Damning HAL will get us nowhere

In the context of the Rafale purchase, a collateral victim has been our largest defence public sector undertaking (PSU), Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). The ministry of defence has little difficulty in paying foreign manufacturers on dates specified in contracts even for equipment yet to be supplied, but has no issue in delaying similar payments for supplies already made by their own PSU.  

HAL is possibly one of our earliest PSUs, leaving aside the Ordnance factories. From producing the little Gnat in the 1960s to the Sukhois fifty years later has been no mean achievement. It has the distinction of designing and manufacturing the first Indian fighter aircraft, the HF-24, in its earliest years; how that project crash-landed is another story. Since then, it has manufactured a variety of aircraft and helicopters for the Indian Air Force — British, French and Russian — albeit under licence.

The light combat aircraft being assembled at HAL Bengaluru. The pace of delivery is slow, and the Air Force also does not accept it as fully combat-worthy
For over two decades now it has, under the aegis of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), been involved in the design and production of our own Indian fighter, commonly known as the LCA. Though very few of them are accepted by the IAF as fully combat-worthy, and the pace of delivery is not up to expectations, the fact is that the LCA makes India one of fewer than ten countries in the world that can design and make such aircraft. Yet, instead of taking every step to enhance its capabilities and capacities, no effort is spared in deriding HAL in every possible way — most recently, by denying it the option of manufacturing Rafale aircraft in India along with purchases of some from France. 

Let us compare this with the progress of another defence PSU, Mazagon Docks Limited (MDL), which caters to the needs of the Navy. Its foray in the production of major warships began in the mid-1960s with the building of a Leander class frigate of British design and with weapons, sensors and machinery from the same source. Even as the first ship was being built, the Navy was already making plans to replace important sensors in three follow-on ships to a Dutch source, and this change was successfully made.

While the third of this line was under construction, it was felt that there was need for such ships to embark heavier and larger anti-submarine helicopters, necessitating an increase in size and weight, and this is how the heavier fifth and sixth ships came. Then, even as the fifth was on the slipway, it was found necessary to have not one but two such helicopters, which meant a further increase in the size of the next three ships. This brought us the Godavari at 4000 tonnes, about 800 tonnes heavier and 80 feet longer than the Nilgiri, all within the space of a decade.

Since then, MDL has moved on to the Delhi class destroyers followed by Shivalik class frigates and Kolkata class heavier destroyers. Admittedly, some ships were delayed, but there was never an instance in which MDL was not supported; the Navy considered them as part of the learning curve. In this same time, it groomed another PSU, Garden Reach Shipyard and Engineers (GRSE) to start building major warships, which has led to that PSU being earmarked to build three new frigates alongside four by MDL.

It is another matter that a third yard has been nurtured, called Goa Shipyard (GSL), which has graduated from building smaller warships to one putting out more capable ocean-going warships. On another plane, a PSU is building our first aircraft carrier at Kochi, even if at not good-enough speed. Sadly, plans to build submarines in India have suffered a penalty of two decades owing to corruption allegations of earlier years which have yet to be proved and for which MDL has no responsibility.

Other defence PSUs — Bharat Electronics Limited and Bharat Dynamics Limited, to name only two — face no such disapprobation. It is not that they have not seen delays, but these have often been for reasons beyond their control. 

Why is it that a PSU which has turned out hundreds of Gnats, Jaguars, Mirages, MIGs and Sukhois with progressively increasing sophistication is looked down upon, while others do not face the same distrust? The answer lies in the close interface and involvement of the user (or the lack of it) with the PSU charged to meet its own needs. The Navy, from the very beginning, has participated much more proactively with MDL, BEL, et al, and accepted limitations inherent in their productivity than has the Air Force.

And, even as a few ships have been purchased from outside, the focus has always been on indigenous manufacture or Make in India. Most importantly, the Navy, from the earliest days, decided to have the design function integrated in its headquarters and the strength of this designer fraternity, all in naval uniform and recruited from Indian technological institutes, has grown from a mere dozen-odd to several hundred in the last sixty years.

This process has been neither easy nor quick, but there was a realisation that generating expertise would be slow but, hopefully, steady. The experience with private sector companies, even the better-known and bigger ones, such as the Birla and Reliance groups, has shown that manufacturing skills for military platforms do not come in a sprint. Larsen and Toubro is an exception, largely through its close interface with serving and former naval personnel. The Air Force has no design cadre or expertise of its own.

Since privatisation, the ongoing mantra, is not going to come HAL’s way — the example of Air India stares us in the face — wisdom lies in supporting this PSU and giving it every encouragement and support. Bouquets for the work being done rather than brickbats for the negatives should be the norm and for this the Air Force, even more than the defence ministry, should take responsibility. For a Navratna PSU to have to resort to bank loans to pay its employees must surely been seen as a slap in the face, not so much for HAL as for those for whom it exists. Demolishing it will get us nowhere.  
The writer is a former Director General, Defence Planning Staff, and has also served as member in the National Security Advisory Board 

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