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Aero India unveils promise

February 15, 2005 15:32 IST

Aero India 2005, the latest edition of India's once-in-two-years aviation trade show, had both a promise and a warning.

The promise is global commercial interest and India's self-interest can combine to boost the country's public sector dominated aeronautics industry from its position of a bit player to one of some international significance.

The warning is that, while experts say the time for Indian aeronautics has come, aggressive government support for indigenous research and export will be decisive in ensuring that Indians will set the agenda for India's aeronautics, rather than Western defence conglomerates.

Leading up to Aero India, both Boeing, the American aircraft maker and its European and only global rival, Airbus, revised upward their 20-year estimates of Indian commercial airliners' ability to absorb new aircraft to some $35 billion.

They were buoyed by India's recent moves to make the skies more private sector investment-friendly, senior executives of Boeing and Airbus said.

Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, India's primary aircraft manufacturer, said its own chances of making more parts, such as aircraft doors and tail assemblies, are brighter.

HAL's chairman and managing director Ashok K Baweja has said he will aim for larger contracts for parts from global firms, while continuing to encourage HAL's engineers and scientists to build key products in-house.

On the defence side, conglomerates such as the Snecma Group of France, maker of propulsion systems and equipment, said they wanted to boost its ties with India both through risk sharing joint ventures and for selling more of its ware in the region.

The United States, after distancing itself by treating India with suspicion and sanctions, made earnest efforts to strengthen ties with the Indian aeronautics industry.

A realistic approach would be, as the Defence Research Development Organisation is following, to continue to try to engage the US on India's long term interests of high technology development, while carefully assessing the costs/benefits of buying US hardware to plug immediate gaps in the armed forces' arsenal.

Yet, DRDO officials point out, India's programmes will be modest in comparison with the hundreds of billions of dollars the US or Europe will spend on defence, including expenditure on research and development of advanced technologies.

For this reason, setting priorities will be vital. DRDO's chief executive M Natarajan has said, the indigenous Kaveri engine for the LCA and an airborne early warning and control system will be at the top of his agenda.

An HAL-designed advanced light helicopter is the other star in India's for-exports portfolio of products. For now, only Nepal has bought two, while the Chilean armed forces was 'evaluating the aircraft,' HAL's officials say.

The ALH is also an example of what may not be in India's long-term interests. The engine is simply supplied by Tourbomeca, a Snecma Group company, and will not be manufactured in India at all.

Some three quarters of the 'Indian market requirement' of a more powerful engine, the Ardiden, will be manufactured by HAL. It emerged in Aero India that Indian contribution to the development of the engine is a mere 11 per cent, the rest coming from Tourbomeca.

One can expect then that HAL's share of profits from potential international sales of the Ardiden will reflect this. Snecma estimates that it will make at least 1,500 such engines over the next 20 years, though it is not clear if this is only the Indian requirement.

Similarly, while much publicity was given to a 'tie up' between HAL and Lockheed Martin on P-3 Orion, a marine surveillance aircraft, the agreement does no more than allow India to specify what upgrades it wants before Lockheed sells some eight second-hand P-3s to the Indian Navy.

True, HAL has fared better with its traditional partners, the Russians. It has just delivered to the Indian Air Force a fully assembled-in-India Sukhoi 30 MkI multi-role fighter aircraft.

It is confident of taking a 10 per cent stake in a civilian jet project led by the Russians. It could also make some composites parts for that aircraft's engine, which the French are supplying.

But, a thump-your-chest made-in-India engine is not in sight. Gas Turbine Research Establishment, a DRDO lab entrusted with building the Kaveri, is having problems with it.

The engine is not expected to be ready for the LCA at least for another five years. Yet another case of an "Indian" aircraft whose heart and lungs come from the US or Europe or both.

The global firms would love to keep it that way, getting HAL to contribute parts on subcontracts, and perhaps the National Aerospace Laboratories, with its supercomputer, to help with wind tunnel tests (though even that is a complex computational job).

To change the scenario, say experts, the government must find the will and the resources to back quickly the manufacture of say some 200 LCAs and 300 ALHs.

Universities such as the Indian Institute of Science, where research on using smart materials is on to reduce vibrations in the ALH, will have to get larger, time-bound projects. Involving the private sector to scale up the activities will be vital.

For this, the government will have to put up the initial guarantees so that companies can have something more than mere commercial interest -- a sense of national pride.

This alone can ensure that the next time an Indian fighter aircraft is on the cover page of a reputed international news magazine, it will be the futuristic derivative of the Light Combat Aircraft.
Harichandan A A in Bangalore
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