Contract for Pilatus trainer aircraft signed

Issue: 06-2012By Air Marshal (Retd) B.K. Pandey

The long-pending requirement of basic trainer aircraft of the Indian Air Force (IAF) can now be met with the acquisition of 75 Pilatus PC-7 Mk.II planes starting later this year under a Rs. 2,800-crore deal signed with the Swiss company. The aircraft will replace its fleet of HPT-32. As per reports, delivery of the aircraft is scheduled to commence early next year. The IAF is procuring the aircraft together with an integrated ground-based training system and a comprehensive logistics support package. The contract also contains an option clause for extending the scope of the agreement within three years from the date of initial contract.

While the IAF certainly would have reason to rejoice at the good news for which it has been waiting anxiously, the announcement of the contract being concluded with the Swiss company has not come a day too soon. Basic flying training in the IAF has been in shambles since the fleet of HPT-32 piston engine trainer was rather suddenly grounded in July 2009. As the HPT-32 fleet had adequate technical life to serve for another 15 years or so, the IAF had not taken any positive steps for its replacement by the indigenous aerospace industry. Some years ago, entirely on its own initiative, the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) had demonstrated a new product as a possible replacement for the HPT-32. Designated as the Hindustan Turbo Trainer (HTT) 34, the prototype of the single engine aircraft built on the HPT-32 airframe and powered by a 313 kW (420 shaft horsepower) Allison 250-B17D turboprop engine, undertook its maiden flight from HAL Airport, Bangalore, on June 17, 1984. It is understood that the new more powerful turboprop engine provided a significantly better performance than its predecessor, the HPT-32. However, for some reason known perhaps only to Air Headquarters, the planners there evinced no interest in the offer. In the absence of any other customer, HAL had no option but to cancel the programme.

Lack of patronage by the IAF was perhaps responsible for deterring HAL from any fresh initiative in the matter. Despite being ignored once, there was a second initiative by HAL two decades later by way of a proposed design, based on the highly popular and successful Brazilian basic trainer Tucano. This initiative was once again cold shouldered by the IAF. Lack of enthusiasm by HAL for further effort in this regime can be attributable not only to oversubscribed order books, but largely to the indifference displayed by Air Headquarters towards projects less glamorous than those related to combat aircraft, especially if they are to be procured from foreign sources.

A global request for proposal (RFP) for a basic trainer aircraft was floated in 2009, for which there was response from five companies. Of these, the three manufacturers shortlisted were Hawker Beechcraft, offering the T-6C Texan II, Korean Aerospace Industries with offer of the KT-1B and Pilatus of Switzerland offering the PC-7 Mk.II. After an elaborate process of evaluation and field trials, the Swiss Pilatus PC-7 Mk.II emerged as the front-runner. The tendering process was under serious threat of running aground when Korean Aerospace Industries filed a complaint with the Ministry of Defence of irregularity in the selection process. Fortunately, the allegations were investigated and the issue was resolved without much delay. Even then it has taken nearly three years for the contract to be signed and possibly will take as many years or more for the delivery to be completed and for the fleet to be fully operational. By this time, the IAF would have been without a basic trainer for around six years. Apart from the adverse long-term implications of the protracted lack of basic trainer, this experience is a manifestation of the inadequacies of the Defence Procurement Procedure and especially its total disconnect with the urgency of operational requirement or the imperatives of national security.