India’s Aviation Technology Growth Strategy

Sub Title : A need to focus on the aviation sector to give Atmanirbharta the necessary fillip

Issues Details : Vol 14 Issue 6 Jan – Feb 2021

Author : Air Marshal Anil Chopra, PVSM, AVSM, VM, VSM (Retd)

Page No. : 45

Category : Military Technology

: January 25, 2021

As India looks to make Atamnirbharta a reality in the field of defence, it is imperative that we focus on the aviation sector. We must create the wherewithal to assimilate the latest technologies, resolve production and quality issues that HAL has and incentivise private players. The article looks at the way forward for Indian aviation

India is today a major global aerospace market. Indian Armed Forces have increasing defence aerospace requirements and budgets. Sans Covid, India has a booming commercial aviation market. The number of new airports are expanding. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) and private industry have rising technological and manufacturing capabilities. India has clear advantage of higher skills and lower costs of production. The present government’s ‘Atamnirbharta’ push supports the ‘Make in India’. Time is ripe for mastering new technologies and boosting domestic defence production. Artificial intelligence (AI) and Information Technology will support the process.

The aerospace industry accounts for nearly 40 percent of global military expenditure which was $1.822 Trillion as per Sipri 2018. The US is a major player with nearly 30 percent of military expenditure and defence exports. They allocate more amount to defence R&D then rest of the world put together. Bulk of the major defence OEMs are based in USA. India continues to be one of the largest importer of arms, making it a favoured destination for defence sales. The aerospace industry involves development, production and maintenance of aircraft, missiles and UAVs. It also involves many airborne systems, avionics, engines, weapons and also Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO). For India to be a global player, it must become self-sufficient in defence and aerospace. DRDO labs, HAL, ADA, NAL, and ADE are the major public sector players. Private sector firms such as Larsen & Toubro, Mahindra & Mahindra, Adani Group, the Tata Group and Reliance Defence are major private players in Aerospace. India has the potential to service not just Indian  aircraft,  but  also  those  from neighbouring regions.

HAL – Great Aircraft License Production House

Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) remains the leader in India with its 19 production units. It has manufactured 26 different types of aircraft, mostly military, through indigenous development and licence-production deals. HAL also supplies components for the major companies’ such as Airbus A320 doors and Boeing 777 flaperons and supports Boeing’s strategy to work in partnership with India’s aerospace industry. HAL’s composite manufacturing capability is of world class. Unfortunately it has often been in the eye of the storm. In a candid interview, a former Indian Navy Chief, who is a respected aviator, highlighted what HAL could have done better. Earlier HAL saw a public debate on why the original Rafale contract could not go through because of high man-hours and quality issues of HAL. HAL has undoubtedly been a great license production house, having built the Percival Prentice basic trainer; the Hawker Siddeley HS-748 medium transport aircraft; Folland Gnat fighter (later the more powerful Indian variant Ajeet); MiG-21 aircraft variants including engines; MiG-27M and its upgrade; Jaguar fighters; and Hawk Mk.132. HAL and GE Aviation signed a contract for maintenance on the Hawk fleet for next 30 years. They built nearly 250 Sukhoi Su-30MKI air-superiority fighters. HAL built Dornier Do 228 aircraft, and later parts of Dornier 228 NG (New Generation). HAL also built over 300 Aerospatiale Alouette III light utility helicopters variants (Chetak, Cheetah, Chetan) under license production. HAL also builds Rolls-Royce Turbomeca Adour Mk 811 and Mk 871 engines for Jaguar and Hawk respectively, and Garrett TPE331-5 for Dornier and Turbomeca TM 333 engine for Dhruv.

