How C 295 will boost India’s transport aircraft production ecosystem to make it ‘aatmanirbhar’

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone of the Tata-Airbus consortium’s manufacturing facility in Vadodara, Gujarat, on 30 October 2022. The plant will make the C-295 military planes in India. It will be the first plant in the private sector to make military aircraft. In September 2021, the Indian government had cleared the Rs 21,935-crore ($3 billion) Airbus-Tata project for 56 C-295W military transport aircraft. An additional six may be acquired by the Coast Guard.

The long-pending deal for replacing the old Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) license-built HS-748 (Avro) planes of IAF entails delivery of 16 EADS-CASA twin-turboprop aircraft in a flyaway condition by M/s Airbus Defence and Space (Spain) within two years of the signing of the actual contract. The remaining 40 will be manufactured in India by the Tata Consortium within 10 years. This will be the first time that an operational transport aircraft is being built in India, and also the first time any operational aircraft is being built by an Indian private sector company. Till now all aircraft building was a monopoly of the public Sector HAL. Giving a boost to “aatmanirbharta”, the deal allows transfer of technology to the private firm. India’s fighter aircraft and helicopter building ecosystems are already in place, and now C-295 will give boost to transport aircraft production in India.

Light Combat Aircraft Tejas. Image courtesy HAL

India’s success in building fighter aircraft

HAL began aircraft manufacturing in 1942 with licensed production of American fighter Curtiss P-36 Hawk and American Dive bomber Vultee A-31 Vengeance for the Indian Air Force (IAF). HAL has been involved in designing and manufacturing of fighter jets, helicopters, jet engine, avionics, software development, spare supply, overhauling and upgrading of Indian military aircraft. Among fighter aircraft, HAL licence produced over 300 de Havilland Vampire, nearly 800 Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 variants, Folland Gnat, Ajeet (improved version of the Folland Gnat), MiG-27 M variant, SEPECAT Jaguar, BAE Hawk, and Sukhoi Su-30MKI.

HAL HF-24 Marut was the first indigenous fighter-bomber made in India. Nearly 200 were built. India’s Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) developed, and HAL built, Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) “Tejas” is currently under production. It is a 4.5 generation aircraft for which the Indian Air Force (IAF) has committed more than 300 in numbers. Forty Mk1 are already under delivery. Eighty-three Mk1A have been ordered. LCA two-seat variants are already flying. LCA Mk2, the Medium Weight Fighter (MWF) is under development and likely to have its first flight by late 2023 or early 2024.

The other LCA variants include a Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF) for the Indian Navy. Work is also on for LCA “loyal wingman” manned unmanned teaming (MUMT) as a part of Combat Air Teaming System (CATS). The fifth-generation stealth fighter, Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) is under development with targeted first flight end 2024. Significant LCA assemblies have been outsourced to the private sector. It can be seen that India has finally come of age in its fighter aircraft manufacturing ecosystem.

Light Combat Helicopter Prachand Image courtesy Wikipedia

Helicopter building ecosystem in place

For many decades, HAL built over 300 Aerospatiale SA 315B and SA 316B Lama Alouette III variants called Chetak, Cheetah, Lancer, Cheetal, and Chetan. These were flown by all the three armed forces and Coast Guard, among many private operators. The big success came with the indigenous Advanced Light Helicopter “Dhruv”, nearly 400 of which have been built by HAL. The weaponised variant is the “Rudra”, with over 70 built. Also, in production now is the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) “Prachand”, the attack helicopter variant. The first IAF squadron has been formed at Jodhpur. The Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) variant is under advanced stage of trials. HAL is also developing an Indian Multi-role Helicopter (IMRH). One can see HAL producing thousands of military helicopters in the years ahead. Clearly, India will soon not need to import any type of helicopters.

Other major aero-structure projects

Big private industrial houses have come into defence manufacturing in a serious way. Tata Aerospace and Defence (Tata A&D) have been making the AH-64 Apache combat helicopter fuselage. They are also making aero-structures for Boeing’s CH-47 Chinook helicopters. All C-130Js delivered to customers around the world have major aero-structure components from India producing 24 C-130 empennages annually. Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin company, also relies on Hyderabad-based Tata Advanced System Limited (TASL) as the manufacturing base for its global supply of cabin for the S-92 helicopter. Tata group is working with GE to manufacture CFM International LEAP engine components in India. Lockheed Martin selected TASL to produce F-16 wings in India.

There are many private companies making defence electronics, large aero-components, advanced technology components and sub-systems. Dynamatic Technologies makes assemblies of vertical fins for Sukhoi 30 MKI fighters. They are also supplying aero-structures to Airbus for its A320 family of aircraft and the wide-body 330 aircraft. Hyderabad’s VEM technologies manufactures centre fuselage for LCA Tejas. Many Indian MSMEs and start-ups are entering defence production.

C-295 platform and production In India

The CASA C-295 is a medium tactical transport aircraft that was originally designed by the Spanish company CASA in the 1990s as Nurtanio CN-235. CASA joined the European aeronautical group EADS in 2000. The now designated C-295 made its first flight on 28 November 1997 and entered service with the Spanish Air Force in 2001. In the designation, “C” represents CASA the manufacturer, and then a three-digit number, of which the first indicates the number of engines, two in this case, and the next two its target payload of 9.5 tonnes. The aircraft has a rear ramp door for quick-reaction and para-dropping of troops and cargo. All 56 aircraft will be installed with indigenous electronic warfare suites. The C-295W is the enhanced performance version with winglets and uprated engines. The C-295 is powered by Pratt & Whitney PW-127 engines, a part of the PW-100 family. C-295 also has an AEW&C variant among many other roles.

