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Eye on India: Aiming for Indigenous Strength

By Staff Writer | December 1, 2007

HINDUSTAN AERONAUTICS LTD.’S Dhruv may be taking its knock. But it would be assured of support from India’s government, if certain defense hawks hold sway.

Their opinion was reflected in the comments of the chief of India’s air staff at a recent conference on helicopter technology organized by the Society of Indian Aerospace Technologies and Industries, with support from HAL, in that manufacturer’s hometown of Bangalore.

The chief, Air Chief Marshal F. H. Major, said India should not lose sight of its critical need for independent defense-related technological and manufacturing capabilities.

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"There is an urgent need for total indigenization and self-reliance in defense in today’s world of sanctions and threats," he told the conference. "As newer threats emerge, insurgencies become more complicated. In times of crisis, we will not be able to import technology. We will have to be completely self-reliant.

The Dhruv may have its detractors, but the chief of India’s air staff isn’t among them. In his view, indigenous aircraft capabilities are a national priority.

"Therefore," he said, "total indigenization is the need of the hour."

His comments were reinforced by the effects of political turmoil in neighboring Pakistan, where President Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency last month, suspended the nation’s constitution, and corralled political opponents. The United States has pumped billions of dollars of military and domestic aid into Pakistan to build the military strength of that ally in the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan — including the transfer in October of 26 Bell Helicopter 412s and four refurbished AH-1 Cobras. Musharraf’s actions left the United States questioning whether it would continue that aid, since the stated objective of its fighting in Afghanistan and in Iraq is to spread democracy in the world. Backing a dictator would seem to conflict with that goal. U.S. officials also were prompted to refresh contingency plans, since most supplies for its troops in Afghanistan move through Pakistan.

India’s air chief urged the nation to look beyond current aerospace needs.

"We need to identify and create newer capabilities for the future. For this, research and development needs to gear up to absorb new technologies.

He added, "We should not re-invent the wheel, but look 20 years ahead and have a long-term, integrated-plan perspective of the armed forces and work towards it."

India particularly needs to bolster its rotary-wing capabilities. HAL has done much in that regard, he said. "There is, however, a need to further hone the helicopter so that it becomes a powerful weapon and its reliability increases. The helicopter in India has to further grow not only in terms of speed, design, and maneuverability, but also serviceability and maintenance, which needs to be focused upon by HAL."

That was the rub last month, with the Indian Navy complaining about the serviceability and reliability of the Dhruv, HAL’s Advanced Light Helicopter. It operates a handful, and Navy officials complained the aircraft are not meeting the service’s standards or expectations. That was one reason the Navy cited in issuing a request for information to Bell Helicopter, Boeing, Eurocopter, among others (including HAL), for a multi-role helicopter to fulfill its anti-submarine warfare requirements and other needs.

Major called the Dhruv a wonderful machine — in mid-November, he took the left seat in its latest version, an armed aircraft powered by the Shakti engine based on Turbomeca’s Ardiden and developed by that French manufacturer and HAL. But, he said, "it is still evolving."

On the civil front, the GCAT Flight Academy said it plans to begin operations in India, lured by the aviation boom there.

GCAT Flight Academy was formed through the merger of Sweden’s SAS Flight Academy and the U.K.-based General Electric Commercial Aviation Training.

The leading European investment fund STAR Capital Partners Ltd. bought the two companies at the beginning of the year from SAS and GE Commercial Aviation Services, respectively. The combination makes GCAT one of the world’s largest flight training schools. It has training centers in Copenhagen, Denmark; Hong Kong; London; Oslo, Norway; Riga, Latvia, and Stockholm, Sweden.

According to estimates by the World Travel & Tourism Council, India will have at least 1.5 million openings in aviation and related industries by 2010, but is facing an increasing shortage of trained personnel.

That’s not just a problem for fixed-wing operators. Global Vectra Helicorp, India’s largest dedicated offshore-support helicopter company, noted that demand for oil and gas in India is expected to grow more than 325 percent 2020. "India is one of the least explored regions in the world, with only 18 percent [of its] acreage explored so far," the company noted. It added that "85 percent of India’s oil and gas is located offshore."

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