The Indian air force (IAF) wants to pull the plug on the basic trainer aircraft (BTA) being indigenously developed by the state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).

Instead of the BTA, which HAL calls the HTT-40, the IAF now seeks to buy more PC-7 MK2 aircraft from Pilatus to train its rookie pilots.

“It doesn’t make sense now for HAL to design or build a basic trainer when we have already procured the PC-7 MK2 from the Swiss company,” a senior IAF official says. “Why do we need different basic trainers with duplication in spares, maintenance and infrastructure?”

The IAF and HAL have been debating the fate of the trainer for over a year now, but the issue came to a head when an incensed IAF Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne wrote to Defense Minister A.K. Antony urging that the HTT-40 program be put on hold in favor of the purchase of 106 more PC-7 Mark II trainers.

“To meet the immediate flying training requirements of the IAF, the ‘option clause’ [should] be exercised to procure 38 PC-7 MK2s from M/s Pilatus Aircraft Ltd, as directed by the Ministry of Defense on 29 September, 2009,” Browne says in his letter. “The subsequent requirement of 68 BTA could be met through repeat procurement.”

A final decision on whether to procure more Pilatus aircraft or continue with the HTT-40 will be made soon by the Defense Acquisition Council, headed by the defense minister.

The Indian defense ministry had cleared an IAF request in 2009 to buy 181 BTAs, 75 of which would be procured from an international vendor with the remaining to be designed and developed by HAL. In line with that decision, India signed a deal in May 2012 worth about $650 million for 75 Pilatus aircraft. So far, the Swiss company has delivered 14, and the IAF—which has suffered from a severe shortage of modern trainers—has commenced training with the PC-7 MK2.

Rajiv Chib, associate director of aerospace and aviation at consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers, agrees with the IAF’s stand to import more Pilatus trainer aircraft. “It is easier to maintain similar kinds of aircraft in the longer-run due to various logistical issues like tools, equipment and training centers. Also, it is difficult to have different training centers for different aircraft.”

Chib adds, “Despite assurances from defense public sector undertakings, delays do happen from their side.” He cites the example of the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft, production of which has dragged on for nearly three decades.

IAF has become frustrated by inordinate delays and cost overruns in HAL-run aircraft projects, ranging from the intermediate jet trainer to the light combat helicopter and light utility helicopter.

Browne says the HTT-40 is still on the drawing board and may take years to materialize; it would not be ready until at least 2017.

Consequently, he beleives buying a proven overseas trainer will be more economical than developing one indigenously.

The PC-7s replace HAL-built HPT-32 Deepak primary trainers, which were grounded in 2009 following a spate of crashes and over 100 incidents of engine failures.

The IAF chief claims that HAL had underpriced the HTT-40, while filing a detailed project report to the defense ministry. “The indigenous aircraft will be more expensive than the imported Pilatus,” Browne says. “The real cost of HTT-40 at the 2013 price level will be 476 million rupees [$8 million], which is 25% more expensive.” HAL had quoted a project cost of about 325 million rupees per aircraft in 2011.

The IAF adds that the HTT-40 will prove to be “62% more expensive from 2017 onwards” than the Pilatus. “Conversely, the first [lot of] 75 Pilatus [aircraft] will be delivered by 2015. And if the option clause is exercised, 38 more Pilatus [aircraft] could be delivered by 2017,” the service says. When the Swiss aircraft was ordered in May 2012 after a global selection process, it was projected to cost 300 million rupees per airplane. “Even at the 2011 price levels, each HTT-40 would cost 435 million rupees, around 40% more than Pilatus,” it adds.

However, the Pilatus contract freezes the price only for the 38 trainers covered under the “options clause;” pricing for the proposed final tranche of 68 aircraft will be negotiated afresh, subject to inflation and foreign exchange variations.

HAL argues that its yet-to-be developed aircraft will be cost-effective and will have a low percentage of imported components (around 40%), in line with the Indian government’s efforts to promote indigenous content.

Though no officials from HAL would comment on the issue, the company indicates that it is not giving up on the aircraft, which it claims will be much more advanced than the Pilatus, with weapons capability and other advancements.

“There is no going back on the project,” a defense ministry official says. “The HTT-40, a weaponized trainer and a light attack aircraft, will [also] find buyers in the international market.”

Lending credence to HAL’s assertion that is pressing on with the program is a recent invitation for competitive bids for a number of HTT-40 systems, including primary flight display units, integrated standby instrument systems, angle-of-attack systems, engine instrument and crew- alert systems, hydraulic utility packs and hydraulic pumps.

The IAF had proposed that HAL partner with the Swiss company for licensed manufacturing of the Pilatus aircraft at its facilities, but HAL rejected the idea.