India’s Indigenous Arms Industry – Nipped Before Blooming

by Dr. Sanjay Badri-Maharaj - Jan 22, 2017 01:12 PM +05:30 IST
India’s Indigenous Arms Industry – Nipped Before BloomingA Hindustan Turbo Trainer-40 (HTT-40) aircraft developed by HAL takes part in a test flight in Bangalore. (MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP/GettyImages)
  • India’s aviation industry will be examined in this first part of a series, with special focus on how a clear and systematic development programme for combat aircraft and trainers was destroyed before it could bear fruit.

    This has had serious consequences for the industry, which was reduced to becoming a venue for licensed-production, with a complete loss of design capability.

India’s defence industry is perhaps one of the most unfairly maligned anywhere. From the Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs) to the Ordnance Factories Board (OFB) to Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), there are a litany of complaints, insinuations and insults – some undoubtedly justified, but others either incited by malafide intentions or out of pure ignorance. As the country has embarked upon a “Make in India” initiative in defence production, which is still winding its way towards delivering usable products, it is worth examining a period in India’s defence industry between 1948 and 1980 in which much progress was made, but a strong foundation was betrayed by a fatal combination of military exigencies, fiscal constraints and political and military myopia.

It should be noted that “indigenisation” is a much used and abused word. It is not entirely clear whether the Indian Navy has any higher level of indigenisation by value than either the Indian Army or the Indian Air Force, as in the latter cases licensed-produced equipment has increasingly high indigenous content by value and by component (the Su-30MKI for example is 51 per cent indigenous by value and 73 per cent indigenous by component). What the Navy has consistently done, however, is support indigenous ship designs and improve the product accordingly. This was not the case with the other two services.

India’s aviation industry will be examined in this first part of a series, with special focus on how a clear and systematic development programme for combat aircraft and trainers was destroyed before it could bear fruit. This has had serious consequences for the industry, which was reduced to becoming a venue for licensed-production, with a complete loss of design capability.

Part 1: Aviation – Opportunity Missed

In 1948, India tasked its nascent aircraft industry – in the form of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) – to begin work on a basic piston-engine trainer to supplement and then supplant the Tiger Moths and Percival Prentice aircraft then in service. The result was the Hindustan HT-2, which served with distinction from 1953 until its retirement in 1990. Over 170 were built, with a dozen being used to form the Ghanaian Air Force in 1959.

By starting with a basic trainer, HAL had embarked upon its learning process in a sensible manner and intended to develop this core competency into an advanced trainer – the HT-11 – and an armed trainer – the HT-10 – which would have replaced the T-6 Harvard in the training roles. However, even at this early stage, short-sightedness combined with budgetary constraints conspired to stymie these plans. Neither of the aircraft progressed beyond the mock-up stage, and a valuable learning process was ended prematurely.

Even at this early stage, HAL initiated some work into civil aircraft with the HUL-26 Puspak trainer becoming a staple of Indian civil flying clubs following its first flight in 1958. An enlarged version, the HAOP-27 Krishak, formed the basis of army air observation flights until being replaced by Cheetah helicopters from the mid-1970s. The HAL HA-31 Basant crop-spraying aircraft had a limited production run (31 aircraft) but proved successful in service. For transport duties, the HS.748 Avro entered production in the 1960s and became progressively “Indianised” with the survivors soldiering on in IAF and BSF services.

To this point, HAL’s work had been unpretentious, but essential. Building the foundation for a viable industry necessitates starting from the simplest of aircraft. However, the needs of the IAF required HAL to branch into combat aircraft manufacturing at an early stage.

The first jet combat aircraft to be manufactured in India was the De Havilland Vampire in its FB.52 and T.55 variants. Under a licence granted in 1950, which included the Goblin 2 turbojet, India was able to replace its piston-engine fighters with jet aircraft in a systematic and low-risk manner while simultaneously building its aviation industry. Admittedly, India had to opt for purchases of Hawker Hunters (1954) Dassault Ouragans (1953) and Mysteres (1957) to bolster its fighter strength but the intent to create an indigenous fighter manufacturing base was pursued with determination.

The years from 1956 to 1959 were critical for the Indian aviation industry. In 1959, HAL received permission to proceed with the development of a basic jet trainer to replace the Vampire T.55s and the T-6 Harvard. In one of HAL’s nearly unqualified successes, the resultant aircraft – the HJT-16 Kiran – first flew in 1964 and in a modified version continues to this day as the IAF’s basic trainer. To be sure, the Kiran did have a somewhat protracted development period before entering service and its Mk.2 variant was late in coming. Nevertheless, the Kiran was a success. It entered bulk production and serves the IAF competently.

Simultaneously, HAL had laid the foundations for fighter production with a licence agreement for the Folland Gnat being signed in 1956 and Dr Kurt Tank was engaged to begin work on designing the HF-24 Marut.

The Gnat, despite its British origins, became an Indian fighter. At its peak, HAL could build four Gnats per month and this diminutive fighter transformed the IAF’s combat arm completely. HAL also received a licence to produce the Bristol Orpheus engine. This engine, despite its limitations, provided the Gnat with a then unheard of thrust-to-weight ratio of 0.75:1 (in contrast the F-86F-40-NA supplied to Pakistan had a thrust to weight ratio of 0.42) and a de-rated version continues to power the Kiran trainer. It was hoped that HAL’s experience with the Gnat would have led to the development of a more advanced version but here, as was the case with the Marut, inherent limitations with the Orpheus B.OR.2 Mk.701 engine rated at 4,520 lbf (20.11 kN), rendered such efforts futile.

