anil chopra, Indian Air Force, Air Power Asia, Defence Production, HAL, DRDO

India’s defence aviation industry is at times accused of not having significantly met the indigenous production needs of the air arms of the Indian armed forces despite being in existence for nearly seven decades. Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), for long had master the art of license production, wherein they assembled aircraft from Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) supplied kits and production drawings. Later they began making kits from raw material. The aviation industry saw partial success in the Indian-designed HF-24 ‘Marut’, 147 of which were eventually built. Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) ‘Tejas’ and Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH), both had delays and initial hiccups, but can clearly be termed as successes. Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) too was set up early after independence, and it today has 52 research laboratories. The first Ordnance Factories (OF) in India were set up by the British in 1787. Today there are forty-one OFs with product range in the areas of air, land, and sea systems. Despite a large number of research laboratories and factories, the successfully inducted systems and platforms into the armed forces have been few and could have been many more.

IAF HF 24. Image Source:

         India is a rising economic power with soon to have the largest population in the world. It is among the most threatened nations in the world. It has two nuclear neighbours with both of whom India has serious territorial disputes and has had full-scale wars. Because of poor indigenous production ability, India is forced to import the bulk of its defence aviation requirements. It has the unfortunate distinction of being among the largest importer of defence equipment in the world. Military security is one of the key attributes for any rising power. The economic strength and well-being of a nation are dependent on secure borders and internal security. Dependence on foreign hardware has serious security implications. The latest military technologies are still the preserve of a few nations, and they do not part with these. With changing geo-political situation friends could one day change to adversaries. They could then close the tap on critical defence spares and supplies and hold the country to ransom. It is thus imperative for any nation to have indigenous defence production capability. The recent “Atmanirbharta” (indigenisation) initiatives of the government for defence production are in the right direction, and it is hoped that they will bear fruit.


IAF Depleting Numbers Increasing Threat

         The Indian military aviation market continues to be huge. Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter squadron strength is down to 32 from the authorized 42. Urgent steps are needed to acquire more fighters, to prevent the further slide. IAF continues to fly a few squadrons of Soviet vintage MiG-21 aircraft, including helicopters of the 1960s vintage of French origin. IAF has faced obsolescence not only in the fighters, transport, and helicopters but also in ground-based combat and support systems as well. For the IAF alone, the immediate requirements are close to the US $ 100 billion, while the Army and Navy have their own requirements for their respective air arms. IAF had begun to transform itself into a truly strategic, inter-continental, and dominant aerospace power – in sync with India’s growing economic power and changing geo-strategic scenarios in the 1990s. More recently the requirements have been spurred by the rapid modernization of the Chinese People’s Army Liberation Air Force (PLAAF) both in numbers and technology. The show-down with China in eastern Ladakh has also brought urgency. The threat of a two-front war has been acknowledged by the political leadership, and Indian armed forces must prepare to deter such a threat. Military-dominated Pakistan continues to bleed India through a proxy war by infiltrating terrorists in J & K and has been prone to adventurism as was the case during Kargil in 1999 and the terror attacks against Parliament and in Mumbai. As IAF aspires to become a modern network-centric air force, its immediate wish-list opens a great market that can be best tapped by the Indian industry, including the fledgling private military aviation industry which is getting a government-backed boost through the Make-in-India initiative. It is also a time to re-energize HAL and DRDO.

SU-30 MKI test fires air-launched version of BrahMos. Image Source:

Immediate Fighter Aircraft Concerns

         The biggest concern for the IAF is how to rebuild and augment its highly depleted fighter force. As recently as 2001 IAF had 39 ½ fighter/bomber squadrons. The current saving grace is the induction of Rafale aircraft, two squadrons of which will be operational by the end of 2021. Also, the 12 Squadrons of SU 30 MKI have significantly op potential. Aircraft are being license-produced by HAL at its Nasik plant at an average rate of 15-20 per annum. The current order of 272 aircraft is getting completed. Additional 12 have been ordered to cater to the aircraft lost. The indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) ‘Tejas’ which was to provide a modern jet fighter to replace IAF’s aging MiG-21 fleets is progressing slowly. Two squadrons have been formed and their numbers will complete this year. Since only 20 aircraft are to be supplied in Initial Operational Clearance (IOC), and another 20 in FOC configuration, after their delivery, the production line will have to switch to LCA Mk1A. IAF has placed the order for 83 LCA MK1A. LCA MK1A which will bring in a modern AESA radar, aerial refueling, and easier servicing and maintainability is still at the D&D stage. The first aircraft will be delivered in early 2024 as per contract. It is presumed that in the interim period, the airframes for Mk1A will be produced. Alternatively, would the IAF have to order some for LCA Mk1 in FOC configuration? The LCA variant that will actually meet the IAF’s original Air Staff Qualification Requirements (ASQR) will be the LCA Mk II with the more powerful GE 414 engine. The aircraft will be larger in dimensions and will have newer systems including a comprehensive Electronic Warfare suite therefore effectively will require a fresh round of both ground and flight testing. The earliest the first flight for Mk II may take place could be in 2025 and actual induction around 2030. IAF proposes to buy 200 LCA Mk II. Effectively IAF will have to live a decade with LCA Mk1 variants. Rafale remains a good acquisition with state-of-the-art avionics and weapons but only 36 are contracted. Unfortunately, the full requirement of 126 Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) could not be contracted because of the breakdown of negotiations. IAF was thus forced to begin an afresh process for acquiring 114 more MMRCA class aircraft. The Request for Proposal (RFP) for these has still to be issued. Even if fast-tracked, these aircraft cannot induct before 2026. IAF fully supports DRDO’s fifth-generation stealth Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). This is a work still in initial progress and the aircraft may fly around 2028 and induct around 2035.  

Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). Image Source:

Transport and Helicopter Fleets

         With the induction of 11 Boeing C-17 Globemaster III aircraft (70-ton payload), the IAF has added significant cargo capability with strategic reach. IAF has signed the Globemaster III Integrated Sustainment Program (GISP) Performance-Based Logistics contract for the aircraft’s entire service life. The 11 Lockheed Martin C-130 J-30 Super Hercules inducted in IAF since 2011 are the latest variant with deep penetration capability in day and night for Special Forces (SF) in addition to the other transport roles of IAF. It has a powerful self-protection and night vision avionics component. Half of these aircraft are based in the eastern sector. With 17, 40-ton class IL-76, and over a hundred upgraded 6-ton class Antonov An-32 aircraft, IAF has reasonably good transport capability. The almost three-decade-old fleet of An-32s, despite upgrades, will one day need replacement/augmentation with better quality aircraft in conformity with the higher demands of swift response for both internal and external security. The Indo-Russian joint-venture (JV) for the development of a 15 to 20-tonne payload class, twin turbofan-engine, multi-role transport aircraft (MTA) to meet 45 aircraft requirement of IAF could not be progressed. It has been decided to replace the 56 HS-148 ‘Avro’ aircraft with the Airbus C295W military transport aircraft (9-ton payload). 14 will be bought outright. The remaining 40 will be built in India through a JV between Tata Advanced Systems Ltd (TASL) and Airbus Defence and Space. The contract has still to be signed. This will give a further boost to IAF capability and also bring in an Indian private partner into defence production in a significant way. IAF’s Flight Refueller Aircraft (FRA) fleet currently comprises six Russian Ilyushin-78 tankers, first inducted in 2003, which are facing maintenance and serviceability issues. Procurement of additional FRA has been mired in technical and commercial issues.

