HAL lines up many products but loss of Malaysian Air Force tender is a sign of export challenges
The Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) was undoubtedly on a high at AeroIndia, showcasing a wide range of aircraft platforms now in the development stage and many in production. A Tejas Mk-1 fighter in the Final Operational Clearance (FOC) configuration was displayed at the India Pavilion, allowing showgoers a close look at the type.
In addition to the Tejas, the HAL also showcased the army variants of the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) and Light Utility Helicopter (LCH) for the first time at AeroIndia. The helicopters on display were from the series production batch. While the LUH is being exclusively manufactured at the HAL’s new Tumakuru factory, the LCH will be produced on two production lines—one at Tumakuru and the other at HAL’s existing production facilities in Bengaluru.
The HAL is also making quick progress on the Indian Multi-Role Helicopter (IMRH), which will be a 10-13 tonne class helicopter and is being designed as a replacement for the IAF’s Mi-17 fleet in the 2030s. The HAL showcased a model of the IMRH with rocket pods and gun armament and company officials also informed that the design has been further refined, with Safran Helicopter Engines having been selected as the engine partner for the programme.
Unfortunately, for the HAL the confirmation from the company’s chairman C.B. Ananthakrishnan during the company press conference at the show that the Tejas had been edged out of the Malaysian requirement for a new light trainer was a dampener.
The Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) announced in February that its FA-50 fighter aircraft had won the USD 920 million deal for the supply of 18 jets to the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF). The HAL’s Tejas LCA Mk-1A was the other aircraft shortlisted for the tender. According to a report in The Korea Times, the RMAF FA-50s will be modified with an in-flight refuelling system. The KAI is slated to begin deliveries to the RMAF in 2026.
As per a ministry of defence (MoD) announcement in August 2022, the HAL had responded to a Request for Information (RFI) received from RMAF in February 2019 for an LCA class aircraft. Subsequently the MoD said the HAL responded in October 2021 to the RMAF’s Request for Proposal (RFP) for 18 Fighter Lead In Trainer–Light Combat Aircraft (FLIT–LCA) for which the HAL offered a Tejas twin seater variant.
In August 2022, HAL had announced that it would establish an office in Kuala Lumpur to tap into new business opportunities for the FLIT-LCA and other RMAF requirements of such as the Sukhoi SU-30 MKM and BAE Systems Hawk Mk100, 200 upgrades. The HAL’s office in Kuala Lumpur was to take up market promotion of the company’s range of products and services not only in Malaysia but in the entire South East Asia region. The office would also contribute in increasing serviceability of existing platforms being operated by the RMAF and for neighbouring air forces in the region.
‘The LCA Tejas stands a fair chance of selection in the bid as it meets all the parameters sought by the RMAF,’ the HAL had stated at the time. The HAL had also offered to extend the required support to the RMAF for its SU-30 MKM fleet, which was facing low serviceability issues due to ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis. It also stated that the other HAL platforms such as the HTT-40, Do-228, Dhruv helicopter, Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) etc. had the potential to be inducted into the RMAF in the future.
As per the MoD, other countries which had evinced interest in the Tejas aircraft were Argentina, Australia, Egypt, USA, Indonesia and the Philippines. The HAL confirmed at Aero India that the Tejas Mk-1A had been offered to Argentina and Egypt with the former requiring 15 aircraft and the latter 20. Of the other countries mentioned in the MoD list, the US and Australia are unlikely customers for the Indian fighter, while Indonesia and Philippines are already KAI customers for the T-50/FA-50 trainer.
Despite Indian aspirations for the export of military aircraft and helicopters, the global export marketplace is a difficult place to be in. The KAI has been very successful with export the T-50/FA-50 trainer/light fighter family, which was developed in partnership with Lockheed Martin. No doubt, the American backing is sure to have helped with the T-50/FA-50 export orders to Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia. The KAI has also sold the aircraft to the European Union with a September 2022 order from Poland for 48 FA-50 light attack aircraft. As part of the contract, the first 12 jets are to be delivered this year while the rest will be delivered from 2025 to 2028.
