Sun. May 19th, 2024

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Nashik, India’s wine capital, is set to emerge as the next hub for aircraft manufacturing in the country, with Bengaluru-based state-owned plane maker Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) preparing to activate new production lines for the indigenous light combat aircraft (LCA) Mk-1A and Hindustan Turbo Trainer-40 (HTT-40) planes to meet the Indian Air Force’s growing requirements for fighter jets and basic trainers, senior officials aware of the development said.

HAL is preparing to activate new production lines for LCA Mk-1A (above) and HTT-40 planes. (Rahul Singh/HT Photo)
HAL is preparing to activate new production lines for LCA Mk-1A (above) and HTT-40 planes. (Rahul Singh/HT Photo)

The new plant for the Mk-1As will enable HAL to advance the deliveries of the 83 such fighters ordered by IAF for 48,000 crore in February 2021 by at least a year, HAL chief CB Ananthakrishnan said in an interview. His comments came days after IAF chief Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari announced plans to order 97 more LCA Mk-1As at an estimated cost of 67,000 crore.

HAL has a capacity to build 16 LCA Mk-1As every year in Bengaluru, and the Nashik line will help the firm ramp up production to a total of 24 jets.

The first Mk-1A will be delivered to IAF in February 2024, and the last of the 83 jets by 2028 (instead of 2029, the contracted delivery schedule), Ananthakrishnan said. Timely delivery is a top priority for IAF, which is grappling with a shortage of fighter squadrons.

“We are hoping to achieve a targeted minimum capacity of building 24 fighters. Nashik has been a big aircraft division that was earlier manufacturing Sukhoi-30s. Building eight LCA-Mk-1As every year with an additional production line is not going to be a difficult job. This will help us make more fighters available to IAF at the earliest,” he said.

The aircraft manufacturing division at Nashik, set up in 1964, has produced MiG variants and Su-30s under licence.

The new Mk-1A production line is being set up fast to begin deliveries from Nashik.

“We have already started installing the jigs, fixtures and other equipment. We expect the first assembly to happen in December 2024. Our target is to deliver three aircraft from Nashik in 2024-25 and eight every year thereafter,” Ananthakrishnan said.

The ancillary industry ecosystem in and around Nashik is good, and several micro, small and medium enterprises will be involved in LCA Mk-1As production, especially in supplying structural parts and components, he said.

If LCA Mk-1A production rate increases to 24, then the timelines will be met considerably, said former IAF chief Air Chief Marshal Fali Homi Major (retd). “But it should be a constant effort to ensure that HAL maintains a 24-aircraft per year production rate. This will help IAF reach the desired force levels,” he said.

IAF’s plans to go in for 97 more LCA Mk-1As reflected its confidence in the firm’s ability to fulfil orders within the stipulated timeline, he said.

Will the Mk-1As to be ordered come with improvements over the first lot of 83 jets?

“HAL hasn’t gone into those details yet. The existing (83) Mk-1As will come with additional systems and features IAF wanted in LCA Mk-1. Once we get to the technical discussions, we will have to see whether any further improvements are required. If IAF wants it and if it fits within the design, we should be able to accommodate the customer’s needs. Improvements are possible (in the next 97).”

On October 4, HAL handed over the first trainer version of LCA Mk-1 to Chaudhari in Bengaluru, with the twin seater set to fill a key training role and double as a fighter if needed.

The aircraft is part of an earlier order for 40 Mk-1 jets in the initial operational clearance (IOC) and the more advanced final operational clearance (FOC) configurations — the first variants of LCA. Of the 40 Mk-1s, IAF has inducted 32 single seater jets and raised two LCA squadrons. The remaining eight aircraft are trainers. Seven more twin seater aircraft will be delivered to IAF by March 2024.

LCA is set to emerge as the cornerstone of IAF’s combat power in the coming decade and beyond. IAF, the world’s fourth largest air force, is expected to operate around 350 LCAs (Mk-1, Mk-1A and Mk-2 versions), with a third of those already ordered, some inducted, and the rest figuring prominently on the air force’s modernisation roadmap and expected to be contracted in the coming years. The newer variants, Mk-1A and Mk-2, will come with significantly improved features and technologies over the Mk-1 aircraft.

“LCAs will be a very formidable part of the future fighter fleet. Given their design architecture, the aircraft can be continuously upgraded to meet IAF’s requirements,” Major added.

Basic trainers will start rolling out of Nashik in 2025-26, said DK Sunil, director (engineering and R&D), HAL.

In March, the defence ministry awarded a 6,838-crore contract to HAL for 70 HTT-40 planes. The new aircraft, a longstanding need, will be used for ab initio training of IAF pilots.

“HAL will deliver 12 trainers to IAF in 2025-26. Ten of those will be built at Nasik and the remaining two in Bengaluru. Deliveries will follow at the rate of around 20 every year, with 15 of the aircraft to be built in Nashik,” Sunil said.

Currently, ab initio training of all rookie pilots is carried out on Swiss-origin Pilatus PC-7 MkII planes and Kiran Mk-1/1A trainers. Those training to become fighter pilots further train on the British-origin Hawk advanced jet trainers.

A repeat order for 35 HTT-40s is likely, the officials said.

The LCA project was sanctioned in 1983 as a replacement for the Soviet-origin MiG-21 fighter fleet. IAF raised its first LCA squadron with two aircraft in July 2016. The existing Mk-1 and Mk-1A variants will replace IAF’s MiG-21 fighters. IAF currently operates more than 50 MiG-21 Bison aircraft (three squadrons), the latest and the last variant of the MiG-21. It is set to retire these squadrons by 2025.

The Mk-2 aircraft is planned as a replacement for IAF’s MiG-29s, Mirage-2000s and Jaguar fighters that will start retiring in the coming decade.

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