 Indian Air Force IL-78 refuelling two Mirage 2000 fighters. Image Source: Wikipedia Commons.

IAF’s main helicopter fleet comprises the medium-lift Mi 8, Mi-17 variants with the Mi-17-V5 being the latest. There are nearly 240 helicopters. IAF is also inducting the HAL Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) for utility role and also its weaponized version Rudra for attack role, and will soon have 100 plus aircraft. Meanwhile, the HAL-built Light Combat Helicopters (LCH) are getting ready for induction into the armed forces, and should soon join the IAF. The IAF has opted to acquire 65 LCH. The older Chetak/Cheetah/Cheetal light utility helicopters (LUH) of 1960s vintage need to be replaced with newer LUH. Russian Kamov Ka-226T LUH had been selected to be built through a joint venture between HAL and Kamov in India. The contract has still to be progressed and seems to be in cold storage. The heavy-lift Russian Mi-26 has now lived its life and maintains very low serviceability. Part of their task has been now taken over by the recently inducted 15 Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopters. Similarly, the two squadrons of Russian Mil Mi-25/35 attack helicopters have been replaced by 22 Boeing AH-64E Longbow Apache attack helicopters. It can be seen that IAF’s Transport and Helicopter fleets are in a relatively good operational state. The 12 Agusta Westland AW 101 VVIP helicopters contract was canceled midway (three helicopters had already been delivered) due to some corruption allegations. This is one capability that requires a fresh look.

HAL Light Combat Helicopter. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Radars and Satellites

The entire Indian landmass and areas overlooking the borders and sea are covered by a network of high and medium-powered radars as well as aerostats. Low-looking radars are used as gap fillers and for monitoring low-level threats.  India’s DRDO has been successful in developing the INDRA series of radars, the Rajendra fire-control radar for the Akash missile system, and the Central Acquisition Radar (CAR). The Long Range Tracking Radar (LRTR) has been developed with the assistance of Elta of Israel. The ROHINI is the IAF specific variant (better power handling and beamforming), while the REVATHI (better axis stabilization for sea operations) is the Indian Navy-specific variant of the CAR. The Long Range Tracking Radar (LRTR), a 3D AESA was developed by DRDO with the assistance of ELTA, Israel, and is similar to ELTA’s proven Green-Pine long-range Active Array radar. The LRTR can track 200 targets and has a range of around 600 kilometers and can detect Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBM). It is a key element of the Indian ABM system. The 3D Multi-Function Control Radar (MFCR) was developed as part of the Indian ABM program in cooperation with Thales of France. The MFCR is an AESA and complements the LRTR, for intercepting ballistic missiles. The MFCR will also serve as the FCR for the AAD second-tier missile system of the ABM program. The MFCRs will also act as the nodes of the Air Defence Ground Environment System. Both the LRTR and the MFCR were used successfully in BMD interception tests. After the induction of 19 Israeli Elta 2284 Medium Powered Radars (MPR), IAF awaits DRDO’s ‘Anudhra’ MPR. The 4D, Low-Level Transportable Radar (LLTR), ‘Ashwini’ is also under trial. IAF requires 18 of these. This LLTR project is intended to have a range of 200 km. The procurement of mountain radars is crucial for the northern border. The radar coverage can be said to be seamless. The Defence Space Agency (DSA) is a tri-service organisation of the Indian Armed Forces, headquartered in Bengaluru, Karnataka, India. The agency is tasked with operating the space-warfare and Satellite Intelligence assets of India. They work closely with the Department of Space and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) to utilize more effectively the country’s space-based assets for military purposes. India currently has remote sensing satellites in orbit, some with a spatial resolution of 1 meter or below which can be also used for military applications. There are a few dedicated satellites for military use.

ROHINI radar. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Force Multipliers

         Currently, IAF has three Israeli ‘Phalcon’ Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) mounted on the IL-76 airframes. The acquisition of two more is in the process. Meanwhile, two indigenous DRDO AEW&C systems ‘Netra’ on Embraer modified ERJ 145 platform have been inducted in IAF. One system is currently with DRDO. The two upgraded Netra provide greater cover. The initial plan is for three such systems which would complement the bigger and much more capable and expensive AWACS systems. For a two-front war and to sufficiently cover the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), IAF requires at least 5 AWACS class and 10 Netra class aircraft. Therefore a lot more needs to be done.  Meanwhile, in early 2018, IAF once again started the process of procuring six flight refuellers aircraft (FRA). This is the IAF’s third attempt, over the last ten years, in procuring such aircraft for expanding the operational reach of its combat fleet. The previous two attempts failed due to pricing and other issues. Currently, this requirement is being met by its current fleet of six IL-78s procured in 2004, which have been facing maintenance issues.  The contenders are primarily Airbus A330 multi-role tanker transport (MRTT) and Boeing KC-46 Pegasus. While the IAF kick-started the refueller hunt, DRDO’s $3.1 billion indigenous, Airbus A-330 based, AWACS program has also gathered steam. The IAF had asked DRDO that the AWACS jets have an additional role of mid-air refueling tankers. Such a modified variant is already tested and on offer by the Airbus industries.  This has been done to manage risk. Any delay in the AWACs part will keep the tanker going. Also, the operational tow-lines for both the aircraft are often similar and therefore it would be value for money. The increase in the cost of kitting up the Airbus A330 for AWACS-tanker dual functionality is roughly 17 percent. Developing the 12.5-ton radome antenna is the most crucial piece of the AWACS. It is not an easy job. We had earlier lost the Avro modified for this purpose. DRDO of course continues to exude its traditional optimism. Meanwhile, India is in talks with France to lease one A330 multi-role tanker transport (MRTT) from the French Air Force for training purposes under a government-to-government deal.

Netra AEW&C. Image Source: Wikipedia

Weapon Systems

         The well-beyond their extended-life, S-125 Pechora and OSA-AK SAM-8 surface-to-air missiles are being replaced by indigenous Akash medium-range system. Indigenous Akash and the Israeli SPYDER (Surface-to-air PYthon and DERby) mobile air defence missiles systems are being inducted. SPYDER is an Israeli low-level, quick-reaction surface-to-air missile system covering short and medium-range, capable of engaging aircraft, helicopters, unmanned air vehicles, drones, and precision-guided munitions. The contract is for 18 SPYDER-MRs along with 750 Python-5 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and 750 Derby SAMs. Barak 8 is an Indian-Israeli LR-SAM designed to defend against any type of airborne threat including cruise missiles. Both maritime and land-based versions of the system exist. Bharat Dynamics Limited (BDL) will produce the missiles. The LR SAM (land-based version) was tested at the Integrated Test Range (ITR) at Chandipur, in January 2019. Earlier, on 16 May 2017, the Indian Navy successfully test-fired the missile from INS Kochi. The Medium-Range Surface-to-Air Missile (MRSAM) is being developed by India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) in collaboration with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). A contract for the MRSAM program was signed in February 2009. The IAF will buy 450 MRSAMs and 18 firing units at a value of more than $2bn.