HAL’s Current Commitments

Around 24 Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) ‘Tejas’ Mk1 have been delivered out of an order of 40. CCS has just cleared 83 LCA MK1A with modern AESA radar. They are already under D&D.  LCA Mk 1A will induct from 2024. HAL is also working on LCA Mk II with the more powerful GE 414 engine, and the newer variants of the same called the Medium Weight Fighter and another one called the Omni Role Combat Aircraft (ORCA). The variant proposed for Indian Navy is called the Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF). The earliest the first flight of such a variant may take place around 2025 and actual induction around 2032. IAF needs around 200 LCA Mk II. IAF fully supports HAL-DRDO’s fifth-generation stealth Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). This is a work still in initial progress and the aircraft may fly around 2028 and induct around 2035. India does not have a significant indigenous transport aircraft program, other than NAL’s Saras. On Helicopters side, HAL is busy with weaponisation of the Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) ‘Rudra’ and the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH). HAL has also planned developing a Tactical Battle Support Helicopter as a tri-services project. It will be called Indian Multi Role Helicopter (IMRH). Indian Armed Forces are looking abroad for MRCA class fighters for IAF and IN, medium transports, medium-range maritime reconnaissance (MRMR) aircraft, naval multi-role helicopters (NMRHs) naval utility helicopters (NUHs). It can be seen that Indian armed forces have a huge military aviation market to be tapped.

Private Industry

A reputation of sloth and poor quality from Public Sector Unit products had eroded trust between the manufacturer and the captive market they have in the Air Force. Private sector has finally started entering aerospace in a big way. Tata, an Indian conglomerate with a long history in the manufacturing segment, has set up an aerospace production facility in Hyderabad. Tata’s are making the Sikorsky S-92 helicopter cabins, and the F-16 Wings. Airbus Group’s EADS outsources a billion plus dollars’ worth of aero infrastructure and engine components each year to Indian vendors. As part of its industrial strategy, EADS is aiming to increase sourcing volumes in India either directly or in co-operation with Indian partners. Air Works has invested significant amounts to expand its existing MRO facilities and set up new ones. Taneja Aerospace has huge land assets and five hangar spaces on a long-term basis. EADS’s helicopter subsidiary Eurocopter has since 1962, worked with HAL in India to manufacture more than 600 Alouette 3 and Lama (Cheetah and Chetak) helicopters. HAL also produces airframes for the Ecureuil/Fennec family of rotorcraft. Overseas companies are viewing the Indian aircraft industries consortium as long-term partners and not as mere suppliers/vendors.

Indian  software  companies  such  as  HCL,  Infosys,  Infotech,  Tata  Consultancy  Services  and Wipro have also been active in the aerospace industry for some years. Increasingly, they are benefiting from  the engineering services‘ outsourcing  programmes that will help India  to evolve from  IT and  low-end business  process outsourcing  work to  high-end design  services.

Honeywell  Aerospace,  which  provides  integrated  avionics,  engines,  systems  and  service products for the aerospace industry already has active facilities in India such as a design and development  centre and has plans to expand. Airbus set up the Airbus Engineering Centre India in Bangalore to facilitate in the design and production of aircraft such as the A380 and the A350.  It is also working with Indian IT firms to support various aircraft programmes. Protecting their high value knowledge and Intellectual Property (IP), the OEMs are securing their interests against reverse engineering and reproduction, as is happening in China. Yet they are banking on a mature democracy like India seeking engineering and R&D talent pools. The relationships has to factor shared risk mitigation and Product Life Cycle Management. The design and production clearance is required from DGCA, RCI, and CEMILAC etc., based on the type of product.

New Aviation Technologies

Aircraft and systems performance is increasing rapidly. New technologies are supporting change. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is not only improving manufacturing bit also decision making at all levels including in combat. Additive 3D manufacturing, electric propulsion, hypersonic platforms and weapons are bringing change. Electronic warfare with great cyber action have become more relevant in network centric warfare. The already thin line between space and earth’s atmosphere has got further blurred and more crafts are transiting between them in the routine. Small satellites in large numbers can be launched at short notice. Unmanned swarms are coordinating with manned platforms for all kinds of missions. Air Engagements are becoming farther and farther. Therefore there is a need for long range sensors and weapons that can operated in adverse electronic environment. Aircraft engines are becoming more powerful and efficient. Laser and Directed Energy Weapons require greater power source on-board. Let us look at each of these technologies. India needs to master these technologies so as to develop modern contemporary systems.

