November 21, 2002


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Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta

The bizarre saga of the AJT

Another MiG-21 crashed while on a routine sortie near Bagdogra recently. The crash had the hallmark of the tragic monotony with which MiGs have been going down --- it was the 16th to crash this year.

But this crash was a little different for two reasons --- the aircraft was a trainer and all the more valuable for that; and one of the pilots was a senior officer, a wing commander. So in the crash the Indian Air Force has lost two valuable assets. But they still don't talk about getting an advanced jet trainer.

The elusive AJT has been put on autopilot. Just when it seemed the AJT was finally in sight, and the BAe Hawk had made it, old and new vendors are rushing in with fresh bids.

Something fishy is going on even 17 years after the IAF sought the AJT. With the AJT file pending approval from the Cabinet Committee on Security, Defence Minister George Fernandes recently referred to the delay as coming from 'an enemy within'.

Is it a case of in-house (CCS) rivalry or is it a repeat of the IAF's penchant for cutting off its nose to spite its face. How else would you interpret the IAF allowing the Czechs (whose aircraft, the L-159B was rejected earlier) to come back into the reckoning?

Now Poland has written to India that if India is considering the L-159B aircraft manufactured by a Czech-US collaboration, the Polish offer of an AJT should also be considered. Russia and Brazil are also reportedly back in the race. With vendors demanding that their bids be reconsidered, it is unlikely that India will be able to purchase an AJT before the financial year is out and money earmarked for the AJT would have to be surrendered.

India has been negotiating with British Aerospace for the Hawk trainer for more than a decade. The price negotiation ended in February this year. In August, George Fernandes told a meeting of the parliamentary consultative committee on defence that the proposal to buy an AJT --- the Hawk --- would be cleared in a matter of days rather than weeks.

On September 27, at a ceremony to induct Sukhoi aircraft into the Indian Air Force at Pune, Fernandes was asked about the AJT and left it to the chief of air staff, Air Chief Marshal S Krishnaswamy, to reply. Krishnaswamy echoed Fernandes: that the purchase of an AJT was a matter of weeks, if not days.

But on October 1, at a press conference, Air Chief Marshal Krishnaswamy was asked why the purchase of the AJT had been delayed. His reply was that India had got an offer from a Czech-US consortium for the L-159B and as the parameters proposed by them were similar to India's requirements, this offer was also being evaluated. It is incomprehensible that while the defence minister says one thing, his CAS strikes a variant note.

Earlier, Italy, Brazil, and Russia had also offered jet trainers to India, but these offers had been rejected on the ground that the aircraft did not meet the air staff requirement of the Indian Air Force. An earlier offer of the Czech trainer had elicited a similar response.

But two things changed this year. On the sidelines of the Confederation of Indian Industry-organised Defexpo 2002 in February, Antonin Jakubse, chairman of the Czech state-owned aircraft facility, Aero Vodochody, said: "We are offering the Indians a joint partnership, technology transfer, and joint marketing for the L-159B". At a press conference, he asserted that the Czech AJT offer was 25 to 45 per cent lower than the British Aerospace price for the Hawk.

He also said the Czech training aircraft was backed by the American aviation giant Boeing, which has bought 35 per cent stake in Aero Vodochody.

Also, some time between in mid-May 2002, an IAF team led by Group Captain Ramesh Rai, which included representatives from Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and the ministries of defence and finance, visited the Czech Republic, tested the aircraft, and reported that the L-159B did, in fact, meet 95 per cent of the ASR for the AJT. But what is not known is that the IAF team flew just 12 sorties on a makeshift version of a two-seater.

This was not the L-159B, but actually the very first prototype. The actual L-159 trainer only flew at the Farnborough air show in June this year for the first time. The added attraction is that the Czechs have agreed to a full transfer of technology and delivery of the first aircraft within two years of signing the contract.

Although there is no doubt that the cost of the two aircraft is competitive --- the L-159B will cost around $12.5 million apiece while the Hawk is said to be pegged at $14 million apiece --- there is no clarity on how the government will overcome the danger that American defence technology represents for India. The case of supply of spares for the Sea King, which was manufactured by the UK under licence from the US, is a case in point. After the Pokhran tests, the supply was suspended after sanctions and was cleared only a month ago. The L-159B has an American power plant and avionics.

Built into the Hawk contract is the provision that there will be no US components in the aircraft or as part of the product support. It would take BAe one year to sanitise the Hawk of all American parts. India has had to do the same with its advanced light helicopter programme.

Contrary to popular belief, the Hawk (India) is not the technology of the 1970s, but a souped-up airframe with contemporary and customised avionics. It is a brand new aircraft made for Indian conditions. It is therefore intriguing that the Czech trainer is being considered at all.

But the strangest episode of the AJT drama unfolded in the third week of October when the IAF instituted yet another technical committee to make a relative evaluation of this aircraft with the Hawk. Within 10 days, the relatively low-level team reported that the "engine and avionics of the L-159B were both superior to those of the Hawk", which is seen as completely perverted and irrelevant when firstly, the avionics are to be largely Indian or French supplied (specifically avoiding American) and when the engine of the Hawk (the Adour) is currently being built by HAL for the Jaguar production line.

You now have a Polish offer. On October 30, the Polish company PZL proposed to India joint production at HAL Bangalore of the M-93, the successor to the Iskra jet trainer that India had bought earlier. On the sidelines of a defence exhibition in Greece in the first week of October, HAL and PZL representatives had met and hammered out a deal. The formal proposal was sent on October 30 and will be followed by a comprehensive technical proposal. So where does this leave the Hawk? Or, for that matter, the L-159B?

The AJT saga is taking a bizarre turn. If and when new bids are invited, the IAF will have got no closer to acquiring a trainer that it has been demanding since 1986. Nearly 150 aircraft and 60 pilots have been lost for want of an AJT. The 1997 Abdul Kalam report on the committee on fighter aircraft accidents has yet to be implemented in full. In 1996 when the IAF prioritised for the Su-30MKI instead of the AJT, one thought they were not serious about the trainer. Six years later also it seems they are in no hurry.

Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta

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