Akash medium-range air defence system. Image Source: Wikipedia

DRDO is in talks with MBDA to develop Maitri LLQRM (Low-Level Quick Reaction Missile) for all three services. India also needs to create a viable anti-missile defence shield to counter the ever-increasing arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles with its adversaries. The procurement of five advanced S-400 air-defence missile systems is a step in the right direction. These will start inducting in early 2022 and can take on both drones and missiles and has a max range in excess of 400 km.   

Rafale with Weaapons. Image Source: French Armée de l’Air

         As the IAF upgrades its aircraft, it would have to arm them with matching modern weapons both in quality and quantity as newer platforms carry greater tonnage. Precision and higher kill probability are required in all air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons. 500 MICA air-to-air missiles were part of the Mirage-2000 upgraded. India has got the latest weapons like the Meteor and SCALP missiles as part of the Rafale contract. Meteor is beyond visual range air-to-air missile with a range of over 150 km. SCALP is a precision long-range ground attack missile that can take out targets with extreme accuracy at a range of 300 km. Israel’s Rafael has supplied 500 New Generation PGMs. The ultimate target is for IAF to have 50 percent of all weapons comprising smart weapons with Laser, LLTV, thermal, INS/GPS, guidance, and high explosive power and penetration capability. IAF would also need air-to-surface precision missiles with suitable standoff ranges. DRDO, in a joint venture with Russia, has developed the air-launched version of the BrahMos cruise missile, which has already been flight tested. This missile will eventually be carried on many aircraft of the IAF, including a new version for the LCA. IAF has signed a contract with Russia to upgrade 40 Su-30MKIs. This will give them the capability to carry BrahMos. Both maritime and land-based versions of the system exist. Bharat Dynamics Limited (BDL) is producing the missiles. DRDO has also developed the nuclear-capable Nirbhay cruise missile, which is capable of hitting targets 1100 km away with 2 m accuracy. Indigenous Astra BVR (Beyond Visual Range) air-to-air missile firing has been demonstrated on Su-30 MKI. This will arm many IAF fighters.

Astra Missile Firing from SU-30MKI. Image Source:

Unmanned Aerial Systems

IAF’s unmanned aerial systems (UAS) fleet comprises Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) Searcher II and Heron and they are used for reconnaissance and surveillance. IAI Harpy and Harop are the combat UAV (UCAV), and DRDO Lakshya is used for aerial targeting practice. DRDO’s Rustom II made its maiden flight recently. It is a medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAV. Rustom-I is a tactical UAV with an endurance of 12 hours. Rustom-H is a larger UAV with a flight endurance of over 24 hours, higher range, and service ceiling than Rustom-1. Rustom-II is a UCAV based on the Rustom-H model. Induction and operationalisation of these could still take some years. DRDO’s “Ghatak” UCAV is planned to be a self-defending high-speed reconnaissance UAV with weapon firing capability. It will cruise at medium altitude and will be capable of carrying two or more guided strike weapons with onboard sensors for targeting and weapon guidance. This is expected around 2028. India is looking at more sophisticated large footprint systems. India has leased two Predator MQ 9 “Sea Guardian” drones from the USA for the Indian Navy. The plan later is to acquire 30 more drones, 10 each for the three services. Manufactured by General Atomics, Predator-B has both land and naval versions and can be armed with air-to-land missiles, anti-ship missiles, and laser-guided bombs. UAS have profoundly changed the nature of the battlefield in the 21st century. UAS technology will continue to evolve and become a greater asset. We are at the inflection point. A new chapter on airpower history has begun.

DRDO Ghatak UCAV. Image Source:


Army Aviation

        The Army Aviation Corps came out of the Air Observation Post (AOP) flights which were part of the IAF till they were transferred to the Indian Army (IA) on 01 November 1986. IA currently has over 200 helicopters comprising of Chetak-Cheetah, ALH Dhruv, and Rudra. Army has interests in 40 additional Rudra and up to 114 HAL LCH. IA had also pitched for 39 Apache attack helicopters but only six have been cleared for now. HAL is also developing a Tactical Battle Support Helicopter as a tri-services project. It will be called Indian Multi-Role Helicopter (IMRH). The raising of a heliborne early warning flight has been proposed. IA is also keen to induct light fixed-wing aircraft in the future for surveillance and communication tasks. IA has a large number of surveillance radars and significant integral air defence weapons including the ZSU-23-2B ‘Shilka’ guns, tracked Osa missile systems, and man-portable Igla and Strela-10 missiles. IA already operates the Searcher II UAVs and is planned to get 10 “Sky Guardian” MQ-9 UAVs.   

HAL Rudra. Image Source:

Indian Navy

        Indian Navy currently has 41 MiG-29Ks, 12 Boeing P-8I Poseidon (8 more expected), 8 Tupolev Tu-142 (Being upgraded in Russia), 5 IL-38SD, 25 Dornier Do-225, 8 Islanders, 11 BAE Hawk (6 more expected), 14 Kamov Ka-28 and Ka-31each, 33 Sea King and significant numbers of Dhruv and Chetak helicopters. Indian Navy will also get the indigenous LUH or Ka-226T in due course. It had a requirement of 40 Naval LCA variants. In December 2016, they have indicated that the LCA is overweight for carrier operations and may be considered for alternate use. Indian Navy operates two squadrons of Heron and Searcher Mk II UAS and has plans to add more. It already has leased two “Sea Guardian” UAVs. They will eventually get 10 of these. UAS are controlled by ships to increases the range of surveillance. There are plans to introduce rotary UAVs into the Indian Navy. Indian Navy issued an RFP for six medium-range maritime reconnaissance (MRMR) aircraft. The possible contenders are; the ATR-72MP or ATR-42MP, the EADS C-295MPA the Dassault Falcon 900 MPA, and the Embraer P-99A. The Indian Navy, at one stage, was looking at acquiring 12 Japanese ShinMaywa US-2 amphibian aircraft for conducting long-range search-and-rescue operations. Mahindra Defence signed an MoU with ShinMaywa Industries Ltd. to manufacture and assemble the aircraft and set up an MRO facility in India. In January 2017, the Indian Navy released an international Request for Information (RFI) for 57 Multi-Role Carrier Borne Fighters. The envisaged roles include ship-borne air defence, air-to-surface attack, buddy aerial refueling, reconnaissance, electronic warfare, etc. The requirements are flexible, short take-off but arrested recovery (STOBAR) or catapult-assisted take-off but arrested recovery (CATOBAR), or both. The main contest is between Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Dassault Rafale-M. In August 2017, the Indian Navy floated RFI for 123 naval multi-role helicopters (NMRHs) and 111 naval utility helicopters (NUHs).