Specific System Technologies

Modern aircraft are designed from the start to operate in a network-centric combat environment, and to feature extremely low, all-aspect, multi-spectral signatures employing advanced materials and shaping techniques. They have multifunction AESA radars with high-bandwidth low-probability of intercept. Infra-Red Search and Tracking (IRST) and other sensors are fused in for Situational Awareness and to constantly track all targets of interest around the aircraft’s 360 degree bubble. Avionics suites rely on extensive use of very high-speed integrated circuit (VHSIC) technology and high-speed data buses. Integration of all these elements provides “first-look, first-shot, first-kill capability”. Integrated electronic warfare system, integrated communications, navigation, and identification (CNI), centralized ‘vehicle health monitoring’, fibre-optic data-transmission, and stealth are important features. Manoeuvre performance is enhanced by thrust-vectoring, which also helps reduce take-off and landing distances. Super-cruise has to be inbuilt. Layout and internal structures minimize RCS over a broad bandwidth of frequencies. To maintain low signature primary weapons are carried in internal weapon bays. Stealth technology should be employed without a trade-off with aerodynamics performance. Signature-reduction techniques include special shaping approaches, thermoplastic materials, extensive structural use of advanced composites, conformal sensors, heat-resistant coatings, low-observable wire meshes to cover intake and cooling vents, heat ablating tiles on the exhaust troughs and coating internal and external metal areas with radar-absorbent materials and paints.

Production Technologies

3D printing is growing exponentially as low-cost 3D printing devices continue to grow rapidly and industrial use expands significantly. Smart machines use  advanced  algorithms  that allow systems to understand  their  environment,  learn  for  themselves,  and  act  autonomously.  Prototype autonomous vehicles, advanced robots, virtual personal assistants and smart advisors already exist and will evolve rapidly, ushering in a new age of machine helpers. The  convergence of cloud  and  mobile  computing  will  continue  to  promote  the  growth  of centrally coordinated applications that can be delivered to any device.

Concentrate on Unmanned Aerial Systems

Unmanned Aircraft technologies are already proven, and it is clearly emerging that the future is unmanned. Electric and Hybrid autonomous systems have a great future. These will include drones to space vehicles. AI will play a huge role in these weapons. Mixed formation will be the way ahead. Long duration Solar Powered Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are already flying. Dual use optionally manned aircraft are under development. Unmanned aircraft are already taking-off and landing by themselves including on the moving aircraft carrier. Optionally manned stealth bombers are evolving.

New Engine Technologies

Future aircraft are expected to use advanced engines with Adaptive Versatile Engine Technology for longer ranges and higher performance which should be ready by 2030. The newer engines could vary their bypass ratios for optimum efficiency at any speed or altitude. That would give an aircraft a much greater range, faster acceleration, and greater subsonic cruise efficiency.

Aerial Weapons

Future weaponry would utilize scramjets for the production of faster missiles. At hypersonic speeds a missile could not be stopped by conventional air defence technology. Continued experiments with DEW and lasers, used for defensive as well as offensive measures, delivering effects at the speed of light, are also likely to shape combat engagements. New aircraft will be as much about reusable weaponry (lasers) as it is about expendable weaponry. New air-to-air missiles would use improved solid rocket motor having synergized control enabled by combined aero, attitude control and thrust vectoring, and have improved ‘high off bore sight’ for rear hemisphere kills and ‘lower cost per kill.’ A survivable, long-range missile with combined air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities is being evolved. Range would be a big factor to counter potential adversaries with Chinese PL-15.

