Mr Pushpinder Singh sent an old article ” THE LOST DECADE”, of the 1970s, which appeared in the Nov – Dec 1990 issue of Vayu. The author, Mr Raj Mahindra, was former MD (Design and Development) at HAL. The article, written to mark the 50th year of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, basically reviews the plans and projects that were considered and undertaken by HAL during the “lost decade and to speculate on what might have been had the powers-that-were persisted with the several opportunities that came up.”
We all hold opinions on HAL and its achievements, that is why this particular account, from within the establishment is of interest. One may agree or disagree with the contents, but there is no denying the fact that it makes for very interesting reading.
Without reproducing it in its entirety, I have paraphrased parts of it while resorting to direct quotes, wherever it was deemed appropriate. All italics and highlighting are mine.
The article begins with briefly recalling ASRs formulated at Air HQs in the 1970s, which discussed the gradual replacements for the MiG 21FL, Su-7, Hunter, HF 24, Canberra, the Vampire trainer and the aging transport fleet. These in turn were to be replaced by a single supersonic tactical airstrike aircraft (TASA), supersonic deep penetration aircraft, the AJT and versatile STOL transport aircraft respectively.
“In Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), the Indian Air Force, indeed the nation had an enormous reservoir of opportunity to meet the IAF’s requirements for most, if not all, its needs of the forthcoming generation from the mid-70s till the end of the century.” Till the 60s, HAL’s list of achievements boasted the HT-2, Pushpak, Krishak and Basant. The Kurt Tank led team also had the inducted into service HF 24 under its belt by the mid 60s. The search for a compatible engine, for the Marut, to match its superb design capabilities and which came to nought, was attributed to be “more due to lack of sustained Government/industry effort than technological reasons.” Once the Marut was consigned to history , the design and development team of the HAL were virtually jobless till the LCA project was launched in 1986. “Meanwhile, a great deal of experience, talent and time had been irretrievably lost.”
Aircraft design and development, according to the author, briefly comprises three distinct streams – where prototypes are built but not followed by series production, where prototype development is followed by production and operational deployment and thirdly where design studies, building of mock ups etc takes place without further follow up activity. “unfortunately, the last category was the fate of most of the efforts of HAL’s design teams in the lost decade of the seventies, a fact barely known to most and the real story, to just a few.”
During the period of the mid sixties an Advanced Projects Group, headed by the author, was assigned the task of focussing on and overseeing feasibility studies for likely military and civil aircraft.
This group initially conceived of the Ground Attack Fighter I (GAF I) powered by an M45 engine which was itself being developed as a joint venture between Bristol Siddeley and SNECMA and would have a radius of action of about 150 miles.
There was also a study made for a STOL transport cum freighter, as a civil airliner with a 100 seat capacity and also as a replacement for the Packet, Dakota and Caribou. The configuration was for using four Rolls Royce turbofan engines and another configuration powered by four turboprop engines.
“The design configuration was not only contemporary but had advanced features which were later seen to have been adopted by advanced aerospace companies in the West. Unfortunately, development work on this project was abandoned in favour of combat aircraft which had all the priorities. However, as later events unfolded, the tremendous efforts ………….did not succeed in persuading the Defence Ministry to launch full fledged design and development of even the combat aircraft …..”
In 1967, the Group took up studies for an interceptor – ground attack aircraft. The multi role F 4 Phantom was the role model of this study. The GAF II, as it was referred to, was put through wind tunnel tests and the “configuration presented a very good basis on which to launch a prototype development effort. It was, however, clear that a far more elaborate infrastructure would be required for HAL to develop and build a new generation fighter.”
In the event, an attempt was undertaken to fall back on the trusted Marut and a parallel design using the forward fuselage of the HF – 24 with some modification to its canopy contour was offered to the IAF. The aircraft would have a radius of action of 300 nm, maximum ordinance for a ground attack role with contemporary avionics. The study completed in 1970 envisaged induction into service by 1976. This did not apparently find favour and Air HQ issued a firm requirement for an Advanced Strike Aircraft (ASA). “The final configuration of the Advanced Strike Aircraft as proposed by HAL, met most of the essential requirements of the Indian Air Force. While evaluation continued for some time, approval for prototype development simply did not materialise.”
In 1973 there was an offer from Germany to jointly develop the HF 24 into the Hindustan Supersonic Strike Aircraft labelled the HSS 73 later to be known as the HF-73. This would retain the original mainframe, with radical changes to the fuselage, air intakes and the centre wing section. The cockpit was to be modified for better visibility, fuel capacity increased, and with a completely new avionics suite and powered by the Rolls Royce RB 199-34R engine would have a radius of action double that of the HF 24. “Eventually, this project had to be abandoned because, as some said, of non clearance of the RB 199 by the UK and Germany, the two partner governments involved in the engine development for the Tornado MRCA programme. Thus all efforts in developing an Indian combat aircraft had come to naught.”
Subsequently HAL took on a feasibility study for a small multi role passenger aircraft, the HAC 33. “A wind tunnel model was built but not tested as development funds, were once again, not approved.”
In the mid-70s, the IAF showed interest in development of an air superiority fighter. In 1974 HAL undertook designing and studying a configuration for the Air Superiority Fighter (ASF). The ASF 300 was considered with either an Indian GTX or a SNECMA engine. The configuration proposed by HAL, “even though it did not meet the ASR, could have provided a reasonable solution…..”
“At this stage the HAL design team, resilient as ever, projected a low cost HF-24-M53…….when compared with the ASF 300, was 2 tons lighter, and was comparable to the Jaguar for bomb carriage capability as well as penetration distance……….The combat capability offered through this configuration and the delivery schedules were not acceptable to the IAF, and therefore the work was discontinued.”
“How much disappointment does a man (or design team) need?”
There was yet another attempt made to redesign the dear old Marut and a detailed feasibility study was conducted for the next version, the HF 25. At an estimated cost of Rs 64 Crore at 1979 price levels, the HF 25 prototype was scheduled to be available in three years and induction into service was proposed seven years later, that is by 1986. “In spite of the low development cost of the project and low unit cost of the HF 25, the IAF showed preference for the Soviet MiG 23/27. The project was therefore discontinued.”
In 1980-82 design feasibility studies were undertaken for an Advanced Jet Trainer. The programme was disbanded as all available funds were diverted towards the Advanced Light Helicopter and the Light Combat Aircraft.
“It was not until 1986, thus, that the Ministry of Defence with its constituent departments encompassing the conceiver (Defence Research and Development Organisation) producer (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) and operator (Indian Air Force) got its act together to clear the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) project which has since been underway under the aegis of the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) which manages, funds and monitors the programme from its headquarters in Bangalore.”