Boeing P-8I Poseidon. Image Source:


HAL Evolves

         HAL was founded in 1940 as ‘Hindustan Aircraft’ and renamed in 1964 as Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. It is currently state-owned (90 percent) with 10 percent private shareholding. HAL designs and manufactures fighters, transports aircraft and helicopters, and many of their major systems. It employs nearly 28,345 personnel, had assets worth Rs 53,120.49 crore (US$7.4 billion) in 2020, and revenue of Rs 21,522.07 crore (US$3.0 billion) (2020), and net income of Rs 2,857.02 crores (US$400 million) (2020). The company has produced under license a large variety of aircraft including HS 748, Gnat, MiG-21 & 27, Jaguar, Dornier Do-228, Chetak/Cheetah helicopters, SU-30MKI, Hawk AJT among some other aircraft. It indigenously designed, developed, and produced 147 HF-24 fighter jets. More recently it is producing the ADA developed LCA ‘Tejas’, and its in-house Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH), and its variants.  HAL is also into overhauls and upgrades of many IAF aircraft and engines. HAL has also obtained several multimillion-dollar contracts from leading international aerospace firms such as Airbus, Boeing, and Honeywell to manufacture aircraft parts and engines. The immediate areas of concern are the need to quickly complete LCA Mk 1A development and mark up annual production initially to 16 aircraft. Tasks further down include developing the LCA Mk II and AMCA. Also, there could be a contract of the Ka-226T helicopters to be produced jointly by Kamov and HAL. Additional orders for 40 SU-30 MKI and its upgrade will keep HAL hands full. At the same time, HAL has been handed over an RFP for 70 HTT-40 basic trainer aircraft. HAL is also still working further on the long-delayed Intermediate Jet Trainer (IJT). The midsized, 80-90 seat, Indian Regional Jet (IRJ) has still to take off. Similarly, the Saras small transport (20 seats) is still struggling.

HTT 40 trainer aircraft

HAL Production and Quality Issues

         HAL, for long had mastered, and seemed content with, the screw-driver approach of license manufacturing aircraft, where they get the full production design drawings from foreign companies. There are essentially three issues that have slowed aircraft development and production and that has often upset IAF plans for building its force levels. HAL (and no less DRDO) have often overstated capability of having full know-how of world class technologies to be able to design world class aircraft. In the same breath they overstated the timelines to deliver. With the result, most programs had only partially achieved the desired jointly evolved air staff qualification requirements and in that too they have been excessive delays. LCA is a classic case in point. IAF is forced to fly the MiG-21s even today which were to be replaced by LCA long back. The second issue was the production quality control. IAF has repeatedly pointed out production quality flaws. The fact that Dassault was unwilling to take responsibility of HAL’s production quality in the Rafale contract was one of the key reasons for 126 Rafale MMRCA contract getting derailed. The other issue was the excessive production man-hours quoted by HAL (2.7 times in excess). Possible reasons for high man-hours for production in HAL could be lower productivity or encouragement/blind-eye to overtime, thus adding to employee numbers. Analysts have suggested that it is better to have high paid experts but cut the flab and make HAL ‘lean and mean’. The third issue is the costing. The Indian government and the public were somewhat stunned to read that HAL  had offered Tejas Mark-1A at Rs 463crore ($67.5 million) a piece making it costlier than even the much bigger and operationally potent Sukhoi-30MKI which HAL themselves supply at Rs 415 crore ($60.5 million). Interestingly the Russian supplied SU-30 MKI cost Rs 330 crore ($48 million). The MoD had to set up a committee to evaluate the high price sought by the Defence Public Sector Undertaking (DPSU). IAF can ill-afford to pay so much more from its meager Capital budget. HAL still buys significant parts of the ‘Make-in-India’ aircraft from abroad.

Insider Perspective

         Late Wg Cdr IM Chopra, former CMD HAL had analyzed the HAL industrial picture on a much wider canvas a few years back. He wished that HAL was a real center of excellence. Their design capability was limited but production skills are much better. Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and IT industry are of world standard. We can also acknowledge that missile technology has been developed reasonably well. DRDOs performance in many other programs has been less than desired. HAL’s main R&D remains focused on production. HAL’s original design capability was thus limited he felt. Design engineers at the middle level are good with analytical ability but the top design leaders are absent. The HF-24 Marut reached from design to first flight in five years, a unique achievement perhaps not even achieved in the West. This schedule became a reality because German aeronautical engineer, Dr. Kurt Tank who headed the project was an extremely good leader. LCA was a very ambitious program, and collaboration with a company in the West, in the very beginning may have greatly saved time. Composite technology has been absorbed well as a large number of composites have been used in the aircraft. Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) Dhruv he said was a success story though there have been slippages. The strength of HAL lies in production and overhaul. Optimistic schedules given in HAL project reports are sometimes difficult to meet. Sometimes the imported price is cheaper because of tooling cost and the high man-hours taken at HAL because of the learning. He felt it was possible to induce the private sector to set up high-tech units for building accessories etc. All are interested in indigenization but there are difficulties to achieve it in high technology items. For technology developed in India, the quantities required are too little unless the export market is explored. Indigenization achieved by the Indian Navy is substantial, but large numbers of items used in ships are of lower technology compared to aircraft. The growth/performance of PSUs suffers due to bureaucratic delays and interference. ISRO does not suffer from bureaucratic interference as Chairman is also Secretary of the Department of Space reporting directly to the Prime Minister he said.

