Saddled with obsolete training aircraft, the Indian air force (IAF) has decided to snub the long-delayed, indigenous HJT-36 Sitara intermediate jet trainer (IJT) and purchase new trainers from abroad.

The IAF has issued a request for information for a lightweight, single-engine, twin-seat trainer with a secondary light attack capability, an official at India’s ministry of defense says.

“We have asked the vendors to provide cost details for the direct purchase of IJTs for batch sizes of 10, 20, 30 and 50 aircraft,” he says.

The RFI comes weeks after Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony said the much-delayed Sitara IJT is likely to be operational this year. “All efforts are being made by the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. [HAL] for achieving the final operational clearance by December 2014,” Antony had said.

The IAF has been reluctant to exercise the option of buying an IJT since the state-run HAL has been developing a trainer for the force for the last 15 years.

“We are forced to take this decision as deadlines for getting the operational clearance for Sitara have been breached on a number of occasions,” the IAF official says.

The RFI for new a IJT states that the aircraft should be capable of operating from airfields at least 2000 meters above mean sea level (AMSL), with a goal of 3,000 meters. Submissions are due on April 4.

The official says the aircraft should be capable of carrying at least 1000 kg (2,200 lb.) of external load and be equipped with a minimum of five hard points, with each stressed to carry at least 300 kg.

“The aircraft should be capable of employing a lightweight gun-pod with adequate ammunition for at least five seconds of firing time [and] reusable rocket pods, and [should] be able to carry at least [four 250-kg bombs],” he says.

IAF also has made it clear that potential vendors will be put through a trial evaluation in India on a “no cost, no commitment” basis and a staff evaluation would be carried out to analyze the results of the field evaluation before shortlisting the equipment for introduction into service.

The deal will include costs for comprehensive annual maintenance support, including all spares program for supporting operations of 10, 20 and 30 aircraft at a utilization rate of 30 hr. per aircraft per month.

The lack of trainer aircraft to train new IAF recruits has been affecting the force, with new pilots often unable to handle highly demanding fighters like MiG-21s. Almost 40% of the 1,050 crashes recorded by the IAF since 1970, for instance, have been attributed to “human error.”

The HJT-36 was to have entered service with the IAF in June 2012 as a Stage-II trainer, replacing the aging HAL Kiran Mk. 1 and Mk. 2 in service. However, in 2011, flight-testing suffered a major setback when a Sitara crashed in stall testing.

Kiran Mk-I was due to be phased out this year but its lifespan has been extended by four years. Maintenance of Kiran Mk II has become a major issue because no support for its Opheus engine was available.

“IJT is a delayed project, I admit... We have faced major delays in getting the new Russian engines for IJT. These issues have been sorted out...Now, the aircraft’s development is in “advanced stages of certification with more than 800 test flights completed so far,” HAL Chairman R.K. Tyagi told Aviation Week recently.

Indian fighter pilots are trained in three stages: first on a basic trainer aircraft, then on an IJT and finally on an advanced jet trainer.

While the IAF does its basic training in the 26 Pilatus PC-7 Mk. 2s, out of a total order for 75 aircraft; the advanced jet trainer role is filled by BAE Systems Hawk 132s, which HAL is making under licenced production in India.

HAL also is trying to develop its own HTT-40 turboprop for the basic trainer role.

As per estimates, with 240 new trainee pilots joining the service every year, IAF requires 181 basic trainers, 85 IJTs and 106 advanced jet trainers. India has already inducted the bulk of the 123 Hawks ordered for its air force and naval pilots in an overall project worth around 160 billion rupees ($2.8 billion).

The IAF has signed two contracts with HAL for delivery of 12 limited-series-production IJT aircraft and 73 series-production IJT aircraft. HAL has confirmed the delivery of aircraft in a phased manner after initial operational clearance is granted. HAL was approved to receive 1.80 billion rupees in July 1999 to develop the aircraft and build two flying prototypes.