Hals Reliability Questioned Following Another IAF Aircraft Crash

by Vaibhav Agrawal

Reliability problems have been a major concern with HAL-designed and manufactured products. This has resulted in aerial assets failing before their intended lifespan.

In a concerning development, an Indian Air Force (IAF) Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighter aircraft crashed in Maharashtra’s Nashik district on Tuesday. The incident took place in a field near Shirasgaon village in Nifad tehsil at around 1:20 pm. Fortunately, both the pilot and co-pilot ejected safely, with Wing Commander Bokil and his co-pilot Biswas sustaining minor injuries. They are currently receiving treatment at the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) hospital. While initial reports suggest a technical snag, the precise cause of the crash remains under investigation.

Following the incident, HAL disclosed that the Su-30MKI was on a test sortie from their Nashik facility. Teams from both the IAF and HAL’s security and technical divisions swiftly arrived at the crash site, where aircraft debris was scattered over a 500-metre radius. According to IAF sources, the aircraft was undergoing flight testing post-overhaul, having been maintained and tested by HAL. This crash has put HAL’s overhaul and testing procedures under scrutiny despite its role as a critical defence partner.

The Su-30MKI, developed by Russian aircraft manufacturer Sukhoi, is known for its air superiority capabilities. However, this crash raises questions about HAL’s ability to maintain the safety and reliability of these advanced aircraft. As investigations continue, stakeholders will closely watch HAL’s actions and the implementation of corrective measures to prevent future incidents.

To better understand the situation, inputs were gathered from notable sources with extensive air safety experience and familiarity with HAL’s operations. These included senior Indian Air Force officers, former deputy chiefs, a helicopter pilot from the Army Aviation Corps, and military aviation veterans with backgrounds in both the IAF and the private sector. They indicated that technical defects in HAL-designed and manufactured products are often attributable to HAL itself. While some crashes are due to design-related issues, the more pressing concern lies in reliability and production quality.

Sources illustrated the problem by noting that HAL might guarantee a certain number of flying hours, but the equipment frequently fails to meet even half or a quarter of that time. “Material failures” before the expected shelf life often indicate reliability issues indirectly linked to HAL’s design. For example, fuel leaks can occur when pipes are not properly fitted. One source mentioned that a pipe from one aircraft cannot be used in another due to a lack of parts commonality, which can lead to tolerance issues.

Reliability problems have been a major concern with HAL-designed and manufactured products. This has resulted in aerial assets failing before their intended lifespan. Some “bad aircraft losses” have been attributed to longstanding issues with the Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH), including engine problems and incidents of the rotary wing detaching mid-flight. One source noted that these issues have been directly attributed to HAL. The 2019 Mirage-2000 accident was blamed on “poor workmanship” during fitment, with the IAF pressuring HAL to address the issues despite initial resistance. Another instance involved a Su-30 fuel leak leading to a crash in 2009, which was also attributed to HAL, alongside Fly-By-Wire (FBW) issues pointing to the manufacturer.

More incidents involving ALH losses and Su-30 production problems have been noted. A source described HAL’s internal quality, and particularly its overhaul division, as “weak,” indicating a need for significant improvement in production technology and quality. Evident delays with regards to helicopter maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) concerning HAL have been persisting issues, as highlighted by DG Army Aviation, Lt Gen. AK Suri, and Lt Gen. SK Upadhya (Retd) from Adani Aerospace Defence during Aero MRO India 2022.

HAL’s Troubles: Too Big To Fail?

Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is a pivotal entity in India’s defence and aerospace sector, playing a critical role in national security. However, recent events have cast a shadow over its operational integrity and the effectiveness of its oversight mechanisms. The recent crash of an Indian Air Force Sukhoi Su-30 MKI in Maharashtra’s Nashik district has once again put HAL under the spotlight. Despite being responsible for the maintenance and testing of advanced aircraft like the Su-30MKI, HAL’s track record is increasingly marred by recurring technical problems and safety lapses.

HAL’s dominant position in the defence industry adds a layer of complexity to these issues. While other companies might face significant repercussions for repeated failures, HAL seems somewhat insulated from such consequences. Following the Nashik crash, HAL’s Chairman and Managing Director, CB Ananthakrishnan, emphasised the company’s substantial order book worth billions of rupees and suggested a stable future outlook during Aero India 2023. This confidence is reflected in the steady performance of HAL’s stock prices, which indicates resilient investor trust, albeit with some caution due to the ongoing issues.

