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Saturday, March 16, 2013

HAL Looking For Partners To Develop And Build Unmanned Aerial Vehicles [UAV]

With an already over-flowing work-order, delayed projects & running an operation that, in general, doesn't evoke enough confidence in collaborators, the state's sole Aerospace manufacturer is set to dip its fingers in yet another pie - UAVs.


The Government-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited [HAL] has decided to develop & build Unmanned Aerial Vehicles [UAV]. In a recently released notice [above], it has solicited response from relevant organisations for collaboration on 3 classes of UAV

  • Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance [MALE] UAV
  • Short Range Tactical UAV
  • Mini, hand-held UAV

On successful completion, HAL intends to market it to both civilian & security agencies in India, as also explore export potentials for them. About footing the bill of the development cost, it would certainly prefer if its collaborator foots more than 70% of it, although it would be mandatory to foot at least 50% of the cost [Appendix C, page 14].

HAL, so far, has been engaged in manufacturing & repairing mostly manned air vehicles - aircrafts & helicopters. Its experience with Unmanned Aerial Systems [UAS] involves manufacturing the Aeronautical Development Establishment [ADE] developed Lakshya target drone. As stated in its notice, it also operates 'Depot-level' [D-Level maintenance facilities for the upkeep of India's Armed Forces' present fleet of predominantly foreign-origin UAV - the highest level maintenance & repair facility. If the ADE's other drone, the Nishant UAV, gets the nod for large-scale induction into the Forces, the responsibility of executing the order would again, in all likelihood, rest on HAL's shoulders.

Considering the litany of woes associated with HAL's existing operations & projects, this decision of theirs to enter into yet another domain of specialisation comes as quite a bit of a not-so-pleasant surprise. One would have thought that with the persistent complaints of slip-up in delivery schedules, development projects running way behind time, already announced future manned projects & over-flowing work orders, both current & future, HAL's management would have focussed all their attention on redressing these issues, streamlining & consolidating their core areas of operation. Running contrary to stated belief, they have, instead, decided to push forth with expanding their area of operation.

The grouse here is not so much about HAL's intent to do something new, but its intent to do something new while those that it has already been doing, it hasn't been doing too well. Moreover, if HAL, originally setup to be a manufacturer, is now into such widespread areas of activities, including development, isn't it time for it to be hived into separate vertically integrated enterprises, each focused on one type - rotary winged, fixed wing & UAV? The company appears all set to buttress its position as a lumbering monopoly, whose operation, being state-backed, leaves little scope for competition, within the country. Lack of domestic competition adds to the woes of India's defence imports. It is a widely accepted view that competition promotes quality, and in absence of competition, quality suffers, leading to a dissatisfied end-user, a captive one, that too, in India's case.

Comparing specifications of HAL's proposed MALE UAV, with that of the ADE's Rustom-II, the features & functions are very nearly the same, though the one HAL wants to developed would have a much larger payload, assuming no subsequent downgrades to HAL's specs. If we are to assume successful completion of both projects, HAL would then be in a position whereby it would have to build UAVs for a competitor, in a way. ADE too has a portfolio of Mini & Micro Air Vehicle [MAV] under development with features that match those that HAL has specified in the document. Many of these ADE projects would be successfully completed, of which some would find final approval with the end-user. In such a situation HAL, the manufacturer, would again be in a position that can be described as "conflict of interest".

HAL, as well as the Ordnance Factories, had been set up to meet the manufacturing demands of India's military requirements & productionise that which DRDO labs develop. If HAL is desirous of gaining experience with UAV, as someone had suggested, it should consider the option of license manufacturing the Israeli Searcher & Heron UAVs that India has been operating without issues, & whose OEM have offered to sell more, advanced variants, and seek arrangement to export them, as it has already been doing with others. Therefore, once existing Indian programmes reach the production stage, a transition to it would be less complicated.

It is nobody's argument that HAL be barred from growing, but concurrent to HAL's expansion plans, there should be a higher priority given to address its present short-comings & for the Government to formulate policies that genuinely nurture organic competition, through private sector participation. Only then could one justify such a move by HAL. One avenue to encourage competition through tangible, practical Indian private sector participation would be to allow foreign collaborators to acquire stakes higher than the 26% currently permitted, with the desired number being pegged at anything between 74 to even 100 per cent . Such a policy isn't without precedence - the widely lauded supersonic BrahMos Cruise Missile was the product of a collaboration where the Russian entity has a 49.5% stake. When an experienced foreign company is allowed to invest more in its collaboration with the less experienced Indian company, it would have that much more riding on its shoulder to ensure the success of its collaboration. Such high-stake hand-holding of the Indian company would eventually allow India to arrive at a position where it no longer would have to look for imports to meet 70% of its defence requirements, as is the case now.

via indranilroy


Related: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles [UAV] by Aurora Integrated Systems [Indian Startup]