The HAL Ajeet, while intended to improve on the Gnat’s performance, was only marginally successful as by 1975, the desired performance could only be achieved with a more powerful engine and more advanced avionics. While four squadrons of Ajeets served between 1975 and 1991, the type never achieved its potential. To add insult to injury, the Ajeet was considered for conversion into an advanced jet trainer (AJT). This should have been encouraged as no fewer than 105 Gnat T.1s served the RAF with distinction as a trainer (not to mention being the mount of the Red Arrows aerobatics team). However, a lack of support, a lack of reference to the Gnat T.1, coupled with the loss of a prototype ended this effort and the IAF remained without an AJT until 2008, when the first BAE Hawks entered service.

It is the story of India’s short-sightedness in engine development, which wrecked not only the prospects for a high-performance Gnat but also the promising HF-24 Marut. The HF-24 was designed around the Orpheus B.Or.12 engine rated at 6,810 lbf (30.29 kN) dry and 8,170 lbf (36.34 kN) with afterburning, which was being developed for the proposed Gnat Mk.2 interceptor and a NATO light-weight strike fighter. Unfortunately, the British authorities cancelled their requirement of the type and India, being unwilling to provide the modest sum required to complete development, was stuck with the non-afterburning Orpheus B.OR.2 Mk.703 rated at 4,850 lbf (21.57 kN), which ended up being used on the Marut. An Indian effort to fit afterburners to this engine resulted in between 18 per cent and 27 per cent increase in thrust, but the loss of the test aircraft with Group Captain Suranjan Das in 1970, ended this effort.

An attempt to re-power the Marut using Brander E-300 turbojets being developed for the Egyptian Helwan HA-300 fighter (an aircraft which in many ways was a supersonic Gnat-type light interceptor), each rated at 6,275 lbf (32.4kN) dry and 10,582 lbf (47.2 kN) with afterburning was potentially promising. However, form drag was considerable and while testing was satisfactory, the 1967 six-day war ended this avenue of development.

To say this lack of a suitable engine had a deleterious effect on performance would be an understatement. The Marut’s airframe was designed for speeds exceeding Mach 2, but with the anemic Mk.703 engine, the aircraft barely went supersonic. The Marut first flew in 1961 and entered IAF service by 1964. In the 1971 war, the type served with some distinction but its lack of engine power led to it being overshadowed by the more powerful Su-7 and, most of all, more capable variants of the MiG-21.

It should be noted that while underpowered, the Marut was an excellent weapons platform and though somewhat short on range, its performance characteristics – even with the Mk.703 were not dissimilar to contemporary types like the French Dassault Etendard IVM (which served until 1987) or even the Dassault Super Mystere B.2 (which continued in service until 1996 with Honduras). In contrast, the last Maruts left squadron service in 1985.

Despite some half-hearted efforts to find a suitable engine for the Marut, the IAF was never entirely supportive of the project. An attempt to integrate Adour turbofans (used in the Jaguars and Hawks) was confounded by an IAF demand that the thrust of the Adour be increased by 20 per cent.

This decidedly unhelpful attitude was caused, at least in part, because the IAF’s immediate requirements were being catered for by a substantial infusion of Soviet aircraft – the Su-7 for tactical strike and the MiG-21FL/M and MF variants. A very realistic and cost-effective proposal to create a strike-fighter based around the Marut airframe and the R-25 engine (the HF-25) received no sanction and while efforts to procure RB.199 turbofans were seriously considered for a Marut Mk.3 – the HF-73 – the project failed to materialise.

Ferdinand Brander, designer of the E-300 was far more blunt and firmly believed that the failure of India to develop an E-300 powered Marut, and of Egypt to complete development of the HA-300, was down to Soviet pressure and the desire of the latter to sell MiG-21s and the licence to manufacture them. Whether this is true or not is hard to say, but what is clear is that the availability of licence-produced MiG-21s sounded the death knell for any further development of the Marut.

As MiG-21s were augmented by MiG-23s and later MiG-27s and Jaguars, the IAF was not supportive of continuing the development of the Marut. Successive governments failed to seize the initiative, and in so doing, design expertise, infrastructure and experience were frittered away. Thus, when India restarted a project for an indigenous fighter – what would eventually become the Tejas – it had to begin from scratch.

As for HAL, its design expertise atrophied and initiative was discouraged. Its HPT-32 Deepak trainer was until recently its last success and even then HAL’s upgrade of the type into the HTT-34 received no encouragement. Its efforts to replace the type with the HTT-35 – seen in mock-up form at Avia India ’93 – also met with no support. It must have been particularly galling for HAL to then see the IAF go in for the purchase of 75 PC-7 Mk.2 trainers which were very similar to their proposed HTT-35.

In a real sense the Marut power plant saga was the beginning of the end for HAL as designer and developer of aircraft. While licence-manufacture of MiGs, Jaguars and Alouette helicopters continued (some projects with greater indigenous content by value than others) to meet the requirements of the IAF, HAL’s potential was squandered. It would not be unfair to say that for want of an engine, an industry was lost.

Dr. Sanjay Badri-Maharaj is a lawyer practicing in Trinidad and Tobago, has a PhD from King’s College London on India’s nuclear weapons program and the author of The Armageddon Factor – Nuclear Weapons in the India-Pakistan Context.

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