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HomeNational InterestHAL doesn’t fly because Sukhois aren’t Rafales

HAL doesn’t fly because Sukhois aren’t Rafales

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If they were, the Great Indian Bureaucrat would be the Marshal of the Air Force. Bofors mummified our defence acquisitions, Rafale could entomb it now.

Since recent history is now divided between what came before or after Google, 20 years old now, this story just about makes the cut as it dates back to early 1998. George Fernandes had just been appointed the surprise defence minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s cabinet, to much scepticism. How was a trade union maverick in crumpled kurta-pyjama and chappals going to run India’s most formal, spit-and-polish ministry.

Fernandes surprised us by how quickly he found his way around. The first challenge he encountered was breaking the vicious circle, or rather circles within concentric circles, of the I’ll-do-nothing-I’ll-let-you-do-nothing bureaucracy. For atheist Fernandes (he took oath of office not in the name of God but by solemnly affirming), Siachen Glacier became his favourite pilgrimage and fixation.

“My most distressing discovery,” he said to me in a recorded interview in Siachen, “is that in the MoD, they never say yes or no. They just put the file in orbit. You can keep chasing it. Meanwhile, wars come and go, may be won or lost.”

On one of his visits, he found out that the troops desperately needed imported snowmobiles and scooters to move on the glacier. The proposal to buy some, he found out, had been in a file in “orbit”.

A picture of Shekhar Gupta, editor-in-chief of ThePrintOn his return, he found out the names of the civil servants playing with the file. They were ordered immediately to go to Siachen and spend time there until they realised how important these scooters were.

It is tragic that Fernandes can no longer speak, so we can only guess what he would have thought of the Joint Secretary & Acquisition Manager (Air) in the defence ministry who wrote his dissent on the Rafale file. If he had read this genius note, he would have immediately pronounced him a brilliant rocket scientist, capable of putting even the desperately-needed Rafale in orbit.

He may still emerge a whistle-blower, if this CAG also turns out to be as cynical a headline-hunter as the one when the UPA was in power. So, I take a big risk questioning the wisdom of a holy bureaucrat. I am deeply fascinated by his reported suggestion that for the money India was to pay Dassault for 36 Rafales, we could have bought many more Sukhois from HAL.

Now, if cheaper, HAL-made Sukhois were the answer, why were we going out to buy at all? Chances are, Fernandes would have asked him, why not buy as many as six new MiG-21s from HAL for the price you will pay for one Sukhoi? And then post him to a MiG training unit and make him go on a sortie every morning, strapped in the seat behind the pilot. In his book, a civil servant who thinks more Sukhois for the price of a Rafale is a good idea, would deserve the Siachen treatment. In mine, he would confirm every stereotype bitter military leaders harbour about “bloody boorocrats” (as they call them) and where some of us weigh in instead for civilian control of defence.

Also read: There’s a humongous scam in the Rafale deal. It is called stupidity

I haven’t yet seen a purchase scam of any size that ended in punishment by a court. I say this at the risk of inevitably drawing abuse from the Bofors generation. The fact, however, is that no money was ever traced back to anybody in India. Even the V.P. Singh and Vajpayee governments didn’t force Sweden to deliver on its sovereign guarantee. It doesn’t necessarily mean there was no scam. But maybe, there was more value in keeping it alive eternally and encashing it for votes, than recover the money and send a few individuals to jail.

What Bofors also achieved, though, is to mummify our defence acquisitions from non-Russian sources. Since Indira Gandhi ordered the Mirage-2000 in 1982, Rafale will be India’s first acquisition of a non-Russian combat aircraft, after 36 years.

It will be tragic if the Rafale also follows the by-now-scripturised Indian defence playbook. Buy a desperately needed system after 20 years of waffling, then a couple of rumours emerge, everyone calls everyone “chor” (thief), plastic replicas of the weapon system are flaunted in election campaigns, no one is caught, no one dares to buy any more after the first order, and our defence forces continue to muddle along, buying a little here and a bit there, like a drooling kid in Toys “R” Us. Rafale is now headed that way. So each weapon system becomes limited in numbers and impact.