HAL Command and Control

         Nearly two years ago, the hot aviation news was that the government was poised to hand over the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and entire fixed-wing design and production of HAL to the IAF. An Air Marshal answerable to the Air Chief in Air HQ and through him to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was proposed to head the all fixed-wing and engine manufacturing complexes. Both politicians and bureaucracy are backing this move. IAF had earlier been often accused of letting slip out of their control all activities related to aircraft design and production in which IAF had significant command and control in initial years. Air Vice Marshal (AVM) Aspy Merwin Engineer was Managing Director (MD) HAL (1958-1960), and AVM Ranjan Dutt (1963-68). Air Marshal PC Lal (1966-69), Air Marshal OP Mehra (1971-73), Air Marshal Sarosh Jehangir Dastur (1975-80), Air Marshal LM Katre (1983-1984), and Air Marshal MSD Wollen (1984-1988) were HAL Chairmen. Four of these later became Air Chiefs. Gp Capt BK Kapur (1980-83), Wg Cdr IM Chopra (1988-1991), and Wg Cdr RN Sharma (1992-93) were Chairmen but had joined when still young and had grown from within the HAL system. A large number of IAF officers of Wg Cdr and Gp Capt rank were General Managers (GMs) of various HAL divisions in the initial years. There have been no Ex-IAF Chairmen or GMs for the last few decades. The proposal finally seems to have fizzled out, or never saw the light of the day. The directorate of quality assurance handles product quality assurance for Army-related items. The Director-General Quality Assurance (DGQA) has always been a senior serving Army officer. Similarly, the directorate of quality assurance (Naval) is headed by naval officers. The Directorate General of Aeronautical Quality Assurance (DGAQA) which handles quality assurance of military aircraft, UAVs, aero engines, airborne systems, avionics, armaments, among many others, has never had an IAF officer as the head, despite many being eminently qualified. India’s major shipyards Mazagon Docks Ltd (Mumbai), Hindustan Shipyard (Visakhapatnam), Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers (Kolkata), Goa Shipyard Limited (Goa), among many others are headed by retired naval officers. For many years now the internal promotes of HAL have been holding all key posts in the hierarchy. IAF perhaps used to think that these industrial functions may best be left for design and production houses, and IAF could interface with them through flight test centers and program review meetings. This situation came about primarily when the government set up Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) in 1984 to oversee the development of the nation’s LCA program. In view of inordinate delays in the LCA program and quality control issues related to HAL production, a fresh move had begun for IAF to exercise greater control over aircraft design and production. Will such a move be allowed to succeed by the HAL unions, or bureaucracy is still a moot question. Will such an appointment really makes a change or pays dividends is still a question mark. The move itself needs dispassionate analysis. 

Alleged ASQR Changes by IAF

         IAF is sometimes unfairly blamed for not encouraging indigenous production in their hurry to acquire state-of-the-art systems from abroad. IAF today is down to 32 Squadrons vis-a-vis authorized 42. This state has been reached because of an unending wait for the LCA despite many specification dilutions and concessions by IAF. DRDO and HAL have often alleged that IAF has been constantly changing the ASQRs (Air Staff Quality Requirements) which reportedly delayed the project and increased D&D and aircraft cost. The truth was that for Tejas Mk1, IAF had to make nearly 135 concessions because it was beyond the DRDO and HAL to be able to meet them. There has been no change in ASQRs of Tejas Mk 1A since first formalized in 2014. Jointly agreed changes are made only in those items which reach obsolescence. Since LCA Mk1 did not meet the IAF specifications, it was decided to have LCA Mk II which would hopefully meet the IAF specifications. Since Mk II would take a long to develop, the Mk 1A variant had to be evolved to fill that gap. It clearly shows that IAF has been accommodating the indigenous industry at each stage. IAF is directly responsible to the nation for defence from the air and needs state of weapons no less in quality than the ones with its adversaries. Pointing out deficiencies does not mean that IAF has not been fully backing the LCA program.

LCA Production Rate

         LCA Mk1 production (40 ordered) is still at a snail’s pace. Only 10 were delivered in the first nearly three years. The current rate is around 12 aircraft a year. Meanwhile, the LCA Mk1A Design and Development (D&D) completion is now pushed back to around 2021. Even partial parallel production will delay Mk1A deliveries well past 2024. The deal to supply 73 LCA Tejas MK-1A fighters and 10 Tejas Mk-1A trainers is valued at Rs 48,000 crore (US$6.58bn) and includes funds to create ground infrastructure, maintenance, spares, ADA consulting charges, and custom and GST taxes among others. LCA production should be ramped up to around 16-20 aircraft per year to meet the IAF requirements.  

DRDO Labs and Other DPSUs


        DRDO is responsible for military research and development. It has 52 laboratories which currently employ nearly 30,000, of which only 5,000 are scientists. This is indicative of a poor teeth-to-tail ratio. It is under the administrative control of the MoD. DRDO was involved directly in the LCA, SU-30 MKI avionics, MiG-27 and Jaguar upgrades, UAVs, and EW suites of many aircraft. They are also involved in Artificial Intelligence (AI) research. They are also making missiles and radar, and integrating the indigenous AEW&C ‘Netra’ on the Embraer platform and will be responsible for the development of the AMCA. DRDO also runs the Integrated Guided Missile Development Program, which includes the successful Akash air defence system and Astra air-to-air missiles. BrahMos missile is through Indo-Russian joint venture evolved by DRDO. DRDO has plans for Long and medium-range SAMs. DRDO lab directors grow from within, mostly by seniority, and many have very short tenures. IAF needs to essentially monitor agencies and labs related to aviation. These include ADA, Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) and Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE), Centre for Airborne Studies (CABS), Electronics and Radar Development Establishment (LRDE), and Defence Avionics Research Establishment (DARE). LRDE has had some successes in the development of radars and related technologies. It has come a long way since its 2D INDRA radars. It now makes the Rajendra fire control radar for the Akash missile system, the Central Acquisition Radar (CAR), Battle Field Surveillance Radars, LRTR a 3D AESA with help of Elta of Israel, and the 2D Low-Level Lightweight Radar (LLLR). It is also developing the Uttam AESA for LCA Mk II, and S-Band AESA array for the DRDO’s AEW&C. Recent successful projects by ADE include the Lakshya aerial target, Nishant reconnaissance UAV, flight simulators (for LCA, Ajit, Kiran, Mig-21), and a few avionics for Tejas LCA. The primary function of GTRE is the research and development of aero gas turbines for military aircraft. As a spin-off effect, GTRE has been developing marine gas turbines also. GTRE’s flagship program was the GTX Kaveri engine intended to power the HAL Tejas which ran into failure for many reasons. The program was abandoned in 2014. Meanwhile, the Ghatak engine, a 52-kilonewton dry variant of the Kaveri engine is planned to be used in the DRDO UCAV. DARE which started as Advanced Systems Integration and Evaluation Organization (ASIEO) currently is in the areas of airborne electronic warfare, airborne processors, and mission avionics.

GTRE GTX-35VS Kaveri Engine. Image Sourse: Wikipedia

Bharat Electronics Limited

         Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL) is a state-owned listed company primarily into manufacturing advanced electronic products for the Armed Forces. Starting with the manufacture of a few communication equipments in 1956, BEL today makes a variety of radars, supports ISRO’s satellite program, supplies tank electronics, and manufactures military communication equipment. Boeing received the Data Link II communications technology for the Indian Navy’s P-8I BEL. The C4ISR equipment includes network-centric warfare technologies, air space management multi-sensor tracking, situation simulator and tactical algorithm for air defence applications, battlefield management system, and an all-weather 24/7 coastal surveillance system. Software-defined radios, next-generation bulk encryptors, and high data tactical radios are also its products. BEL is the lead integrator of the Akash missile system.

