Recently, a war of words erupted between former naval aviators and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). An open forum Livefist Defence turned into a stage for angry exchange of words between veterans from Indian Navy and HAL. It is unfortunate and shifts focus from real enemies that threaten us today.
The bone of contention is the Naval Utility Helicopter (NUH). This paper aeroplane has occupied centrestage in many intersecting schools of thought. It is the first experiment in Strategic Partnership (SP) program rolled out by PM Narendra Modi government for creating private sector capacity in major aerospace and defence (A&D) manufacturing in addition to capabilities of Defence Public Sector Undertakings (PSU).
Many angry words were spoken; often leading the discourse towards “us versus them”; creating straw men anybody with a Twitter handle or WhatsApp account could attack.
Where does the pain come from
To make sense of the latest round of sparring between navy and HAL, one must understand where the pain comes from. Adm Arun Prakash, former Chief of the Naval Staff (CNS) and one of navy’s venerated aviators, has done more for indigenisation than many commentators on either side of this debate. He is a 1971-war hero who had more than two decades of service in whites when ALH first took to the skies. He was already occupying high office when the initial parleys on ALH took place. If he is miffed, one must understand why.
Adm Arun Prakash has worked through all key positions in naval aviation and given more than a fair share of rope to HAL during his stellar service career. He is an alumnus of Air Force Test Pilots School (AFTPS); a Production Test Pilot (PTP) and former Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff. The HAL spokesperson who dismissed Adm AP’s remarks with “easy for retired persons to talk and give endless commentary” is an unfortunate example of corporate communication. It added more fat into the fire, drew sharp responses and diverted attention from real issues.
One of the most astute observations on where the HAL spokesperson’s pain possibly came from was summarised by author KS Nair (@TheBrownBeagle) on Twitter below!
This was soon followed by headline jargon such as “Angry HAL replies“, “Navy throws it back“, etc. Many people feasted on the spectacle as the silent service watched on. This was followed up by another post on the same channel (Livefistdefence) from HAL’s senior test pilot in his “personal capacity”. The shadow-boxing marks a new low in customer-service relations from an industry otherwise known for the opposite, at least in public forum.
Delaminating the latest imbroglio
A humble admission. I have known and worked, if not flown, with each and every person in this round of ‘ALH versus NUH’ debate. I will attempt to clarify some issues rising from the latest opinion piece before we move on.
The senior test pilot who authored the piece is a brilliant TP and colleague whom I have known for over 20 years. We toiled through the flight test course (FTC) together and have shared cockpit in many sorties. He makes a fair point at the outset that “problems do occur but they are not because the men behind the machines did not do their jobs; there are limits to knowledge and one learns from experience“. I fully agree with this observation and politely request him to extend the same generosity to the customers too.
He further states: “none of the naval pilots have flown or assessed the current generation ALH. It’s sad that with 16 ALH in the pipeline, the Naval Project Team at HAL does not have a Test Pilot or a Test Engineer on its strength. The last Test Crew was posted to the project team some 6-8 years back and that too with no mandate to participate in the ongoing ALH flight trials“.
The last test pilot at NPO incidentally was me! I have some amazing experiences from those days!
HAL test crew and me undertook the maiden afloat trials of ALH Mk-3 DW151 in 2014 with a “clear mandate” for spot checks of Mk-3 systems and dynamic interface prior shipping it to Maldives. I have flown all marks of the ALH in my capacity as project test pilot appointed to Naval Project Office (NPO) at HAL. Naval pilots have been flying the ALH Mk-3 for over six years now; and continue to do so to this day. An ALH Mk-3 is still with Maldives, flown by naval pilots. What generation-change or quantum jump took place in six years, I am keen to know. The latest Mk-3 on offer to navy reportedly comes with additional sensors and customisation. I will be keen to report on this bird, given an opportunity.
If navy did miss something, it is the inability to field test crew to NPO at HAL since 2014. Instead, the navy has raised a centre of excellence for naval flight testing – the Naval Flight Test Squadron (NFTS) at Goa. HAL has regularly been in touch with NFTS. I am also informed that there is significant synergy between HAL and NFTS. Test crew from both sides are in regular touch.
The navy is a small service with limited means. Test crew are premium even in the IAF and anywhere else in the world. Given the present low-throughput of indigenous aerospace manufacturing, the nation or industry may hardly value or require test crew. But from my experience, test crew contribution is valued not by numbers but by effect.
To that end, whenever any crucial naval ALH trial is conducted, services of naval test crew are always enlisted. NPO (ALH) sits across the road inside the Rotary Wing Research and Design Centre (RWRDC). Moving that office into the flight operations complex of HAL is simply an organisational or real estate problem. It can be fixed if both sides give or take a little.
Keeping an eye on future naval projects, HAL could easily consider offering few retiring naval test crew a second career in their organisation. Every country with such capability does. There’s nothing many self-respecting test crew would love doing more than flight testing. The latest discourse creates an imaginary shortage where none exists. Test pilots who have aced hundreds of prototype sorties face uncertain careers in airline industry today. That’s a pot of gold industry and services can tap into for bridging voids in customer requirements and product development.
Another point the senior TP makes runs contrary to the very purpose of navy setting up the NPO back in late 80s:
“On the naval side, the role of the project team is reduced only to following up on the aircraft that come here for maintenance. There is no one to advise NHQ on what exactly HAL’s current capability is and how it has improved over the years. So, most of what you get is hearsay”.