The most fascinating collateral impact of the Rafale controversy in the election season is India’s discovery of a new deity: Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. I admit that compared to Reliance-ADAG today, it might look brilliant. But we need to give this mammoth PSU monopoly, and India’s largest defence company, a reality check.

India has the fourth largest military in the world. About 75 per cent of its Air Force, 100 per cent of its Army and 66 per cent of the Navy’s and 100 per cent of Coast Guard aviation needs are met by HAL. Check its numbers.

At about Rs 18,000 crore, its turnover is about a half of India’s also-ran truck-maker Ashok Leyland, less than Indigo airlines (Interglobe Aviation) and the Hindujas’ relatively small private bank, IndusInd. If you shoe-horned HAL in Fortune 500’s India list, it would feature in the mid-80s. That for a monopoly with big, captive customers. Its annual exports, by the way, have remained in the Rs 400 crore ballpark. You might know some weavers in Mirzapur or Panipat with exports larger than this.

HAL has made more than 4,000 aircraft. Almost all are licenced copies, besides the about 150 HF-24 Maruts, India’s only home-made fighter and a failure. HAL has a simple business model: The government buys a foreign plane, adds a co-production deal and gifts it to HAL.

It’s done a great job in many areas, also as an ally of ISRO and Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE), but self-reliance is a big NO. It’s just a PSU bureaucracy fattened on “room service”, or what we’d call in Hindi, “paki-pakayi”. The IAF has a healthy scepticism of its abilities. Don’t be taken in by the current chief saying he will buy 12 squadrons of the Tejas. What he isn’t telling you is, that given HAL’s record, by the time half of these are delivered, manned fighters will be obsolete, at least in the Tejas category.

Whether or not somebody steals money, there is definitely a huge scam in our defence purchases. It is our inability to buy anything and letting our armed forces languish. In a week when Putin comes visiting, Narendra Modi will apparently gift him a MiG-21 made in India by HAL. The joke, sadly, will be on us, as the IAF is the only large Air Force in the world still flying this heritage fighter.

India is throttling itself with self-denial by failing to bring its own, now globally formidable private sector manufacturers into defence. Sometimes you’d think former justice Markandey Katju is right and we are indeed a country of idiots. We won’t let the private sector make weapons in India, but would buy from the rest of the world’s private sector. Dassault is also a private company.

UPA flirted with the idea, but A.K. Antony was too scared to move. The Modi government made a new beginning, called it Make in India. It wasn’t shy of bringing in the private sector. But then, who told it to open its innings with Reliance-ADAG, and then mess it all up with arrogance and opacity where transparency and truth would have been a good defence?

Postscript: Did anybody tell you that ‘Marine One’, the Sikorsky S-92 helicopter that the US President flies, has a cabin made in Hyderabad by a Tata company? It’s a direct joint venture, not a result of gifted offsets. The company is now growing into making cabins for Chinooks and Apaches for the global supply chain. The best in the world are acknowledging the strength of the Indian private sector. It’s just that we aren’t.