Aviation Defence PSU State & Challenges

Despite DRDO and DPSUs being in place in the initial years after independence, India continues to imports around 70 percent of its military hardware. India is more a foreign licensed-production house. The case in point is the manufacture of MiG series, Jaguar and SU -30 MKI fighters; Avro & Dornier light transport aircraft, and Chetak & Cheetah helicopters. Aircraft production quality has often been in question. Many aircraft accidents have been attributed to HAL’s quality control. High import content makes India vulnerable to supply lines being chocked at inappropriate times. Low investment in R&D; socialistic workforce with low productivity; generalist bureaucracy controlling and deciding technical activities; grown from the ranks and often fatigued PSU higher management; and lack of initiative and drive to achieve results have made DPSUs inefficient. Aviation specific, LCA is two decades behind schedule, Intermediate Jet Trainer (IJT) is being resurrected, Basic Trainer Aircraft HTT-40 is finally getting ready, and Kaveri engine has nearly been abandoned.

IAF Jaguar aircraft. Image Source:


         Ordnance Factories (OF) are the industrial organization under the Indian Department of Defence Production. They employ 164,000 personnel and have a turnover of just US$ 3 billion. The factories are divided into five operating areas, ammunition and explosives, weapons, vehicles & equipment, materials and components, armored vehicles, and ordnance equipment. Despite being set up in 1775, the OFs are still struggling to supply basic weapons and equipment, and the armed forces are forced to import even rifles and ammunition. The vast civilian workforce is led by powerful trade unions and the productivity is rather low. Organizationally, the OFs have little representation from the users, who remain a captive market. Lack of competition breeds its own inefficiencies and results in low-end items which are exorbitantly priced products. Perhaps the time has come to question the relevance of the OFs in view of the potential capability of the private sector to produce many of the requirements of the armed forces. Why should they be producing vehicles, shoes, and clothing? Why should India be still importing rifles? The OFs could best be divested and privatized to leverage the strength of the private sector.

Mine Protection Vehicle. Ordnance Factory Jabalpur. Image Source:


Make in India Push

         The ‘Make in India’ in defence is being aggressively pushed at the highest levels. Defence imports not only take away large chunks of foreign exchange but also perennially put the nation at the mercy of foreign powers. India currently also has the dubious reputation of being one of the largest importers of defence equipment. For any country to be a global power, it has to have a strong indigenous defence industry. To promote indigenous design, development, and production many measures have been initiated. Defence Acquisition Procedure DAP-2020 is a greatly evolved document. It all had started when it first came as Defence Procurement Procedure DPP-2002 in December 2002. Clearly, the trust is to promote ‘Made-by-India’ as a first choice. ‘Make-in-India’ is being driven as an interim solution. The Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in defence production in a landmark move has been cleared up to 100% for projects that bring state-of-the-art technology. A ‘Make in India’ defence manufacturing summit and global CEO conference was chaired for the first time by Defence Minister in February 2015. The number of companies registered for participating in the DefExpo 2020 at Lucknow reached 1,028, up from 702 in DefExpo 2018, held in Chennai. The number of participating foreign companies also increased to 172 from the previous figure of 160. The booked exhibition space by exhibitors for DefExpo 2020 was 96 per cent to over 43,021 square metres, compared to around 27,000 during the last edition. Big private industrial houses like Tatas, L&T, Reliance, Mahindras, Adani, Bharat Forge and many others have come into defence manufacturing in a serious way. The government’s thrust is to increase the share of all manufacturing from the current level of 15 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to 25 per cent. The defence will be a significant area. India’s target is to reduce defence imports to initially 40%.

Defence Expo 2020 Lucknow. Image Source:

Industry Friendly Defence Procurement

Defence acquisitions are not standard open market commercial procurements and have unique features such as supplier constraints, technological complexity, foreign government regulations, denial of technology, high cost, and geopolitical ramifications. DAP has been formulated to achieve enhanced self-reliance in defense manufacturing, facilitate ‘Make in India’ and also simplify/rationalize various aspects of procurement. The concept of strategic partnerships is getting in place. Transparency, probity, and public accountability have been introduced. Also, a balance will be maintained between expeditious procurement, high quality, and cost-effectiveness. The proposal is to leverage the indigenous manpower and engineering capability and consolidate design and manufacturing infrastructure within the country. ‘Make’ procedure encourages increased participation of the Indian industry, especially MSMEs. The DAP also encourages quicker decision-making and ensures a level-playing field while keeping self-reliance as a key aim.

‘Buy (Indian indigenously designed, developed and manufactured – IDDM)’ and ‘Buy (Indian)’ are key provisions. Buy Indian or IDDM must have at least 40% indigenous content. Make portion of the contract has to be a minimum of 50%. The target is to kick off one or two major projects under the strategic partnership model at the earliest. The New ‘penalization provisions’ policy has replaced the earlier reflexive ‘blacklisting’ of arms vendors suspected of wrongdoing with a more appropriate range of penalties. Foreign vendors cannot now get away with paying bribes. The IDDM encourages defence industry to shift from licensed manufacture into the high-tech realm of designing and developing defence equipment. The “Make” procedure allows the government to reimburse 90 percent of the development cost. There is also a greater assurance for defence industry to recover its costs. After successfully developing a prototype, if the vendor does not get an order, even his 10 percent expenditure would be refunded. CII has appreciated the opening too small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and it is bound to spur more design development activities within the country. Many of the licensing needs have been dispensed with and export clearances are virtually online. Hope private industry will go beyond pussy-footing their entry because of high investments coupled with uncertainty.

Tata Aerospace and Defence (Tata A&D). Image Source:

Private Sector – India’s Hope

         Over 30 per cent of scientists in US space agency NASA are reportedly Indians. If we can succeed in our space and nuclear programs and have high manufacturing standards in Cars and motorcycles, and are world leaders in software development we can do the same in defence production. Privatization of DPSUs is the way. Embraer of Brazil is a successful model to emulate. The private sector was allowed 100 per cent participation in defence production in 2001. Of India’s defence market 70% is through imports, 25% with the Defence PSUs and the remaining 5% with private partners. BrahMos tactical cruise missile is a successful JV with Russia and ready for export. We have great success in ship-building both through public and private sector shipyards. Tata Power and Larsen & Toubro manufacture Pinaka multi-barrel rocket launchers. L&T was involved in developing the hull for a nuclear submarine for the Indian Navy. And Tata Power is handling the modernization of airfield infrastructure for IAF. Tata Aerospace and Defence (Tata A&D) have been making the AH-64 Apache combat helicopter fuselage. They are also making aerostructures for Boeing’s CH-47 Chinook helicopters. All C-130Js delivered to customers around the world have major aero-structure components from India. Sikorsky – a Lockheed Martin company – also relies on TASL in Hyderabad, India, as the manufacturing base for its global supply of cabin aerostructures for the S-92 helicopter. Lockheed Martin Aerostructures (TLMAL), is a joint venture between Tata Advanced Systems (TASL) and Lockheed Martin, producing 24 C-130 empennages annually. Tata group is working with GE to manufacture CFM International LEAP engine components in India. Lockheed Martin selected TASL to produce F-16 wings in India. Mahindras are already making small aircraft and selling in Australia and elsewhere. EADS unit Cassidian plans to make India a hub for a large number of defence products that are locally manufactured and also offer technological value. GE has a huge India presence. BAE’s US arm plans to shift the Howitzer assembly to India. There is also a large MRO market that can create an R&D base for engineering services.

