There’s an Urgent Need to Set Up a National Aerospace Commission

In 1903, the Wright Brothers flew a heavier-than-air manned aircraft and ushered in the era of aviation. Subsequent scientific advancements in this field were so rapid that the inherent characteristic of elevation enabled air-travel, compressing the dimensions of distance and time. However, while continents are being brought closer by aviation, unfortunately, people began drifting apart. In 1910, less than a decade of the first manned flight, the Italians used aircrafts to bomb Turkish troops in Libya. The British and the Germans used aircrafts during the First World War for bombing and reconnaissance roles, proving that the use of this platform would be a game-changer, or in military parlance, a ‘Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA)’. 

The Second World War further witnessed rapid technological advances in aviation leading to multi-engine bombers, aircraft carriers and operations with jet engines. The rapidity of incorporating latest technology into aviation has continued thereafter, resulting in the use of the contiguous medium of Space into launching satellites and landing on the Moon. In just about 116 odd years, the quest and competition amongst nations continues to use aerospace for military superiority, air-transportation and for exploiting the frontier of Space. 

India witnessed its first air-mail courier flight in February 1911 between Allahabad and Naini by a French pilot. Sensing the need of military aviation in the Indian subcontinent, the British established the Indian Air Force (IAF) in October 1932, which played a very important role in both the Burma campaign and in the North West Frontier Provinces during the Second World War. Coincidentally, at the same time, the late JRD Tata conducted the first commercial/civil flight and established India’s first airline, Tata Airlines. It was renamed as Air India when the company went public in 1946. 

During the war, the British established 400+ airfields within India; some big, and many smaller ones with just an airstrip for a quick re-fuelling halt. With British and American aircrafts needing repair and overhaul facilities within the theatre of operations, the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) was established by Seth Walchand Hirachand in 1940 at Bengaluru. At the time of India’s Independence, the country had inherited a number of assets and trained manpower to take advantage of this important element of national security and economy. Since then, while there have been many successes, unfortunately, many opportunities have also been squandered.

For the Indian aerospace environment, 2019 has been a very important year. It started with the IAF’s successful air strike on 26th February into Pakistan at Balakot, which signalled a ‘new normal’ for India’s national security policy. This was followed on 27th March by Mission Shakti in which the DRDO successfully demonstrated India’s ability to accurately shoot down a Low Earth Orbital (LEO) satellite. Finally, the ISRO launched Chandrayaan II on 22nd  July.

However, the analysis of India’s aerospace environment will not be complete if we fail to look at two important elements; first, the Indian Civil Aviation sector and second, the indigenous design and manufacturing capability, often referred to as ‘Make in India’. 

For the Civil Aviation sector, 2019 has been a turbulent year with the country’s biggest private airline, Jet Airways, collapsing and resulting into not only a big void in India’s air traffic, but also the unemployment of 40000+ employees. Other private airlines grapple with internal tussles as well. The national flag carrier, Air India, continues to make huge losses every year, forcing the Government to seriously disinvest and seek its buyout by a private Indian player. Incidentally, Air India was taken over by the Government in 1953 after the Parliament passed the Air Corporation Act. Many other airlines in the region which started years later, such as Singapore Airlines in 1972 and Emirates in 1985, are way ahead in asset management and profitability compared to Air India.  

Another area of disappointment is India’s inability so far to produce an aircraft which can be truly indigenous.

The Light Combat Aircraft or Tejas has an imported engine, plus a radar and many other electronic components of foreign make. Soon after the war with China in 1962, HAL was also made a Defence Public Sector Unit (DPSU). 