Also read: A quick guide for BJP on how NOT to defend the Rafale defence deal


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  1. Arindam, neither do you nor your boss Shekhar Gupta understand what and how the defence industry in India is configured. You have said after HF 24 HAL did nothing indigenous… please.
    Check out the details.. mid 1970s HAL produced Ajeet. Then Ajeet trainer in 1985. Hpt 32 in 1984, HTT 34 in 1990s and then embarked on LCA. Structure, electrical system, brakes, hydraulic system, environment system, landing gear etc and full integration of these was by HAL ARDC- it’s design centre.
    Today it’s producing the LCA. It produced Jaguar, MiG 21 variants, MiG 27 ,Su 30 and Hawk trainers. It overhauls all these ac.
    HAL made ALH Dhruv in 2000s. It’s since built 3 Marks of ALH including a weponsised variant and a Light Combat Hptr and a Light Utility Hptr.
    The famed Dassault aviation ranks no 41 versus HAL at 38 in the top 100 defence companies.
    I don’t know what is the hang up you guys have… HAL exports are low that’s by policy.
    Your continued rant on HAL evokes Hanlon’s razor: ‘don’t attribute malice to that which is patently stupid’!!!
    That brilliantly sums up The Print’s and Shekhar’s case.
    If you are in AERO India, do come to the HAL display. It’ll perhaps be more enlightening!

  2. The important question is firstly working environment of HAL not conducive to promoting excellence a Sarkai culture that promote only incompetence and more importantly the external influence of the world arms manufacturers not to allow India to develop its own military industrial base!!! The Russians or Americans or Europeans would like us to remain dependent on them.Remember how Maruti induction was protested and now how India automobile sector development took place we need a similar determination.It will take Indian Industries to new level

  3. Shekhar is out to defend the indefensible. Where is the logic? How does HAL not being good enough make Reliance the obvious choice?
    So much so that the PM just unilaterally decides to take Anil Ambani with him discarding all protocols and procedures, and gets him selected as an offset partner. We understand Reliance is not to manufacture the Rafales, but this brings us back to the question, why was the technology transfer part of the deal cancelled. If HAL was not good enough the government should have made Rafale depute engineers as part of the deal to come and manufacture along with HAL. In fact the work sharing agreement had already been worked out between Dassault and HAL. The Government could have insisted on a larger role for Dassault in the initial stages. A lot could have been done. We were buying the Rafales. It was too big a deal for Dassault to refuse anything to us. Running down HAL does not absolve the government of the crime of crony capitalism. Shekhar, we expected better from you. Don’t bend. Don’t crawl.

  4. Boss if HAL is so incompetent and Relaince ADAG group, which has a string of junk rated companies, is so good then I want to make this fighter. This is the same group which ran to the ground the Delhi Airport Link Express and then ran away without any consequence. Give this Rs 40000 crore over a period of 10 years to me. This is corny capitalist thinking. Shekhar Gupta you have sold your soul. There is a reason why the word press-tituteses is used. And no the demand is for 128 fighters and we get 36 only. At the approximate cost of 8 billion? So we are getting a fighter for about 222 million which is close to a 5th Generation fighter cost fully loaded? Whom are you trying to fool over here.

  5. No one questioning Rafale requirement. No one questioning developing in-house capability. But at the same time when no one knows which company can evolve in future as a big aerospace industry, idiotic selection must be questioned. The foundation of the argument is, foreign player will always try its best to derail India’s existing in-house capability forget even supporting the building capacity. Offset through foreign choose is a joke. Its an inherently corrupt design with no correlation with capacity building but an invoice building.

  6. Shekhar Gupta would do well to remember that the first flight of Rafale took place on 4 July, 1986! The plane’s design and technology is 3 decades old already! It’s 4th generation fighter plane (even after the so-called India-specific enhancements) being sold at the price of 5th generation planes. The US F-35, a 5th generation stealth fighter with super cruise capability, costs less than Rafale, a non-stealth plane!

    It is unfair to compare a plane whose induction will start in 2019 (Rafale) with one whose induction started in 2000 (Su 30 MKI). Two decade time lapse is bound to result in some technological gaps which in any case will be bridged once the Sukhois are upgraded under the proposed “Super Sukhoi” programme. There is merit in the argument for inducting more Sukhois considering that an eco-system for it already exists in the country. Even the erstwhile Defence Minister Manohar Parikkar was in favour of buying more Sukhois and Tejas instead of the grossly overpriced Rafale. Heck, even the French Air Force has cut down on Rafale orders because of cost reasons!

