Tata Aerospace & Defence, Airbus await contract to manufacture 56 aircraft

Representative image
An unusual sight in Bengaluru, the Portuguese Air Force Airbus C295 transporter shuddered as the pilot revved its twin turboprops to maximum. As he released the brakes, the plane shot forward, accelerating down the runway almost like a fighter, lifting off in just 700 metres and climbing rapidly to mission altitude. On board the aircraft, displayed at Aero India 2019, Business Standard was shown its multiple mission capability — the ability to transport 71 people, lift 7.25 tonnes of cargo or monitor the sea for 11 hours non-stop, using sophisticated radar and infra-red scanners. 

Descending in tight turns to the Indian Air Force (IAF) base at Yelanhanka, the C295 rolled to a stop just 350 metres after touching down.

This is the medium transport aircraft Tata Aerospace & Defence (Tata A&D) is slated to build in India, as part of the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD’s) intention to develop a private sector rival to Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL). At the on-going Aero India 2019 show, both Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and IAF boss, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa, singled out the C295 for mention as one of the transformative projects in the pipeline.

Yet, paradoxically, there is only glacial movement towards awarding a contract. Six years after issuing a tender and five years since Airbus submitted a bid to build the C295 in partnership with Tata A&D, the cost negotiation committee (CNC) is only finalising its report now. With the cabinet required to okay the approximately Rs 12,000 crore contract, the looming elections and a cash crunch stand in the way of an early clearance.

Other hurdles stand in the way of this procurement of 56 aircraft to replace the IAF’s venerable HS-748 Avros. First amongst them is HAL’s initiative to extend the life of the Avro, by replacing its old Rolls-Royce Dart engines and modernising its cockpit and avionics. HAL chief R Madhavan told Business Standard last month: “Only one-third of the Avro’s structural life of 100,000 hours has been used. With a new engine, the Avro can remain in service for a long time.” To create a prototype, HAL is spending Rs 50 crore to upgrade its own Avro aircraft, with new engines and a glass cockpit. Another dilemma is the offer — made by Ukraine to Dhanoa during Aero India 2019 – of the new Antonov -132, an aircraft in the same class as the C295, which the Ukrainian firm has developed in partnership with Saudi Arabia Military Industries (SAMI). 

Antonov did not respond to the Avro-replacement tender because it was facing a crisis with the Russian annexation of the Crimea, but repeatedly asked for a bidding extension. With Ukraine now resuming the upgrade of the IAF’s An-32 fleet, it could exercise some leverage.

The third hurdle is the difficult terms of the Avro-replacement RFP. Of the 56 aircraft, Airbus is required to supply the first 16 C295s in flyaway condition from its plant in Sevilla, Spain. That is to be followed by eight C295s built by Tata from semi-knocked down (SKD) kits; and then another eight from completely-knocked down (CKD) kits. Then, Tata A&D must build the remaining 24 in India, indigenising the sourcing of assemblies and sub-assemblies. Given the large number of aircraft being supplied fully built and in kits, meeting the 50 per cent indigenisation requirement will be a challenge.

Airbus, however, is confident of meeting the indigenisation requirements. Its senior executives anticipate India will order more C295s for its military and central armed police forces (CAPFs), which, after Pulwama, have already spoken about moving a larger share of troopers by air. Airbus also cites the reactivation of advanced landing grounds (ALGs) in the border areas, which would create a requirement for rugged aircraft like the C295 to operate off them, including for the UDAN programme.

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