s response was to state that “precautionary checks” will be conducted, and operations will remain halted until investigators determine the cause of the incident. The company has assured customers that it is taking steps to ensure that the fleet is fully operational.

External Damage

HAL’s issues are of great significance to the robustness of India’s military-industrial complex and the country’s reputation regarding defence exports. According to sources, HAL’s poor safety and reliability record led to a horrible accident in Ecuador, where the company exported the ALH. HAL’s poor spare support damaged the reputation of the domestic industry and negatively impacted the country’s name, contributing to the lack of exports.

The Rafale procurement process was also affected by the PSU’s poor reputation. Dassault Aviation hesitated to enter into a deal with HAL during the process due to the company’s quality control issues. This clearly highlighted the lack of confidence in HAL’s production capabilities.

It also underscores the importance of addressing these issues to ensure India’s military-industrial complex’s continued success and reputation. The stakes are high.

Pilots from the Army Aviation Corps who were killed in the Cheetah helicopter crash on 12 March 2023

Too Big To Fail?

HAL is a critical player in the Indian defence and aerospace sector. It is expected to address these issues, improve production technology, and enhance quality control processes to maintain its position. That does not seem to be happening. HAL appears to be ‘too big to fail’.

Usually, several untoward incidences, back-to-back, would result in the loss of contracts or even a company having to shut down shop. Not for HAL. A mere four days after the Navy’s ALH helicopter crashed, HAL secured an order worth Rs 667 crore from the Indian Air Force (IAF) to procure six Domier-228 aircraft, which will be used for route transport and communication duties.

During Aero India 2023, months after the deadly accident in October, HAL’s Chairman and Managing Director CB Ananthakrishnan proudly proclaimed, “we are in a comfortable position today with an order of Rs 84,000 crore we are sitting on, and orders in the pipeline of about Rs 50,000 crore.”

Even HAL’s stock prices have remained stable at Rs 2,844.05, although investors are now closely monitoring developments. It would appear that business as usual, almost devoid of any setback, continues for the domestic giant despite multiple mishaps.

There has been a strong demand for the company to take swift action to regain the trust of its partners and customers. A way forward has been suggested, too. However, HAL’s influence itself remains a major roadblock in implementing any quick reform.

HAL Dodgy On Privatisation

Industry analysts have sounded the alarm over HAL’s production facilities, warning that they are falling behind those of similar scale on a global level. Even facilities established mere decades ago in India by foreign companies are outpacing those of the Navratna PSU.

Quality and production processes are critical for the nature of projects undertaken by HAL, such as the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas Mk1A, which is already under order, and the LCA Tejas MK2 DNT, currently in progress.

Sources have opined that HAL needs to involve the private sector not merely as small parts vendors/sub-vendors but as critical suppliers in the chain, utilising their cost competitiveness and accountability to make better products. HAL should let go of turf and facilitate a level playing field, outsourcing to the private sector.

Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal Vivek Ram Chaudhari, reinforced this view in a recent interview, where he hinted at some scepticism over HAL’s ability to deliver critical indigenous aircraft projects on time. The IAF Chief said, “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.”

The private sector is expected to bring scalability and accountability advantages. Yet, it stands at bay. Whispers in the corridors underscore the open secret: HAL does not want the private sector to significantly penetrate defence production. They are likely to be more competitive and hurt it in the long run. Thus, issues that have claimed precious lives are treated only as industrial problems that HAL can overcome with proper levels of investment. In simpler words– more funds for the domestic giant.

HAL’s challenges must be resolved, as several HAL aircraft are expected to be inducted into the services soon, serving as the backbone of India’s military operations when the geopolitical security situation is sensitive.

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