Outside HAL's Aircraft Research and Design Center in Bangalore | Namas Bhojani/Bloomberg News
Outside HAL's Aircraft Research and Design Center in Bangalore | Namas Bhojani/Bloomberg News
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Rather than depending on a pool of ‘generalist’ bureaucracy, the government should look for the best available talent for leading HAL.

It was a measure of India’s dismal political discourse that the dominant sentiment regarding the recent Mirage accident in Bengaluru was one of satisfaction at the failures of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (in the context of the Rahul Gandhi-Narendra Modi-Rafale feud) rather than of grief at the loss of two brave young test pilots of the Indian Air Force.

Obviously there is little realisation that today, a vast majority of the aircraft and helicopters operated by our armed forces, as well as their engines and ancillaries, are produced, overhauled and supported by different divisions of HAL.

The health, efficiency and growth of this aeronautics giant are not just vital for the combat efficiency of our military, but also for the future of our aerospace industry. Unless we make a success of HAL and its various projects, India will forever remain in the backwaters of aeronautics, and import-dependent.


Also read: HAL work ethos needs ‘drastic’ change, but blame game will solve nothing: IAF veterans


Directionless HAL

In 1940, with the United Kingdom in the throes of a life-and-death struggle against Germany — the Battle of Britain — Winston Churchill formed the Ministry of Aircraft Production, with media mogul Lord Beaverbrook at its head. Under Beaverbrook’s dynamic and imaginative leadership, fighter and bomber production increased so much that Air Marshal Dowding, the head of Fighter Command, stated: “…the RAF lacked the supply of aircraft necessary to withstand the Luftwaffe’s onslaught. Lord Beaverbrook gave us those machines.”

Today, paucity of aircraft finds the IAF in dire straits too, but there is no Lord Beaverbrook in sight. Nor has any of India’s post-independence defence ministers shown the vision to provide a road-map and guidance for exploiting the huge potential of our aeronautics industry. Left in the hands of a lackadaisical Department of Defence Production & Supply, HAL has plodded along, growing in size but not in skills, technology or capability.  A glimpse of HAL’s history is instructive.

India’s aviation industry can trace its roots to 1940, when Seth Walchand Hirachand established HAL in Bangalore. Soon after the outbreak of World War II, the government first bought a one-third stake in HAL, and then nationalised it. Handed over to the US Army Air Forces in 1943, HAL repaired and serviced hundreds of flying boats, fighters, bombers and transport aircraft for the Allied war effort in South-East Asia.

Soon after independence, HAL’s chief designer, Dr V.M. Ghatage, embarked on three aircraft projects, and over the next decade, HAL manufactured more than 400 Ghatage-designed aircraft: The HT-2 basic trainer, the Krishak observation aircraft, and the Pushpak. Ghatage’s last outstanding achievement was the design of the HJT-16 ‘Kiran’ jet trainer, of which 190 were built for the IAF and the Indian Navy.

HAL’s crowning glory came in June 1961 with the flight of the HF-24, Marut. The government of India, in a rare flash of inspiration, had acquired the services of German designer Dr Kurt Tank, to help HAL design a jet fighter. A sleek and elegant machine, the Marut had huge potential as a supersonic fighter, but since it was powered by two small turbo-jets, its performance remained sub-sonic and sub-par. Instead of persevering and seeking development options, the government, in a stunning display of apathy and myopia, allowed this project to lapse, with the IAF remaining a mute spectator.

Apart from the Marut and other indigenously-designed aircraft, HAL has, since the 1950s, produced an estimated 3,000 aircraft, including types like the Vampire, MiG-21, MiG-27, Jaguar, Sukhoi-30 and Hawk. The company has also built a few thousand aero-engines of British, French and Russian origin to power these aircraft. These statistics, however, refer only to ‘kit-assembly’ or ‘licenced production’.


Also read: Mirage jet crash after upgrade raises serious questions on HAL ability


Deep lack of confidence

That HAL had failed to acquire adequate aircraft/engine design and production skills became evident in a number of unsuccessful or abortive aircraft projects, coupled with a history of failures (often resulting in fatalities) in the IAF’s MiG-21 fleet and other HAL products. Remarkably, neither MoD, nor the airworthiness, quality control and aviation regulatory authorities in India, have ever held HAL accountable for lapses leading to mishaps.

As HAL’s single largest customer and revenue generator, the Indian military is totally dependent on it for product support, but there continues to be a deep lack of confidence in this PSU, for four good reasons:

(a) The lethargic approach of HAL’s unionised employees, which engenders low productivity and delayed deliveries.

(b) Poor production-engineering standards that create maintenance problems and prevent standardisation in the fleet.

(c) Poor quality control, leading to component failures and accidents.

(d) Unresponsive product support that frequently leaves HAL customers in the lurch.


Also read: HAL doesn’t fly because Sukhois aren’t Rafales


How to fix HAL

The fact that in its 79th year of its existence, HAL is considered unfit to undertake production of Rafale point to the following serious lacunae that need to be addressed:

(a) Successive defence ministers, and ministers of state, have failed to devote attention to efficient functioning of defence PSUs and their future growth

(b) The Ministry of Defence bureaucracy has lacked the expertise/inclination to exercise required oversight and supervision over defence PSUs; and

(c) The persons chosen to head these vital undertakings have often been unsuitable – lacking long-term vision, decision-making ability and innovative project-management skills.

