New Delhi, Sept. 3: Twenty-one years after the proposal was made, the Centre today cleared the import of advanced jet trainers for the Indian Air Force (IAF).
The decision to acquire the British Hawk advanced jet trainer (AJT) was taken alongside another to buy five snazzy executive jets configured for very important persons.
Since 1990 — half the time it has taken the government to pick the Hawk — the IAF has lost 230 pilots in crashes. The majority of these crashes has been put down to errors made by pilots for whom a crucial element in their training was missing.
Today’s decisions on big-ticket military acquisitions, which also include systems for the army, signal the beginning of purchases of about Rs 10,000 crore. It also signals that the ennui which had gripped the defence establishment after the Tehelka revelations of alleged kickbacks has been shaken off by George Fernandes, despite doubts if he will risk a decision in the months leading up to elections.
Two more large purchases are in the pipeline — the aircraft carrier Gorshkov (from Russia), the Phalcon airborne early warning system (from Israel) and Scorpene submarines (Franco-Spanish).
The AJT deal, worth over Rs 6,000 crore (£794 million plus), will resuscitate British Aerospace’s ailing manufacturing line. The UK firm has been in bitter competition for the order ever since the IAF shortlisted the AJT when a committee chaired by then Air Marshal Denis Anthony La Fontaine first proposed its induction in 1982.
But the credit for acquiring the Hawk will finally go to the current chief of air staff, Air Chief Marshal S. Krishnaswamy, who has been more transparent than his predecessors on the ageing MiG-21 aircraft that makes up a bulk of the fighter fleet. The AJT will fill a crucial gap in the training of pilots for many of whom the jump from the subsonic Kiran aircraft to the supersonic MiG-21s has been a tremendous test of human endurance.
The total package will cost the exchequer a little over Rs 8,000 crore, making it one of the single-largest military acquisitions in Indian military history. This includes the cost of training IAF pilots on the AJT in the UK before deliveries of the aircraft begin and the setting up of infrastructure for licensed production.
“We expect an inter-governmental agreement to be signed. We will seek a guarantee for lifetime support,” defence secretary Ajay Prasad said.
“The British Hawk is in use in 17 countries, including the UK, the US Navy, Kenya, South Korea, Malaysia, Australia and South Africa.”
The IAF has settled for the Hawk variant numbered 115Y which is not the latest but one it feels suits its needs.
Even the structuring and schedule of the AJT deal was worked out more than a decade ago. The IAF will buy 24 Hawks “off the shelf” or in “fly-away” condition and the balance 42 will be rolled out by the public sector Hindustan Aeronautics under licence from British Aerospace. The deliveries of all 66 AJTs will take six years from the date on which they are contracted.
Announcing the decision of the Cabinet Committee on Security, Prasad said the delivery of the aircraft will begin 35 months after the contract is signed.
The competition for the AJT deal saw British Aerospace pitted, at first, against Dassault Aviation’s Alphajet. But the European manufacturer’s production line was wound up. In between, the Russians with their MiG-AT on the drawing board, the Italians with the Aeromachhi and even the Brazilians fought hard.
Till the very end, the bitterest competition was between British Aerospace and the Czech-American Aero Vodochody’s L-159B. A prototype of the L-159B was evaluated but the air force settled for the Hawk.
As one IAF officer put it: “It was about making a choice between the time-tested and the state-of-the-art.” The Hawk, with a long history of service in several air forces, was selected finally because the Royal Air Force placed an order for the aircraft in July.
Having met what has been a crying need for the IAF, the Cabinet Committee on Security also moved to guarantee more luxury and greater security to the most powerful of the land. It approved a Rs 727-crore deal to acquire five executive jets for VIPs from Brazil’s Embraer.