Despite the calls for swift reforms and the need to restore trust among partners and customers, HAL’s entrenched influence in the industry poses a formidable challenge to change. The recent incidents highlight the urgent need for HAL to address its operational shortcomings and enhance the safety and reliability of its products to maintain its pivotal role in India’s defence infrastructure.

The Industry Lens

Industry experts argue that HAL’s production facilities are outdated compared to global facilities of similar scale. Despite being a Navratna PSU, HAL’s infrastructure lags behind foreign facilities in India established decades ago. This is particularly concerning given the critical projects HAL undertakes, such as the TEJAS MK-1A and MK-2, the LCH Prachand, and the DHRUV MK-4. These longstanding issues and their impacts are increasingly evident.

Upgrading production technology and capabilities is crucial, especially with the TEJAS MK-1A and MK-2, which need to be globally competitive. A source noted HAL’s TEJAS facility is “nowhere close” to private sector aircraft facilities, despite being from the same era. For example, components made by private companies benefit from cost competitiveness and reliability. Accountability is higher in the private sector because any incident could lead to contract losses or company closure. This level of accountability is lacking in HAL due to a certain mindset and politicisation.

The private sector offers scalability and accountability advantages, but political issues hinder its involvement. HAL resists significant private sector penetration in defence production, fearing competition. Proper investment could overcome these industrial challenges. Resolving these issues is crucial as several HAL aircraft are expected to be inducted soon, forming the backbone of India’s military during a sensitive geopolitical period.

To address these challenges, HAL must involve the private sector not just as minor parts vendors but as integral partners. HAL should facilitate a level playing field and embrace outsourcing to the private sector, which can boost production rates and fully utilise the ecosystem. High production numbers foster ecosystem growth, and leveraging the private sector’s cost competitiveness and accountability can lead to better products. The recurring production issues at HAL have been a factor in several aircraft crashes, underscoring the need for organisational reform.

Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is under scrutiny for compromising aircraft quality in its rush to meet production targets. This urgency to fulfil deadlines, especially towards the end of the financial year, has raised significant concerns about the reliability and safety of aircraft engines produced by the Indian aerospace giant. Investigations into HAL’s operational practices reveal a disturbing trend: in one particular year, HAL expedited the overhaul of four MiG-29 aircraft engines within the last three months of the financial year, compared to the usual nine-month timeframe. This drastic compression of time by 50% raises questions about the thoroughness and integrity of the maintenance process, potentially compromising work quality.

Additionally, HAL’s handling of the fourth-generation Su-30 MKI program has come under scrutiny. Despite being responsible for manufacturing and maintaining these sophisticated aircraft, HAL’s performance has been lacking. The fleet has experienced serious technical problems, leading to several incidents of aircraft loss due to technical failures. A particularly alarming incident involved two pilots being unexpectedly ejected from the cockpit while approaching the runway, highlighting the severity of HAL’s quality control issues.

The Indian Air Force (IAF) has borne the brunt of these quality lapses, suffering significant losses over the years. Nearly half of the MiG fleet has gone downhill, along with witnessing a loss of nearly 200 fighter pilots. Most of these accidents have been attributed to manufacturing flaws or deficiencies in the overhaul process, with HAL often reluctant to address these quality issues head-on. Notably, HAL’s credibility took a severe hit when Dassault Aviation of France expressed reluctance to partner with HAL for the production of Rafale combat jets due to concerns over quality assurance and delivery schedules. This hesitation impacted the long-drawn tender for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft, underscoring the repercussions of HAL’s quality control shortcomings.

Back in 2015, the Hawk AJT crash stands as a testimony of HAL’s quality woes. Reports indicate that the Rolls-Royce engine, manufactured under licence by HAL, failed to meet the OEM’s quality standards, leading to a reduction in the time between engine overhauls for Hawk AJTs manufactured by HAL. As stakeholders call for greater accountability and transparency within HAL, the aerospace giant must address these systemic shortcomings and prioritise the safety and reliability of its products.

As published in IDN today:

Hals Reliability Questioned Following Another IAF Aircraft Crash

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