Stalled Out: Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd.'s Sitara intermediate jet trainer has been under development for 15 years. (Wikimedia Commons)
NEW DELHI — The Indian Defence Ministry, tired of waiting for its homemade intermediate jet trainer, is seeking a solution from overseas.
The MoD floated a global tender in early May for the trainer through a request for information (RFI). The jet trainer is being developed by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL).
Analysts see the RFI as the MoD’s first attempt to allow competition for low-tech defense products that are under development by state-owned companies.
“In the past, whenever an indigenous product was available [through state-owned defense companies], it completely closed the gates for further efforts to seek alternatives with better operational or commercial terms,” said Subhash Bhojwani, a retired Air Force air marshal. “And if the defense services still insisted on going ahead, they were labeled as being enamored by imports.”
The RFI was sent to Russia’s Yakovlev; Italy’s Alenia Aermacchi; Korea Aerospace Industries; US companies Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Beechcraft; and Sweden’s Saab.
The Sitara trainer has been delayed by eight years, due initially to the late delivery of Russian NPO Saturn engines and later to the slow pace of development at HAL, an Air Force official said. HAL takes advantage of being a monopoly state-owned company and takes orders promising early delivery, the official said.
HAL has promised that the jet would reach initial operating capability by December. The Sitara, under development for over 15 years, was to have entered service in June 2012. But in 2011, flight-testing suffered a major setback when a Sitara crashed in stall testing.
Another Air Force officer said the HJT-36 Sitara has yet to be demonstrated in any air show, indicating unspecified technical insufficiencies.
“Only the Sitara can meet [the Air Force’s] training requirements,” a HAL official said, and the trainer’s development “is progressing well.” The HAL official refused to give an exact date when the trainers will be made available to the Air Force.
The Air Force earlier abandoned the HAL basic trainer and opted to buy the Pilatus trainer from Switzerland in 2012.
The specifications call for the intermediate trainer to be a two-seater with a ferry range of at least 1,500 kilometers and the capability to fire a lightweight gun or pod with ammunition for at least five seconds, and to carry at least four 250-kilogram bombs. The RFI asks vendors for the likely cost to supply their trainers in batches of 10, 20, 30 and 50 aircraft.
The Air Force wants to retire the aging Kiran Mark-1 and Mark-22 intermediate trainers by 2015. Indian pilots graduate from the Pilatus PC-7 trainer to the Kiran and then to Hawk advanced jet trainers.
Air Force officers welcomed the floating of an RFI since it would give a strong signal to state-owned companies that they have to produce high-quality defense products on time, the first Air Force source said.
“A global RFI will probably make HAL realize that it no longer has the [Air Force] as a captive customer — a customer forced to accept sub-standard products on an as-is-where-is basis merely because these happen to be homegrown,” Bhojwani said. “In other words, it must meet or beat world standards in order to sustain its customer base.
“Had this happened 30 years ago, we would have had a vibrant indigenous defense industry by now.” ■