With India set to approve a $700 million deal with Switzerland’s Pilatus to purchase 75 new PC-7 basic propeller trainers, the Indian Air Force may also need to look outside the country for a fleet of intermediate jet trainers.

The IAF had hoped the HAL-led indigenous HJT-36 Sitara intermediate trainer would be operational and begin deliveries by June, but it is a long way off from even initial operational clearance. From 2006 to 2010, the IAF contracted for 85 HJT-36 aircraft – 12 limited series production variants and 73 fully certified aircraft. But after a series of technological hurdles and the crash of a prototype in April 2011, HAL does not expect the aircraft to be declared interim capable until 2013.

The IAF’s current fleet of about 81 HAL-built HJT-16 Kiran intermediate trainers will stop flying by the end of 2013, with no possibility of a life extension. And it is virtually certain that the HJT-36 won’t be operational by then, leaving a critical gap.

“The IAF is firm that it does not want to float a fresh global tender for intermediate jet trainers,” says a senior IAF officer who deals with forward planning and acquisitions. “But the situation ahead tells us that we might need to begin planning for precisely such an eventuality. We are in the process of studying our options. We have already been forced to improvise majorly to account for the lack of basic trainers. It will be impossible to do that with Stage-2 training as well.”

A newspaper recently quoted an IAF officer with the Bengaluru-based Training Command as saying that if the HJT-36s don’t arrive before the Kirans are phased out, IAF pilots may have to go through basic and intermediate training on the new PC-7s. But there is also a problem with that: If India signs the basic trainer deal with Pilatus in the next two months, deliveries of the PC-7 Mk.2 will begin only near the end of 2013, with 24 of the 75 aircraft to be delivered by September 2014. With about 10 months of lead time required before new aircraft are officially inducted into the training syllabus, the possibility of using the new basic trainers for intermediate duties is slim. It was the unforeseen grounding of HAL’s HPT-32 fleet in 2009 and the unlikelihood of its replacement – HAL’s new concept HTT-40 basic trainer – entering service before 2015 that forced the IAF to look outside for an emergency purchase.

“The basic trainer gap ambushed us because of the grounding of the HPT-32 fleet,” an IAF officer formerly with the Training Command says. “The impending gap in intermediate trainers is something we can acknowledge and foresee now. It will take quick planning to work around it. We cannot afford to train pilots only on fast jet trainers. That is a scenario that will be unacceptable to the IAF.”

India’s defense ministry recently informed Parliament that a large number of crashes over the last 10 years were due to human error, commonly associated with a lack of sufficient training.

India has a worrisome track record in purchasing trainer aircraft. While delays in the basic trainer deal have troubled the IAF, it is still no match for the 18-year procurement process to buy 66 BAE Hawk advanced jet trainers.