India Must Invest in New Technologies

Artificial Intelligence (AI), smart structures, and hybrid systems will dictate the future. Demand for streaming high-quality data requires bandwidth, which involves innovating sensor/processing systems. Network-centric payload processing units enable on-board data fusion prior to sending to digital links. Gallium Nitride (GaN) is a semiconductor material that is more efficient, easier to cool, and improves reliability for radars. Any system must be designed with aim for maintaining a competitive advantage in an austere budget environment. The Passive Aero-elastic Tailored (PAT), a uniquely designed composite wing will be lighter, more structurally efficient and have flexibility compared to conventional wings. This wing will maximize structural efficiency, reduce weight and conserve fuel. Hypersonic cruise, fuel cell technologies, hybrid sensors, improved human-machine interface using data analytics and bio-mimicry, combination of materials, apertures and radio frequencies that ensure survival in enemy territory are under development. Things will be build faster, better and more affordably, using 3D printing yet ensuring quality and safety standards. Additive 3D manufacture creates a world with spare parts on demand, faster maintenance and repairs, more effective electronics, and customized weapons. The development of a hypersonic aircraft would forever change ability to respond to conflict. Nano-materials will control sizes, shapes and compositions, and significantly reduce weight yet create stronger structures for air and spacecraft, yet drive down costs.

DRDO Aviation Technology Projects

Many of the Defence Research and Development Organisation’s (DRDO) 52 laboratories run aviation technology projects. These include aeronautics programs, unmanned aerial vehicles, missiles and other weapons including lasers, precision-guided munition, glide Bombs, electronic warfare, and the Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV), among many others. There is a Defence Technology Commission with the defence minister as its chairman. What matters for defence preparedness is the R&D systems that actually get inducted into armed forces. Many of the DRDO systems have actually been inducted. These include the LCA, Akash AD missile system, Sukhoi Su-30MKI avionics, the Tarang radar warning receiver, Lakshya PTA, Retarder bomb kits, Netra AEW&C, series of surveillance and missile control radars, Prithvi and Agni series of missiles, Nag ATGM, BrahMos and Nirbhay cruise missiles, Astra AAM, the ABM project’s AAD (Advanced Air Defence) and PAD (Prithvi Air Defence) missiles.

Among the ongoing projects are DRDO/HAL Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), Rustom, TAPAS-BH-201 and AURA UAV, missile approach warning system (MAWS), Multi-role radar ‘Uttam’ for LCA, Laser and Directed Energy Weapons and Dazzlers, FLIR and Wide angle HUDs, Barak 8 LRSAM, NGARM (New Generation Anti-Radiation Missile) Rudram-1, ASAT capability enhancement, Sudarshan Laser guided bomb, Garuthmaa & Garudaa 1000 kg Glide Bombs, Smart Anti-Airfield Weapon (SAAW), High Speed Low Drag Bomb, Solid Fuel Ducted Ramjet (SFDR) and GTX-35VS Kaveri engine, among few more.

Way Ahead India

IAF is already facing depletion in numbers of fighter squadrons. Modernisation is behind schedule. Going forward, indigenous production has to be ramped up in terms of quality, numbers and deliveries on time. India is still at LCA Mk1 stage. Other variants are still to come. India’s fifth generation aircraft, the AMCA, is still on the drawing board and may require foreign help for few technologies. HAL still has production and quality issues to resolve. HAL platforms are still import dependent and therefore costly. Also manpower productivity must increase. Long project delays force revision of service air staff requirements as technologies move ahead. More efficient corporate structure will help, and the PSUs must be released from bureaucratic control. There are a handful of major aircraft engine manufacturers in the world. China and India are still evolving their engine design and manufacturing abilities. India has been dependent on Russian, French and American engines for long. India has to make a reliable gas turbine engine. It is to be hoped that two promising new engine projects – the HTFE and HTSE (Hindustan Turbofan and Turbo shaft engine respectively) are pursued with vigour and brought to fruition sooner rather than later. India should not have to import trainer aircraft. India also does not have a significant transport aircraft project. India also needs help in AESA radars, EW systems, modern weapons, actionable Artificial Intelligence (AI) and other advanced avionics. It is best to take collaborative approach and use economic muscle and high military systems requirements to seek transfer of technology. India needs to think ahead, lest we get left behind again.