Adani-Elbit JV to make Hermes 900 UAVs in India. Image Source:

         In 2012, Centum Group, a Bangalore-based defence electronics company was selected to supply to French defence solutions provider Thales. It is now cleared to supply directly to any of the 70-plus Thales sub-groups.  In 2011, Tata Power Strategic Engineering Division (SED) – won a $186 million contract from the Indian Army to manufacture two electronic warfare systems to be deployed in mountainous regions beating Israeli firm Elta. Tata Power SED has secured orders for Pinaka Multi Barrel Rocket Launcher, Akash Army Launcher, and Integrated EW System for the Indian Army and the Akash Air Force Launcher for the Indian Air Force. During the June 2015 Paris Air show Indian conglomerate, US$ 16.9 billion, Mahindra Group bagged a large aero-components production contract and will manufacture a variety of metallic components for several Airbus aircraft. Mahindra Aerostructures will deliver in excess of a million parts per annum. Bharat Forge is aiming to become a major player in the artillery and specialized vehicles segment. Several small companies – such as Dynamatic Technologies, Avasarala Technologies, DefSys, Ravilla, and Taneja Aerospace – have of late acquired advanced technological capabilities. Dynamatic Technologies makes assemblies of vertical fins for Sukhoi 30 MKI fighters. Samtel electronics makes SU-30 Head-Up Displays and other electronics. Indian companies have the global opportunity not only due to cheaper skilled labour but have also developed the ability to manufacture accurately to specifications, particularly in aerospace, metalworking, and electronics. Meanwhile, Industry also awaits rationalization of the tax structure that will promote value-addition in the country. Further, since there is a huge requirement of small firearms for armed forces, paramilitary, and police, FDI of 74% through automatic route has been opened in this hitherto closed sector. This is expected to attract major international firms.

Pinaka Multi Barrel Rocket Launcher. Image Source: Wikipedia

Industry apprehensions

There are fears that allowing 100% FDI may take the opportunity away from Indian private sector players as foreign manufacturers will prefer coming in on their own rather than going in for a joint venture and share their profits. The Russian JVs, tie-ups by both Boeing and Lockheed Martin have allayed such apprehensions. The Offsets policy had not brought any worthwhile technology. The policy was therefore reviewed. Indian defence companies have also expressed concerns over the slow rate of defence acquisition. Long and inordinate delay in the acquisition cycle results in uncertainty and continues to bleed companies financially. Some in the industry suggest mile-stone linked payments. The strategic partnership should allow private industry into more areas including aircraft manufacture. The industry also needs to have clarity on minimum bulk order so that they can plan infrastructure and investment. A key to the industry’s success would be the ability to export defence products to amortize the costs. Since the launch of the ambitious ‘Make in India’ initiative, an estimated 24,000 MSMEs currently involved in defence supply chain, and the contribution of private players in the defence sector has steadily grown over the years with more than 460 licenses issued so far to private companies. These are to produce items including light armored vehicles, artillery weapon systems, UAS, and underwater systems. Private players have also been given industrial licenses to produce electronic warfare systems, air defence weapons, and armored panels for helicopters among other items. Over the next 7-8 years, India’s defence modernisation plan is projected at $130 billion and contracts worth over $55.17 billion are expected to be placed with domestic manufacturers, as per Engineering Exports Promotion Council (EEPC) India.


World Aviation Sector Realities

         Two major manufacturers Boeing and Airbus control the bulk of the civil aircraft market; half a dozen players control the business jet market; Lycoming makes more than 50 percent of the world’s engines for small propeller aircraft; there are only 5-6 jet engine manufacturers; only three countries have reasonable access to stealth technology. The transfer of technology (ToT) contracts is most difficult to interpret and implement. There have been ToT clauses in many Indian contracts but physically nothing significant has been transferred. India has been unable to leverage its high imports on this count. No one wants to share ‘up-end’ technology even for money. With limited access to technology, alternative means will have to be found. The Soviet Union and China rode to aviation success by reverse-engineering Western aircraft designs. Joint ventures are the only interim option for India.

Aircraft Technologies

         High speed, agile, stealthy platforms with low maintenance and high turn around; more efficient wing-body blended shapes for better flight dynamics and performance; lighter and yet stronger aerostructures to make the basic air vehicle weigh less and thus carry more weapon loads; use of easily moldable layered composites materials to shape complex curvatures and engine intakes; and advances in stealth technologies to counter more sophisticated AESA radars are required. Fighters of the future will travel closer to space at hypersonic speeds; will have conformal weapons; be optionally manned; and have very low radar, sound and smoke reflections. Helicopters will be more stealth and will have air refueling. Unmanned systems will cover the entire spectrum of air operations. They will be from Nano-millimeter sized to large-scale cargo aircraft/airships.      

Fighter Engine Technologies

Current jet engines are fairly powerful and power augmentation is needed at best only during take-off or in close combat. Super-cruise is the term for flying at sustained supersonic speed without the use of the afterburner. Super-cruise also reduces the IR (infrared) signature by some 75%, thus making aircraft safer from heat-homing AAM. Russians were the first to research fully variable nozzles with the ability to vector (point in different directions). The high maneuverability of the Su-27 variants is possible through the use of thrust vectoring. Fighter aircraft aspire to go faster at several times the speed of sound, (typically Mach 5). Such speeds are possible only through ramjet engines. Enhanced stealth characteristics, without affecting engine efficiency are also required. A lot is being written about engine technologies such as electric-field propulsion, and electrogravitics (or anti-gravity).

Future is Unmanned

UAS have more than proven their value in the military world. It is a real-time of transition in terms of future aviation. There are those who see the F-35 as the last manned-only fighter/bomber. Solar-powered and optionally manned UAS are already flying. UAS will also ensure no ‘public opinion sensitive’ body bags come back. This could also mean that seemingly clean and safe strikes could allow America to perpetually be at war beyond Congressional scrutiny with no-boots-on-the-ground. NATO logisticians hit a major milestone in Afghanistan, reaching out when an unmanned K-Max helicopter successfully delivered a sling-load of beans, bullets, and Band-Aids to a forward base. UAS will serve as a bridge between wind tunnels and manned flight testing of a wide array of high-risk technologies. DARPA is developing a fleet of small naval vessels capable of launching and retrieving combat drones without the need for large and expensive Aircraft Carriers. Flying aircraft carriers are being developed that can launch and retrieve drones using existing military aircraft such as the B-1, B-52, C-130, or even fighters. The USAF UAS vision 2047 document predicts every conceivable aircraft role could be handled by the UAS fleet including that of Airlift, AWACS, and Counter Air Strikes.