  7. In more than six decades of its existence, HAL has been reduced to being just an assembly boy of Russian products. HAL is yet to design an aircraft engine- this is the story of Tejas Aircraft. While HAL is just an manufacturing unit, R&D is to be done at DRDO. Why? This dichotomy has to end. The first thing China had done was to unify its R&D and manufacturing activities. While China spends 20% of its defence outlay on R&D, India spends only around 5%. Till such time this improves, we shall continue to import and there will unending corruption allegations and political debates, which actually will not result in anything tangible. Or else, the government will follow A K Antony policy – not to buy anything at all, under some pretext or other. This is the safest course and Antony is the cleanest politician. While China surges far ahead of India, we still debate and do nothing!!!

  8. The initiative to include private sector as alternative force in defence production for internal requirements and exports is a good initiative taken by Modi government. Yes, they could do what UPA didn’t dare to think because of Bofors saga.

    Wonderful work but the issue is not just that. The real issue is the way Anil Ambani was selected for a deal representing India. Was any process followed in shortlisting it. If it was, what’s criteria and merits, that’s needs to be made public.

    People are doubting Anil’s history and capabilities to deliver. Hopefully, he will come out in flying colours and save himself, his group and country from a catastrophe. Also, if Modiji would have selected TATA as preferred partner in the deal, it would have been much smoother and process of piggybacking private players in large defence production deals would kick start in a positive mark. May be Tata’s were not shortlisted as their tie-up with Lockheed Martin was either on in place or were on verges.

    Kalyani group is developing its own jet engine they could have been best bet or to that matter Mahindra’s too.

  9. Prof PK Sharma, Freelance Journalist,Barnala (Punjab)

    After going through a large number of stories about Rafale Fighter Aircraft Deal Drama I should say the drama is assuming mindboggling and novel proportions as the time passes by !

    The ” pseudo mystery shrouding ” this drama still is a puzzle growing deeper and deeper because truth shows its glimpses and flickerings off and on enveloping this tale unfoding itself vaguely at regular intervals !

    Shekhar Sahib, you have done a large number of stories on this theme, print media and electronic media too have been grappling with
    this plot for a couple of months now !

    This entire exercise so far ironically arouses many soul- searching questions regarding our commitments, sincerity, fairness and certain values !

    Are we all not groping in the dark ?

    Are we not frittering away our human resources, time and energies in futility and on trivialities?

    Where are the law of land, constitution and institutions instrumental in taking a nation forward ?

    Are not the national interests thrown to the winds with impunity over hollow-populist- individual centric politics?

    The Prime Minister Modi’s “alleged nod ” in favour of Mr.Anil Ambani’s fifteen day old Reliancr Group over HAL already in the race for the Rafale Fighter Aircraft Deal is worth raising fingers ! Then according Institute of Academic Excellence title to a non-existent institue on ground to the Reliance Group is also something very bizarre and making a mockery of institutions of higher education in the country !
    Amazingly, ruling party leaders and activists are just silent, blind and mute spectators to all this overlooking the best National Interests !

    Just see, you have been penning down this popular column “NATIONAL INTEREST ” for the past many years ? How thick skinned our ” nationalist ruling party leaders ” has become obviously very clear now ?

    Mr. Amit Shah, the BJP supremo who talked of ruling the nation for next fifty years is answerable to the nation what does he know about Hindustan Aeronautics Limited Banglore ? What is an Institute of Academic Excellence ?

    We are at present unduly attempting to harp on theoretical considerations alone distinguishing between public and private sectors !
    In this context, I am for following a great Chinese Leader Deng Xioping’ s vision who remarked,
    ” No matter, if the cat is black or white,
    If it catches mice, it is a good cat.”

    But NaMo-Amit Shah want to rein supreme sans vision, foresight, broadmindedness, objectivity, consensus and openness ! The ploys,
    rhetorics and theatrics now are no more the answers !