The HAL expended a significant effort in its abortive bid for the RMAF tender and one could question the wisdom of chasing export deals when the IAF is badly short of fighter jets and would have wanted the HAL’s energies to be focussed on beginning deliveries of the Tejas Mk-1A on time and completing the delivery of all 83 aircraft on order by 2029. Export campaigns for a new fighter that is not yet in widespread use with its home air force can only be termed as an unnecessary distraction apart from the expenses involved in promoting the aircraft at a foreign air show.
Unlike Aero India 2021, where the HAL unveiled its Combat Air Teaming System (CATS) Warrior concept, the HAL chose to unveil its new Hindustan Lead in Fighter Trainer (HLFT-42) developmental concept at the air show, garnering plenty of attention. HAL officials said they were continuing work on the CATS Warrior concept, where the role of CATS Mothership for Air Teaming eXploitation (MAX) will be performed by a Tejas Mk1A which will operate alongside the unmanned CATS Warrior low-observable wingman. HAL has partnered with a Bengaluru based startup and has also made its own investments in the development effort, which is expected to be completed in four to five years.
According to HAL officials, the HLFT-42 is a Next Gen Supersonic Trainer concept and will play a critical role in modern combat aircraft training and the company will pursue the programme if there is air force interest. Interestingly, the HLFT-42 bears some resemblance to the HAL’s own HF-24 ‘Marut’ fighter which was designed in the sixties.
A new Advanced Jet Trainer (AJT) requirement for the air force is thought to be at least a decade and a half away as the Indian Air Force (IAF) presently operates approximately 100 BAE Systems’ Hawk Mk132 AJTs, which have been produced under license in India by the HAL. The air force may yet decide to modernise its Hawk AJTs and keep them operational till the 2040s.
HAL officials, however, appeared bullish on the HLFT-42s future prospects, stating that the IAF required an advanced twin-engine trainer to cater to its fifth generation aircraft such as the AMCA, which is slated to enter service around 2035. The new HLFT-42 will feature an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA), Electronic Warfare (EW) Suite, Infrared Search and Track (IRST) with Fly by Wire control (FBW) system. The HAL also produces the HTT-40 basic trainer aircraft and is also developing the HJT-36 intermediate jet trainer.
The HAL continues to persist with the Hindustan Jet Trainer 36 (HJT-36) ‘Sitara’ trainer aircraft. The HJT-36 has now been in development for nearly a quarter-of-a-century. The MoD sanctioned the development of a new indigenous IJT in July 1999 at a cost of Rs 180 crore with a programme completion date of July 2004. The HJT-36 was to be a replacement for the HJT-16 Kiran IJT, but long delays have forced the air force to continue flying the ageing Kiran’s. The HAL has been assisting the air force in engine MRO to keep the fleet flying.
Flying training of pilots in the IAF is carried out in three stages—Basic (Stage-I), Intermediate (Stage-II) and Advanced (Stage-III). Basic training is undertaken on a fleet of 75 Swiss Pilatus PC-7 MKII turboprop trainers, while intermediate and advanced flight training is conducted on built Kiran MkI, Mk IIs, and BAE Systems Hawk Mk132 Advanced Jet Trainers (AJT), respectively. Since the seventies, the air force has been using Kiran aircraft in the training role. In February, the air force announced that its PC-7 MKII fleet had completed 2,00,000 hours of accident-free flying.
The first HJT-36 prototype flew in March 2003 and the flight test programme was paused in 2016 over aircraft spin-related issues and resumed in April 2019. Another concern for the HJT-36 is the choice of engine. The HAL contracted Russia’s NPO Saturn (now United Engine Corporation) in April 2005 for the higher thrust AL-551 engine. The AL-55I turbojet was specially designed for the HJT-36. But the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict is likely to impede the supply of spares and support for the engine. An unhappy situation for an IJT that needs to have a high sortie generation rate to support air force flying training.