The 16 flyaway aircraft are scheduled to be delivered between September 2023 and August 2025, while the first Made-in-India aircraft will roll out of the new facility in September 2026 and the remaining 39 by August 2031. Of the 40 C-295s that Tata Aerospace and Defence (Tata A&D) will build, eight will be from semi-knocked down (SKD) kits and another eight from completely knocked down (CKD) kits. The remaining 24 will have incrementally indigenising assemblies and sub-assemblies. This would mean approximately eight aircraft production per year.

Before completion of deliveries, a D-level MRO (maintenance, repair and operations) facility will be set up in India. This facility will act as a regional MRO hub for various variants of C-295 aircraft. All 56 aircraft will be fitted with indigenous electronic warfare suite developed by Bharat Electronics Ltd and Bharat Dynamics Limited. The indigenous content in the planes will be the highest ever in India, and 96 percent of the work that Airbus does in Spain will gradually be done at the new facility in India.

Manufacturing of more than 13,400 parts, 4,600 sub-assemblies and all major component assemblies will be carried out in the country, while some equipment such as engines, landing gear and avionics will be provided by Airbus Defence and Space, and integrated on the aircraft by the Tata consortium, the defence ministry said. The Tata consortium has identified more than 125 domestic MSME suppliers spread across different states. The project will generate thousands of jobs. Also, around 240 engineers will be trained at the Airbus facility in Spain.

Over 165 C-295 aircraft of various variants are in service with Algeria, Angola, Bangladesh Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Czech Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Finland, Ghana, Indonesia, Ireland, Ivory Coast, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Oman, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, among few others.

Indigenous transport aircraft production

HAL built Hawker Siddeley HS 748 aircraft under licence. On 1 November 1961, the first Indian-assembled HAL-748 made its first flight. By the end of production, HAL had completed 89 Indian-built aircraft, 72 of which were for the IAF and 17 were delivered to national flag carrier Indian Airlines. The Dornier 228 is a twin-turboprop STOL utility aircraft, designed and first manufactured by Dornier GmbH (later DASA Dornier, Fairchild-Dornier) from 1981 until 1998. In 1983, HAL bought a production licence and manufactured another 125 aircraft in Kanpur.

NAL Saras. Image courtesy Wikipedia

The National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) “Saras” is the first Indian multi-purpose civilian aircraft in the light transport aircraft category designed by the NAL. The first Saras (PT1) completed its maiden flight at the HAL airport in Bangalore on 29 May 2004. On 6 March 2009, the first prototype crashed during a test flight. The program was put on a hold. The programme was revived in 2016. The new version was 14-seater instead of 19, and had many improved features. The IAF has signed up with NAL for the purchase of 15 Saras aircraft and may need 45 more later. NAL is also engaged in development of Saras Mk2, a 19-seater version of the airliner.

HAL successfully conducted ground-run and low-speed taxi trials of the made-in-India Hindustan-228 (VT-KNR) aircraft in end August 2021. It is a look-alike of the 19 seater HAL – DO – 228 aircraft that was so far being manufactured under licence from RUAG for Indian defence forces and it was not allowed to be operated in India for commercial purposes. Hindustan-228 will be certified for commercial use.

The HAL/NAL Regional Transport Aircraft (RTA) or Indian Regional Jet (IRJ) is a regional airliner being designed by NAL and to be manufactured by HAL. The aircraft is planned to be a turboprop or a jet with a capacity of 80-100 passengers. The 90 seater variant of the aircraft is under design, and is targeted for around 2026.

C 295 operational boost to IAF

Unlike the HS 748, C 295 aircraft have a rear ramp that will ease loading and unloading and para drops. The aircraft can operate from short or unprepared airstrips. It will be well suited for operations in the valleys and advanced landing grounds in the Himalayas. The aircraft performance is better than both the HS 748 and the AN-32 transport planes and can carry a larger number of troops and cargo. It has a better combination of range, speed and service ceiling. It will be used as both utility cargo aircraft and for para drop. In the past IAF had converted its transport aircraft such as AN 12 and AN 32 for bombing role, such option could be possible in C295 also. Unlike the other two, it has options for six external stores. In the long run, if India decides to extend the production line, it could also replace the depleting AN 32.

C-295 over mountains

Way ahead

With fighter aircraft, helicopters and UAV production already generally in place and getting national level push, C-295 manufacture in India will build a great transport aircraft production eco-system and create world class vendors. It will also bring better manufacturing and systems technologies. This project should also help India in pushing its own commuter aircraft. The next logical step would be to build the regional jets and single aisle aircraft of Boeing 737 and Airbus a 320 class. It is pertinent to mention that China’s Comac C919 narrow-body airliner is about to enter service and has nearly 1,000 orders from Chinese airlines.

India is the fastest growing airline market and there is a huge demand for civil aircraft and engines. There is also a huge maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) market to be tapped. All this will give further push to the Aatmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan (self-reliant India campaign). Time to act for India is now, lest it becomes further late.

The writer is Director General, Centre for Air Power Studies. Views expressed are personal.

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How C 295 will boost India’s transport aircraft production ecosystem to make it ‘aatmanirbhar’
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