Home-grown military aircraft is a breed that is rarely seen here, except at air shows where they are displayed to convince the public of India's technological prowess. But the fact remains that the country still relies on imported military aircraft for its defense. This makes it vulnerable to international arms embargoes and the whims of foreign powers.
For years, the government has pumped billions of dollars into state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics' Ltd.'s () indigenous aircraft programs with little to show for it, and politicians are growing increasingly impatient with the manufacturer.
At Aero India last week, Defense Minister A.K. Antony said: “We [India's defense industry] . . . have to reduce the delays and increase the quality. The main aim of the new defense production policy is to increase indigenous content and avoid imports.”
One of the greatest white elephants is the Tejas light combat aircraft that has been in development for around 30 years and has yet to receive full operational clearance (FOC). The Tejas Mk 1 uses theF404, the same engine that powers Korean Aerospace Industries T-50 jet trainer. The , however, wants it to have a more powerful engine, so HAL is developing a MK 2 Tejas that will feature GE F414s, the same engine that is on the /F Super Hornet.
Even though the Mk 1 has completed 2,000 test flights, it has only achieved initial operational clearance. That means it has yet to be approved to carry weapons.
“I am impatient for the FOC,” says Antony, who adds that he has asked India's Defense Research and Development Organization to expedite the program. India's air force chief, N.A.K. Browne, estimates the Tejas will not achieve FOC until 2015.
The Tejas airframe requires major changes to accommodate the larger, heavier F414 engine. The technology director at India's National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL), Shyman Chetty, tells Aviation Week that the rear fuselage will need a 1-in.-dia. increase and the inlet will be altered to accommodate the engine switch-out. The heavier powerplant will affect the aircraft's center of gravity. Chetty says some equipment may be moved inside the aircraft to account for this. NAL is responsible for manufacturing the aircraft's composite parts, including the empennage.
Another factor in the Tejas' 30-year development delay is the GTRE GTX-35VS Kaveri engine. Originally planned as an indigenous enterprise, the country was unable to master the engine technology, such as manufacturing the single-crystal turbine blades needed to produce powerful military engines. A few years ago, the country turned to France'sfor help, but to no avail. The latest word is that the Kaveri will power a combat unmanned aerial vehicle, now in the early stages of development.
Another white elephant is the NAL Saras, a 14-seat multi-role military transport aircraft. Its first flight was in 2004 and two test aircraft were built—PT1 and PT2. The latter crashed in 2009, killing all three on board. After major design modifications, Chetty says, PT1 is now due to fly in April. A third test aircraft has already been built, but engineers are still “working on weight optimization” for that aircraft and it will only be flown after NAL has had a chance to test out the revamped PT1. The third prototype is about 500 kg (1,102 lb.) lighter than the original Saras, which had a maximum takeoff weight of 7,100 kg. Chetty says NAL achieved the weight savings by incorporating more composite parts, including a wing that uses vacuum-enhanced resin-infusion technology.
The new Saras will retain the same Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 engines as the earlier prototypes, but with lower power. This will reduce fuel burn, says Chetty, who adds that the aircraft has no need for so much power. The new Saras is being vetted to meet the air force's requirement for single-engine climb performance. The air force has agreed to buy 15. Once the Saras achieves military certification, NAL plans to petition for it to be certified as a commercial aircraft.
Even if Tejas and Saras enter service, some analysts doubt whether they could be successful on the international market. Meanwhile, India's armed services continue to gravitate toward foreign defense equipment. The air force, for example, is about to issue a request for proposals for 56 military transports to replace its fleet of aging Hawker Siddeley HS 748 turboprops. The contenders include the Aleniaand the .