Rather than continue its dependence on a pool of ‘generalist’ bureaucracy and the PSU cadres for selecting CEOs, the government of India should bring about a paradigm-shift and look for the best available talent for such challenging assignments. The expanded ‘gene pool’ to find suitably qualified persons in the driving-seat of strategic undertakings (like HAL) could encompass industry and business, but preference needs to be given to demonstrated technical expertise, managerial skills and leadership-talent readily available in the armed forces.

The author is former Indian Navy Chief.

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9 Comments Share Your Views

9 COMMENTS

  1. Stup*d article. The unofficial scam-gress media is trying to mislead. Close or privatise HAL or give an equal footing for private sectors to make india’s aeronautical sector advanced & strong. No organisation is indispensable for a nation.
    HAL was purposefully kept weak by the scam-gress so that import can be made (with crores of commission to the dy-nasty making the bar employee the fourth richest political person in the world) citing no indigenous capability. Scam-gress made HAL hand in glove with the politicians alongwith the bureaucracy to make corrupt money by fleecing Indian tax payers of their money. Now when the present GOI tried to make all DPSUs accountable they start to shout along with scam-gress & commies (who were loyal to the porkis, soviets & chinks), sickulars, pseudo intellectuals, the corrupt & inefficient scam bakths along with the unofficial scam-gress media. Now they are trying to protect their corrupt & inefficient ways so that they can enrich themselves with the tax payers money.
    Closing or privatising HAL is the only option. Privatisation is better than closing to protect the employee interests.

  2. As usual, an excellent article by the Admiral. One expected Modi government to undertake many reforms relating to defence but its energies were dissipated fully in just implementing OROP! Parikar let Modi down badly when much was expected from him. Jaitely had no time for defennce and Nirmala has come on board too late. Hopefully, in its next term, if any, Modi will give defence ministry the utmost priority and sort out issues ranging from Chief of Staff to defence production including having a comprehensive re look at HAL.

    HAL is too precious to allow it to fail. Like any other PSU, its functioning has deteriorated over a period of time and now needs a full overhauling. The Mirage accident is entirely a separate issue and has no linkage with either Rafale or poor working of HAL.

  3. Unless professionals are put in charge of important public sector undertakings like HAL nothing will change. It is no surprise that private sector entities with dubious track record get preference over public sector undertakings even in defence field.

  4. Everything is said in this article. The Admiral’s observation can be applied to the organization of the country’s defense and its functioning. It’s good to have given the admiral his point of view. It is not that of a bureaucrat or expert. It is that of a practitioner, of a man who has seen, experienced and lived, with his men and women, on the ground the organizational and functional inconsistencies of the country’s military policy.

  5. Instead of dwelling on and blaming on what is now past, can positive concrete steps and suggestions be proposed for action on a very high fast track implementation. Finances will be no problem. Easing of mindsets and flexibility / objectivity is called for. Let someone, competent, come forward. All will take him in arms. Time plan needs to be half of what is normal in the entire process. I am capabilty in all operations will be no problem.

  6. Capable people (the writer is a good example) must be entrusted to manage H.A.L So many retired greats are leading a life of of frustration and helplessness. Their brains must be tapped. Long back, senior industrialists were requested to work as Honorary Chairmen, not any more. Collaboration with those foreign companies who are ready to provide at least 25% manpower for a project can do wonders.

  7. An excellent article. However, I think that ‘Aerospace Industry’ is not an appropriate term. Aeronautical and Space research are distinctly separate activities. Space research had visionaries like Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, Missile Research had Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and research in Nuclear Technology was pioneered by Dr.Homi Bhabha. However, research in aeronautical engineering is still an orphan. Successive governments have neglected R&D in this field and looked for short term solutions by resorting to assembly from imported kits and glorifying it as transfer of technology or by way of encouraging direct imports. Whereas we are thinking in terms of Mangalyaan Mission, we are still not able to design aircraft engines. The neglect of Kaveri project is stark pointer in this respect. When we make high value purchases of defence equipments, offset arrangement is insisted upon. A significant part of the offset largesse should go R&D activities. However, offset norms, even though liberalised to a significant extent, still neglect R&D needs. Para 3.1 of the Defence Offset Guidelines in the DPP, Appendix D, stipulate six methods( sub paras a,b,c,d,e &f) of offset. Out of these four ( a,b,c&d) relate to manufacture and servicing and two (e &f) relate to investment in DRDO for research activities. Whereas multiplier benefits are provided for investment in DRDO research, the rules stipulate that minimum 70% offset has to be made in four categories (a) to (d) above. Here the word ‘minimum’ should be replaced by ‘maximum’.

  8. The government is clearly fixated on crony capitalists. whatever HAL may be today – it is clearly the responsibility of the government mismanagement , contributed to in no small measure by the IAF mismanagement. It is not that some government corporations do not work reasonably well – they do. That then begs the question – if the government cannot run HAL – how does it run the country. If it believes it is running the country well it can apply the same formula to HAL. Regardless of the many questions the foregoing issues raise, it was criminal vis a vis the countries interests to (i) forgo the transfer of technology for the Rafale and (ii) hand over the business to a firm / individual / crony which has so far ditched the navy and is bankrupt (in one of his many avatars) and has no experience in the business. Clearly this is not the way a country goes about strengthening the countries defenses.

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