IAF block on indigenous HTT-40 aircraft keeps door open for Swiss trainers

Hindustan Turbo Trainer - 40 (HTT-40)
The Indian Air Force has refused to issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) for the Hindustan Turbo Trainer - 40 (HTT-40) basic trainer aircraft. An RFP is essential for Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) to develop the engine that will power the Indian-designed trainer.

HAL has to pay Rs 180 crore to US firm Honeywell, to upgrade its TPE-331-12B engine that will power 106 HTT-40 trainers needed by the Indian military. HAL is willing to pay, but the company’s board insists that the money be disbursed only after the IAF demonstrates its intention to procure the HTT-40 – through an RFP, which is the first stage of a purchase.

But the IAF says it will only issue an RFP after the HTT-40 completes spin trials. In this critical trail, the test pilot deliberately throws his aircraft into a spin. After it has spun six times around its axis, he must recover the aircraft into level flight.

Since its first flight in 2015, the HTT-40 has consistently surpassed IAF performance benchmarks in flight-testing. In on-going spin trials the trainer has incrementally demonstrated the ability to recover from three spins. 

At a high-level meeting in the MoD, chaired by the defence production secretary (Secretary DP) and attended by top IAF officers, HAL presented videos of the trainer recovering from three spins. The project managers pointed out that recovering from six spins is a matter of incremental testing.

The IAF had initially committed to issuing the RFP after the HTT-40’s first flight. When it flew in 2015, the IAF set a new benchmark of stall testing. When that was completed in 2017, the benchmark was changed to the first spin test. In late 2018, after the HTT-40 demonstrated it could recover from a spin, the IAF said it would issue an RFP only after the HTT-40 demonstrated it could recover from six spins.

HAL is concerned about production delays that could arise. An immediate RFP would allow HAL to pay Honeywell to begin the two-year process of replacing the TPE-331-12B engine’s old “electronic engine controller” (EEC)with a“full authority digital engine controller” (FADEC). Delaying payment would result in the FADEC-equipped engine being unavailable when the HTT-40 goes into production.

A senior HAL official points out they have asked the IAF neither for payment, nor a contract. An RFP amounts to only an IAF statement of interest, without financial liabilities. But it is essential for the HAL board to clear payments to Honeywell.

With the HTT-40 programme thus mired, the IAF is demanding that 38 Pilatus PC-7 Mark II trainer aircraft be imported from Switzerland, to supplement 75 Pilatus trainers contracted in 2012 in a deal that was clouded by controversy. 

Contacted for comments, the IAF states: “The [HTT-40] has just entered the spin phase of trials… As per DPP an RFP can be issued only after design and development completion/certification by HAL followed by IAF flight trials.” The air force points out that there was an audit objection when an RFP was issued for the Intermediate Jet Trainer (IJT) before spin trials were completed.

In fact, in the IJT case, the IAF went far beyond placing an RFP. It contracted for and actually paid HAL for constructing a significant number of IJTs. HAL points out that placing an RFP involves no financial liability.

Furthermore, in December 2017, the IAF placed an RFP for the Tejas Mark 1A. This is an advanced version of the current fighter that exists only on the drawing board and is nowhere near flight-testing or completion.

The IAF has relentlessly opposed the HTT-40 since the start of the programme, opting instead for importing the Swiss Pilatus. Business Standard reported (July 29, 2013, “Indian Air Force at war with Hindustan Aeronautics; wants to import, not build, a trainer”) that the IAF chief wrote a personal letter to the defence minister, incorrectly attributing an unduly high price to the HTT-40, compared to the Swiss trainer. The defence minister allowed the indigenous programme to continue.

In 2009, when a global tender was floated to buy 75 trainer aircraft, the IAF diluted the existing performance benchmarks, allowing the Pilatus PC-7 Mark II trainer into the contract (July 30, 2013, “Air Force diluted at least twelve benchmarks for trainer aircraft, allowing Pilatus into the contract”).

But the HTT-40 still stands in the way of import. The defence procurement procedure (DPP) mandates the highest procurement priority for “Indian designed, developed and manufactured (IDDM)” equipment – a category the HTT-40 falls in. The MoD and HAL remain committed to backing the HTT-40, which is likely to complete testing by December, according to HAL officials. 

Currently, approval exists for buying 106 HTT-40 trainers. If the IAF is permitted to import 38 Pilatus trainers, the number of indigenous trainers will fall to 68 aircraft.

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