    God save and rid the nation of present lot of megalomanic, whimsical and authoritarian rulers ! The nation now yearns for farsighted, visionary, sincere, devoted and dedicated destiny changers of India !

    Prof PK Sharma, Freelance Journalist
    Pom Anm Nest,Barnala(Punjab)

  10. Absolutely right in saying that HAL is all about ‘paki pakayi’. I have worked as an Aviator and know the nitty gritty of work in HAL. People commenting here should have atleast first hand knowledge of HAL. Why no one questions as to how ISRO is able to launch multiple Rockets with far more superior technology i.e. Cryogenic engine being a minor aspect of it but unable to build a fighter aircraft. People should question as to who stopped India from developing sophisticated arms technology and made India reliant on imports with billions of dollars, every year. The government did absolutely right to purchase only 26 Rafales as interim measures to strengthen the airforce and force the DRDO to develop our own fighter that has been going on since two decades. I guess SOMEONE in 1950s till recently wanted to keep importing arms and receive kickbacks for party funds. Infact, the government to government deal for RAFALE was a very positive aspect of the deal. However, the government has to stress on developing our own arms including fighters.

    • Mr who made hal pqki pakayi the same politicians .and u think reliance is better than hal. And this author also think reliance is better than hal means it’s a biggest joke. Only bhakts can believe this

  11. You regret that HAL is not up to the mark. Do you know the reason behind it? Can someone tell why it is essential that Government employees must be citizens of India? Why can’t we hire great scientists and engineers from abroad? Or why NRIs are not given a chance to work in public undertakings? Instead of paying foreign companies, let us pay to the brilliant brains.
    Many countries such as South Korea and Japan are ready to collaborate with India for fighter planes. We should avail their offers. Air warfare can’t be decided by Air Force pilots alone. Many competing technologies such as guided missiles have to be considered. This has to be done by strategic experts of all wings of military.

  12. I have yet to find any mention of following points on purchase of Rafale aircrafts.
    Why and who increased the off set component from 30% to 50%. Dassault itself became benign towards Reliance aero or Indian govt had any role. Secondly, if aircrafts are purchased off the shelf, what anil Ambani will make in off set component? Khakhra or fafda.
    How this off set deal is going to benefit India?
    People are talking about efficiency and capability of HAL, none is discussing about Reliance defence. How a foundation stone going to churn out aircrafts components in Mejhan. Our media and defence experts have not only sold their souls, their brains are also shut.

  13. Excellent piece of writing. Now it is time for India to make Indian defense making more competitive by bringing private parties in to it, then perhaps we would be able see some Indigenous output that in turn can be licensed to the other Asian countries rather then HAL makes on foreign license. Loved it Sekhar sir.

  14. It is curious to see Mr Gupta so vehemently deride the capabilities of HAL. Worst case scenario, they would be miles ahead of Reliance. Had the award been given to L&T, it would have been a valid argument to deride HAL. His logic is not understandable!

  15. Sorry for the previous comment so far as turnover is concerned. However without ascribing any malafide intention on the part of Mr. Gupta, I would still like to differ with him on the comparative capabilities of the two entities.

  16. Shekhar is right in reminding us of Justice Katju’s heartfelt pain “India a country of idiots” It should be most true if said India a country of idiot politicians & bureaucrats. Look at the IL & FS crisis and the Govt’s approach all these days. If these people were to manage 2008 subprime financial crisis, We would still be there only and possibly slipped back 100 years? IL & FS case is interesting because LIC & SBI are major Indian shareholders who have proven themselves to utter failure to manage their own once considered iconic institutions through more than 6 decades. What do you expect from them? A large foreign shareholder Orix of Japan is very keen to increase holding in IL & FS for years but not allowed for some strange reasons by the Govt. I remember Orix had offered to take majority stake long back in the 1990s assuring to bring in low-cost funds and top-notch management expertise in infrastructure projects. Successive Govts have failed IL & FS, one of the finest financial institutions in India. Ridiculous to hear from our bureaucrats that “IL & FS is outside Govt. Oversight ( forget LIC & SBI) and hence Govt can’t do anything. They have woken up from slumber only after the enormous damage has been done to the entire financial system in India and still fumbling for a solution? In UTI failure case they were no different at all.