While I understand where this complaint comes from, the role of NPO is not “following up on aircraft that come here (Bengaluru) for maintenance“. That is the role and charter of Naval Liaison Cell (NLC), Bengaluru – a completely separate entity. If today, NPO lacks a naval test pilot, so does HAL. If indeed the NPO has turned insignificant, navy needs to worry.
I took up duties at IHQ MoD (Navy) / DNAS at a point where the file for returning all eight naval ALH back to HAL was in process. I take some credit – along with many naviators who wished well for this bird – for having played a role in reversing this decision. An increasingly frustrated navy, left holding ALH that couldn’t sustain even a fair-weather embarkation, did a Williamson’s Turn to order 16 more ALH, albeit for a shore-based role.
I have not flown the ALH in operational roles. My first brush with ALH was at NPO which was also my last assignment before taking premature retirement from navy. I did not belong to any exclusive “members-only” club when I took office in NPO. My experience was thus not coloured by cognitive or selection bias. It came from a purely flight test background, having already flown about 18 types in India and abroad; with NHQ experience to boot. My paper on ‘Improving the Operational Utility of Naval ALH’ penned sometime in 2010-11 can be found in the dusty cupboards of NHQ or Western Naval Command.
Slowly, a momentum was generated. Maldives was the first beneficiary – not because ALH out-performed any competitition, but because it was an indigenous product that met a strategic purpose. That’s the signalling power of indigenisation. Today, HAL has orders for 16-each ALH Mk-3 from IN and Indian Coast Guard. See how far we have come!
Rest of the commentary by the senior TP highlights poor experience of IN with LSP aircraft and the inability to meet NSQRs. He writes emphatically “the Navy continues to hold only the Mk I (LSP) variants, hence the poor experience.”
While I do understand the difference between Limited Series Production (LSP) and Series Production (SP), fact remains that Indian Navy today has eight ALH – of which two are LSP and balance six are from SP. I am sure the 16 ALH Mk-3 will provide both sides an opportunity to fly and evaluate the improvements and updates. In fact, I see a golden opportunity for HAL to develop the 2-segmented blade and demonstrate a workable blade folding solution on one of the 16 Mk-3s.
This line from his post sums it up nicely and aligns with recent comments from other high-ranking officials of HAL: “ALH was specifically designed for high altitude and some intensive manoeuvring which are exactly opposite to what the Indian Navy needed.” If true, one wonders why HAL should persist with offering ALH back to the navy with no major change. Maybe I am missing something.
A question posed towards the end makes for interesting reading: “What is HAL asking? I suppose a level playing field. Allow ALH to compete and allow HAL the same margins that are given for development and integration of systems to foreign vendors. Don’t make a QR which keeps ALH out. Allow it to compete on its own merit rather than forcing it out by making a skewed qualitative requirement.” A Defence PSU asking for ‘level playing field’ is like Sachin Tendulkar asking for one while playing street cricket with the local boys!
“Foreign vendors only care about the gains that they will make, they do not want a self-reliant India. They want an India which they can continue to milk for years“, he writes. Fair point; but maybe the same holds true for DPSUs too. Strategic Partnership has approval of Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). If the very premise of SP is being challenged, it is for the CCS to decide.
I completely endorse his closing remarks that “the Indian Navy and HAL can work together and resolve their differences. Both institutions owe this to the nation.” YES we can, and we SHOULD! It’s been 35 years since ALH NSQRs were released. During this period, Sub Lieutenants became Admirals and retired. In services, where “you have to move if you want to go places”, it is impossible, in my opinion, to foment or sustain any perceived “anti-indigenisation” agenda. The Indian Navy has always been “pro-indigenisation”. But they are admittedly a tough customer. There’s a goldmine waiting to be tapped here for OEMs. Go ahead and satisfy your best critic. The best brand ambassador for any product is a satisfied customer.
Your sharpest critic is not your enemy; just as a sycophant is not your best friend
Let’s do this together!
Somewhere down the line, this “us versus them” should be turned into “us and them together”. Rhetoric must make way for a deeper understanding of customer requirements. Together, everyone achieves more.
India is oozing with talent. But the entry barriers for people wanting to work with PSUs are huge. Having seen both sides of the fence, I feel, private sector can leapfrog processes that take years in state-owned entities if there is serious business to be transacted. All around me, I see bright sparks so well read; straining at the leash to work towards ‘atma nirbharta‘ (self-reliance). Some of them amaze me with their knowledge and energy. Some I had the good fortune to mentor left this country for foreign shores just because nobody around here gave them a chance to contribute.
Much talent and resources can be found within five miles from the hub of aviation design and development here in Bangalore if only we turn this debate away from “individuals” to “issues”, turn negative discourse to “positive engagement”, develop healthy professional attitude & eschew parochialism.
May the user have the final word on this debate. No world-class product can be developed in an atmosphere of mistrust. The last mile is often the hardest! Let us put the past behind and move forward with positive energy. I leave you with one of the best lines i heard from a commentator on Twitter in this discussion:
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2020. All rights reserved. I can be reached at email@example.com or on my Twitter handle @realkaypius. Views are personal. Cover photo courtesy Indian Navy.