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‘HAL precious, but IAF should not be responsible for keeping it afloat’

The death of two IAF pilots in the Mirage crash after it had been upgraded by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) saw the public sector giant getting badgered in the media as well as on social networking sites. Former IAF Chief Air Chief Marshal S Krishnaswamy dissects the issue. The decorated war veteran and former test pilot advises against panicking. Excerpts from an interview:


People are talking about the crash. How does such a crash impact the IAF?

The IAF and HAL have had crashes. A crash has implications. We do not know as yet why or how the recent Mirage 2000 accident occurred. Why should people or media bash HAL? I don’t quite understand.


The IAF wants its planes quickly. Can such a crash become a setback to the ongoing upgrade of the Mirage and the Jaguar?

Aircraft upgrade work is contractually time and cost bound. The programme has been running behind schedule due to various reasons. The secretary, Department of Defence Production, is responsible for monitoring the performance of HAL. He and the HAL chairman should be answering that question.


Has the time come for the IAF to head the HAL Board?

The HAL Board already has one member from the Air Force. The IAF does not run HAL, and hence is not responsible for its functioning.


Some people have given a ‘verdict’ on the crash saying the under carriage gave away?

There is no proof yet. I strongly object to rumours. We don’t know the cause. Without knowing the details, one cannot pass a verdict.


Is it harming our national interest?

There’s no need to panic. We have to take aeronautics forward. Is aeronautics doing well in India? The answer is ‘no’. However, the industry is doing better than it was 20-30 years back. Indian aeronautics must aim to become world class. Making aircraft only for the IAF is far too restrictive.


Should ‘old’ planes like the Mirage or the Jaguar upgraded?

Hundreds of Mirage 2000 are flying worldwide. It is a frontline aircraft of the French air force. We operate Jaguars operationally in the IAF, which retired from Europe or elsewhere long back. We don’t intend to throw out the Jaguar or the Mirage 2000. In India, over a hundred pilots and thousands of engineers are involved in the operation of Mirage 2000, besides thousands of workers in HAL. We cannot demoralise them. Strict procedure is followed in inspecting the aircraft periodically. Servicing and maintenance is through a well-documented process. An aircraft is retired when it becomes obsolete from an operational point of view or becomes no longer maintainable due to the non-availability of spares or skills. Mirage 2000 would have at least another 15 years to go before it is retired.

On social media, there are messages claiming to be from HAL test pilots saying they had flown six sorties of the plane that crashed.

Test pilots of HAL and the IAF are a close-knit community. These professionals are given different tasks and responsibilities. A set of test pilots at HAL are assigned to test fly production aircraft that come out after repair or upgrade. Once they clear it, another set of test pilots flies these for acceptance by the IAF. I understand that the aircraft that crashed was under acceptance testing.


HAL and the IAF have to move together. HAL has to make some 300 Tejas of various versions. How do you see this moving forward?

I am not sure where we got the number of 300 from. The order (Mark1-A) may be around 83 but the capacity is currently limited to about 10 aircraft per year. It is not possible to expand the production rate without planning. Parts have to be ordered, parallel production has to be established for which we would need additional jigs and skilled manpower. These are not readily available.


Successive IAF chiefs have said HAL is slow in production. Do you agree?

Air chiefs have shown some impatience over delays and escalation of cost. It is not the responsibility of the Air Force to keep HAL floating. The IAF is pushed to the wall to extend existing production line to ensure HAL has adequate work. This approach should change. HAL must design own aircraft and helicopters and export these. It should offer products and services for export. A world-class aerospace industry cannot thrive only on the IAF alone.


Is that a suggestion for HAL to change?

Yes. Had the Israel Aerospace Industry, which is government owned, relied only on Israeli Airforce for orders, it would have gone bankrupt. HAL is the only industry with such large manpower and capital that relies only on its Air Force for orders.


How can HAL change and how would it help the IAF?

It’s not them or us. It’s our own industry and our own air force. Execute the future plans carefully. Aerospace workers are rare nuggets. They must be nurtured. The Indian private sector aerospace companies only produce parts or part of an aircraft or helicopter. They would take another 20 years to produce a full aircraft. Only HAL in India has the capability to design, develop, produce, maintain and market aircraft and helicopters. HAL is precious for the country.


Who is responsible for speed and quality of production?

The government and the Ministry of Defence production, in particular, are responsible for quality and pace of indigenous production. Normally, faster production should help to make more money. But, it is not true in the current scenario. HAL gets paid the cost plus an assured profit. The longer it takes to produce, more money it would make! There is no incentive to produce. To a world standard, our industry is over-manned.


How long does it take to go from eight to 12 Tejas per annum to 25 per year?

Maybe Boeing or BAE can expand capacity quickly as they have the infrastructure and trained manpower. We need to plan carefully, invest in a big way and proceed. The industry would need the best possible leadership and managers.


So what is holding it back?

What is lacking is the hunger to improve and passion for aeronautics, coupled with the fear to innovate.


Is the IAF worried?

The IAF is expected to win a war every time. It has the manpower and skill set, but not enough planes. We must develop these indigenously. Continuing to import is not the answer. Look at the Chinese, they show discipline, commitment and innovation. Aeronautics in India is yet to get due importance.


Do you think there is hand of foreign country or company in blowing up this crash controversy?

I don’t believe so. We are quite capable of ruining ourselves! We don’t need a foreign hand.


Do you see light at the end of the tunnel?

Yes. I am hopeful.

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