  17. Turnover of HAL Rs.18,000/- Crore?

    “We have recorded the highest ever turnover of Rs 18,28,386 lakhs in 2017-18 financial year compared to previous year’s turnover of Rs 17,60,379 lakhs,” CMD R Madhavan said in a statement here. HAL had on Friday, held its 55th Annual General Body Meeting of Shareholders, first after its listing.
    Profit Before Tax for the year was Rs 3,32,284 lakhs as against Rs 3,58,258 lakhs in previous year, Madhavan said adding the Profit After Tax (PAT) for the year was Rs 2,07,041 lakhs.

    HAL produced 40 aircraft and helicopters covering Su-30 MKI, LCA Tejas & Dornier Do-228 in fixed wing and ALH Dhruv and Cheetal Helicopters in rotary wing, Madhavan noted. In addition, HAL produced 105 new engines, overhauled 220 aircraft, helicopters and 550 engines, he said.

    Also, as many as 146 new aero-structures for space programs were produced during the period, he added.”
    – 29.09.2018.

    Who is lying Mr. Gupta? We know the defence industries all over the world fatten the purses of politicians and media people to eulogise their products while running down the performance of the products of their competitors. Why are you bent upon demasking yourself after masquerading as a daring and absolutely neutral journalist for so long?

    • You are right Sir, Dimining HAL is like Indians loving fair skin and not brown. HAL has followed what government wants it to do. Now questioning it is like saying I don’t touch my ass. Here these lampoons have sprayed french perfume on their ass went to Dassault asked them to take it royally.
      Sorry for my language, it is for bhakts only.

  18. It appear this article is written more to abuse HAL than a reflection on defense purchase. Mr Gupta cleverly touched in two sentences the entire controversy of the Rafael deal for the sake of mentioning it and make it appear as if it is against private sector, not against the current incompetent Rafael partner and the inflated price. I have still not come across he talking about the inflated price anywhere, may be I missed that!


    MIG 21 IS OUTDATED AND AT THE end of its technology and life cycle.



    • As of now, only 2 Sukhoi planes have been modified by HAL to carry Brahmos. The proposal is to modify 40 planes. Since the modification is complex and time consuming, HAL wants IAF to place an order for 40 new Su 30s which will be Brahmos-enabled from the very beginning, obviating the need to modify existing planes.

  20. My natural instincts are always in favour of the private sector. Military hardware is a very difficult domain for Indian corporates to enter, but a beginning has been made. It will be decades – if ever – before Tatas or Mahindras can design a nuclear powered aircraft carrier or submarine and deliver it to the Navy. Whether a public sector behemoth like HAL, even Mazagon Dock, or the private sector, they will have to partner with a foreign giant like a Boeing or General Dynamics. So it is a legitimate question why defence PSUs are not doing more, better. They have a large captive market. The trouble in this case is that ADAG would not be on anyone’s short list of 100 even to manufacture pencil sharpeners in India.

  21. HAL started off as a aircraft manufacturing company, but was turned into a license manufacturing one by the government. It (HAL) lost its way and did not invest in research and designing, only license manufacturing. So now you have Modi and all sundry questioning HALs capability. Its too late to invest in R&D for HAL, expecting results overnight, as made in India, is also too foolish.

  22. “Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. I admit that compared to Reliance-ADAG today, it might look brilliant.”

    Here is your key admission and then refusal to follow the course.

    You have listed the limitations of HAL. Now you should write a success story of Reliance Industries led by Mr. Anil Ambani.

  23. Hope RaGa and party will read your article and ponder over what they are doing. Relaince has already started some manufacturing for civilian plane parts fro Dassaults.

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