The decision of the Government to have HAL produce a combat version of the British Hawk originally procured from BAe as primary jet trainer for the air force (and navy) makes sense but only in a limited sense. HAL expects, according to news reports, to produce the entire complement of 123 aircraft on order before beginning the assembly of a slightly redesigned Hawk enabled for ground attack missions, especially in counter-insurgency (COIN) operations. But the IAF head ACM SP Tyagi in 2004 had, in fact, promoted this plane as a dual-use trainer-cum-COIN aircraft. It is another thing altogether that the latter mission never was the remit of the Hawk in IAF. If the Hawk was capable then of low altitude, low-level ground attack missions, where’s the requirement for redesign or even for the wholesale reconfiguration of the FCS to integrate more role-appropriate weapons, except as a way for BAe to wringe unwarranted profit out of the Hawk project in India?
The newly combat-enabled, India-sourced, Hawk is also being touted as an ideal export product and, may be, there’s a niche in the international arms bazaar it can fill. But this last is a development that no doubt follows upon the spectacular and, apparently unexpected (by HAL), success of the Tejas LCA at the Bahrain International Air Show, which has emboldened the HAL’s leadership ranks. This is all to the good, except for the fact that this Hawk will still only be a Meccano type-assembled product for an HAL which, burdened by its longtime, self-imposed, and cultivated disability to ingest and innovate imported technology, will have little or nothing to do with redoing the aircraft for world-wide sale. One can see why BAe is keen. Hawk, in its supposedly new avatar, will keep the British aircraft designers and manufacturers of components, assemblies and sub-assemblies busy and extend its life besides, of course, keeping the money till turning over for the UK defence industry.
Considering the central role of DPSUs, armed services, and other state agencies in scuttling Indian military R&D programmes in the past, the Hawk development leads one to wonder if this isn’t an artful means thought up by HAL and the dominant import lobby in IAF to blindside the Tejas, given the fact that the combat version of Hawk in its air-to-ground mission will overlap the role of the multi-role Tejas with superb handling characteristics at low alt, low speed and in flap-down mode (demonstrated in Bahrain).
Moreover, there’s the huge problem with HAL’s capacity. The cobbling together of the combat-capable Hawk will crowd out the production floor for the Tejas, whose production will need ramping up. And, as between Hawk and Tejas, HAL will, as always, likely make the wrong decision and favour the former at the expense of the indigenous warplane. Further, how can its limited capacity, in the event, also accommodate the production of the FGFA from Russia — which project is on the cards? This will compel the Modi Govt — assuming it means what it says about widening the country’s defence manufacturing base — to trust in the aircraft manufacturing potential of the private sector. There’s no other way because HAL simply cannot enlarge its skilled workforce and install new production lines in the short to medium term in the relevant time frame any faster than the Indian private sector can.
In fact, Tejas is the right product for onpassing, as argued in this blog, of aircraft design and technologies created by ADA and DRDO to a select Combine of Indian Companies, headed by L&T or Tata, for its production to meet the requirements of IAF and a possibly huge export market in Africa, Asia, and Latin America where, again, the Hawk and Tejas will clash for customers. One hopes the Modi regime will show some imagination and prompt precisely such a competition pitting the HAL-assembled combat Hawk against the locally designed, private sector manufactured, multi-role, immensely more capable, Tejas. May the better aircraft win! This is the way to give wings to a revenue-generating and competitive Indian aerospace sector.
But, so far, the BJP regime hasn’t displayed the political will to do things differently than in the past — a fact that remains the biggest single barrier to productive systemic reform and change.