HAL’s CATS Manned Unmmaneed Teaming Concept. Image Source:

Critical Technologies India Must Acquire

         For a long, India never allotted sufficient funds nor gave aggressive attention to defence production. Notwithstanding, today we have successfully design and development programs for fighter aircraft (LCA), helicopters (ALH variants), composite materials and structures, space launchers and satellites, ships, and missiles (BrahMos, Agni, ABM). India is a leading nation in software and computation development. India has mastered the art of license production of aircraft and has a fully modern industrial infrastructure. Yet there are many core aviation design technologies that we have still to acquire. China has flooded the world with remote-controlled UAS of various sizes for hobbyists. They could soon be the leading defence UAS exporter. For India, UAS is still a work in slow progress. UAS programs need a push. India has been floundering in making an aircraft jet or even a piston engine. Our over ambitious go-it-alone approach has not been of help. Finally, we have been forced to seek help from French firm Safran (Snecma) to recover the Kaveri engine earlier meant for LCA. HAL and DRDO have made attempts to make modern airborne radars but success has eluded us and we had to fall back to Elta Israel for the interim radar for the LCA. We are now scouting for a partner to make the AESA radars in India. India is still a long way to go for electro-optical systems and helmet-mounted sights, albeit some work is already on. Similarly, we need capabilities in Forward-Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) and Laser designation pods. India should be able to make and export fly-by-wire and fly-by-light signaling cables and equipment. India has still to master even aircraft auto-pilots and has had to look for foreign support. In days of Artificial intelligence (AI) and Robots, this is a logical first step. AI is the future and India needs to climb the bandwagon quickly. EW system technologies are complex and need constant evolution. India is still working to master older technologies. There is a need to work closely on EW hardware. There is very little work going on in DRDO on stealth shapes or materials. In fact, we are also talking of a non-stealthy FGFA Advanced Multirole Combat Aircraft (AMCA) variant. The AMCA is meant to be a twin-engine, stealthy, super maneuverable all-weather multirole fighter with LRDE X-band solid-state gallium nitride AESA radar. The current first flight is already shifted to 2032.

Artificial intelligence (AI) in military aviation. Drone Swarming. Image Source:

         India has still to succeed in making even a commuter aircraft leave alone an IL-76 class heavy-lift transport aircraft. It is critical to succeed in a medium transport aircraft quickly. NAL-developed ‘Saras’ still remain the only hope. Little is also known about the Indian Regional Jet Aircraft (RTA) meant to be a joint project between HAL and NAL. This aircraft would have a capacity of 70-100 passengers. HAL is also planning to develop a Medium Lift Helicopter in the 10-15 ton class. It is currently looking for foreign partners. Little is being heard about the HJT-39, CAT (Combat Air Trainer), which was to be an Advance Jet Trainer (AJT) announced in 2005. Good that the HTT-40 turbo trainer is finally shaping up and also the Intermediate Jet Trainer (IJT), HJT-36 Sitara. India imports many of its weapons and armaments, starting from some small caliber shells and rifles to heavy projectiles and missiles. India even needs active research in Directed energy weapons (DEW). India is still working on anti-radiation weapons. After the success of BrahMos, there is a need to become self-sufficient on some of these.  Technologies are also being used to prolong life and ensure cheaper repairs. Low Life Cycle Costs (LCC) will remain crucial. India has peripheral involvement with academia in defence R&D. More serious partnership is required for innovations of core technologies. Paltry amounts being spent on R&D need to go up. The funds have to focus on areas of critical interest and have to be assigned to selected teams with end-state definition. With bigger Indian private players willing to invest in defence, new technologies are bound to be developed or imported through joint-venture routes. They need some hand-holding. Time for infliction has come and the future can be bright. With Make-in-India thrust more companies may set up shop in India.

HAL Intermediate Jet Trainer (IJT). Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Revamping DPSUs and DRDO

         In the military aviation domain, the LCA and AMCA fighters, mid-size transport aircraft, and medium-lift helicopters are critical to success for India to take the next leap forward in defence production. Many technologies need to be mastered. The current bureaucratic control over DPSUs and DRDO cannot succeed. Organizations need to have a modern corporate structure and be made more accountable. The current promote-by-seniority senior management has to be replaced by specially selected, highly paid, corporate leaders to put at the helm. The Engineer to technician ratio has to increase if R&D has to succeed. The socialist labor policies have to be replaced to improve productivity. These entities are sitting on huge land banks in prime areas which need to be hived off or utilized for core requirements. They must get out of non-core areas such as housing and transportation for the staff. Organizations need greater autonomy which will come with greater privatization.       

Defence R&D Budget

         USA and Russia have traditionally given high priority to research institutions, and China earmarks US$ 25 billion for Defence R&D every year. At Rs 20,457 Crore (US$ 2.79 billion) DRDO’s 2021-22 budget and Rs 779 Crore (US$ 106 million) for OFs is rather low, and the bulk of it goes into salaries. India’s effective total defence allocations of Rs 3,47,088 Crore ($43.4 billion) are very low for the third largest armed forces of the world. The falling rupee against the US Dollar has shrunk the buying power further. With 61 percent of the budget going for revenue expenditure, little gets left for acquisitions of new equipment. Most of the Capital budget is required to service the pending liabilities for earlier purchased equipment. With the huge modernization gap, much more funds are required to be allotted. The total allocations earmarked for the MoD represent 13.7 percent of the total central government expenditure and 2.15 percent of the GDP. This figure should go up to at least 2.5 percent considering the geo-political threat.  

Way Forward

India is a huge aviation defence production market waiting to be tapped. It will be so much better if Indian firms can take the major share. To be a global power that is the very first step. Till then the intention is to encourage foreign companies to set up shops in India and make it their manufacturing base not only for the Indian market but also abroad. Several global defence aviation majors have shown interest. In addition to the economic benefits, indigenization will result in increased jobs, improved capability and the development of critical technology, and ensure ready access to the best available defence equipment. India will need about 200,000 skilled people in the defence and aerospace industry in the next 10 years. A large number of qualified ex-servicemen may be trained and employed. Foreign companies can use India as an export hub like it happened in the auto sector. There is a considerable opportunity at sub-system levels in aerostructures, avionics, and actuation and control. The government wants to reduce defence imports by at least 20%-25% through domestic production. Indian industry is good at small component manufacture, electronics, software, heavy engineering, sheet metal work, high-quality milling, and these need to be harnessed. Time to act is now lest India misses the bus again.

Header Image Source:

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.


  1. Excellent article. Have a question. DRDO had in 2016 said Rustom 2 is not a UCAV and has no combat capabilities. Would like a clarification since you describe it as a UCAV, about whether such capability has been added to the drone. Thank you.


    1. Till a system joins the Armed Force, it remains a developmental project. I always thought that the UAVs were a good low-hanging fruit for India to pluck. Unfortunately, that has not happened.

      Liked by 1 person

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