In 1956, India started  to co-produce the Hindustan Fighter (HF-24) or Marut, the airframe of which was to be made in India and the engines, by Egypt. However, the engine project did not succeed, and India chose to use British origin Orpheus engines, which were fitted also on the Gnat aircraft. Almost 150 aircrafts were produced and the Marut did well in the 1971 war but was underpowered and heavy on maintenance; as such the project was terminated in the 1980s. The DRDO, meanwhile, failed to produce a suitable engine for the HF-24 which is also the story of the Kaveri engine for the LCA. While HAL made a number of good trainer aircrafts like HT-2 and HJT-16 or Kiran, subsequent long gaps in aircraft design and development have resulted into heavy dependence on imports. 

In recent years, HAL has been able to design and produce state-of-the-art helicopters, but the engines and many other electronic components need to be imported. DRDO too has made great strides in missile technology and radars but has failed to deliver engines as well as some of the seekers, sensors and other modern weapons. India continues to be dependent on imported aircrafts and weapons which makes it the second largest importer of arms in the world.

As per the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MOCA), India is the world’s third largest civil aviation market with over 800 aircrafts being imported by airlines and other operators. Unfortunately, India does not produce civil aircrafts; it also sends airliners abroad for major servicing and overhaul. HAL as well as private industries like Tata Advanced Systems Ltd (TAS) produce some of the airframe parts for Airbus Industries, Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin of USA. 

For the first time, instead of HAL, the private TAS will be co-producing the C-295 transport aircraft for the Indian Air Force with Airbus Industries. This aircraft has the potential to be redesigned as a regional aircraft to connect airports being developed under the UDAN-RCS scheme launched by the Government in 2016. Attempts are also being made to set up bigger assembly plants and Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facilities in the MIHAN project at Nagpur. For a market potential expected to be around US $100 billion, the present contribution of ‘Make in India’ to the Civil Aviation sector is negligible.

There is a lack of a cohesive national policy for India’s aerospace sector. HAL, DRDO, ISRO and MOCA are engaged in their own goals, confined to their domains. When ISRO can produce its own cryogenic engines, it should not be difficult to make an aero engine within India. Similarly, several smaller components common across the aerospace sector such as instruments, radio sets, radars and allied ground support equipment can be easily made in India with benefits of economies of scale. This will give a much-needed boost to the Indian private industry, especially the SMEs, aiding job creation, an urgent need of the Indian economy. An Indian Aerospace Commission will be able to channelize this by drawing upon the strengths of all the public and private enterprises to ensure synergy in design, development and production.

Meanwhile, neighbouring China not only stole a march over India in indigenisation, but also, it is slated to be one of the largest exporters of aircrafts, both civil and military, as well as drones or UAVs. China had established the Aviation Industry Administration Commission in April 1951 during the Korean War. It soon started designing and producing aircrafts, initially for its defence needs and later for the civil aviation sector. In 1956, it established the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation Limited (CASIC), an overarching commission supervising all segments of defence, civil aviation and space. It also sent lunar landers and manned flights into space. With their mission ‘Make in China 2025’, the Chinese are well on track to be among the self-reliant, export-oriented aerospace leaders in the world.

The Russian aviation industry has also worked in a similar collaborative manner with a strong aerospace cluster, functioning under the recently rebranded state-owned conglomerate, Rostec. Although USA does not have a formal organisation to ensure synergy among stakeholders, the Government plays an active role by taking periodic combined reviews, aided by a strong collaboration between private industry and academia.

The GoI established the Indian Defence Space Agency in April 2019, along with the Defence Cyber Agency and Armed Forces Special Operations Division. These are welcome steps to ensure an integrated collaborative approach for the Armed Forces. Establishing a National Aerospace Commission will go a long way in ensuring rapid progress in indigenisation of this strategic and huge sector of India’s economy as well as strengthen national security.

Jai Hind.

Air Marshal Bhushan Gokhale

Air Marshal Bhushan Gokhale, PVSM, AVSM, VM, has seen active operations during the 1971 India-Pakistan hostilities, and was Vice Chief of the Air Staff at Air Headquarters. He is Consultant to the Principal Scientific Advisor to GoI, and to DRDO.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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