For decades, Indian expertise in designing and building aircraft has developed randomly, with isolated areas of excellence offset by large capability gaps in important fields. Now a new government body has begun coordinating the holistic development of the country's aeronautical capability.
Just as the Atomic Energy Commission oversees the field of nuclear energy, and the Space Commission coordinates India's space programmes, many believe that an empowered Aeronautical Commission must coordinate and oversee the development of capabilities, facilities and skilled human resources needed to design and build aircraft, both military and commercial.
While an Aeronautical Commission currently seems unlikely, the B K Chaturvedi Committee in 2012 recommended establishing an apex, multi-agency National Aeronautics Coordination Group (NACG), chaired by the Secretary (Defence Production). Functioning below the NACG would be the more hands-on and technology oriented Design & Development Management Board (DDMB).
On Thursday, the DDMB held its first meeting in Bangalore. Headed by R K Tyagi, chairman of Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), it included key officials from aerospace organisations like the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO); National Aerospace Laboratory (NAL) and Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL).
Officials familiar with the meeting told Business Standard that discussions centred on the need to coordinate the R&D being conducted in different centres, since significant portions of it were overlapping and redundant.
Says the official, "It was highlighted that there are nine R&D centres within HAL alone; BEL has its own R&D centre; so does NAL and other establishments of the Department of Science & Technology. These are pursuing the same goals."
In the absence of coordination, laboratories are designing systems that have already been developed elsewhere, and are even in operational service. Example: HAL has already fitted IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) systems in IAF fighters, which electronically differentiate enemy aircraft from our own fighters, and block friendly fire on the latter. Yet the DRDO is designing its own IFF system, as is a private company, Mahindra Telephonics.
The DDMB also discussed the need to create R&D test facilities in India. Crucially needed are a high altitude test facility, and a flying test bed for aero engines. The DRDO currently uses test facilities in Russia, paying almost Rs 150 crore for packing, transporting and testing an engine there. Establishing a national test facility in India, which development agencies could pay to use, would allow aero engines to be developed more economically.
Another proposal involved setting up of a Flight Dynamics Simulation Centre to analyse flight regimes that India does not yet understand fully, such as the complex dynamics of stalls and spins. It was suggested that R&D institutions should combine forces to write the challenging software for these flight regimes, jointly establishing software teams, control law teams, and a simulator complex.
"We need to have a clear road map to take on the challenges… (that) range from basic and applied research, involvement of academia, production, spotting and retaining talent," said Tyagi, who heads the DDMB.
Significantly, the DDMB brings together competing agencies that have had difficult relations in the past. The discordant rivalry between R&D agencies like DRDO and production agencies like HAL has been widely reported. Yet, participants from both those organisations told Business Standard that they were elated at the prospect of joining forces.
"Planning and working together is something that has never happened before. We have always had energy; now, for the first time, we will also have synergy," said a DDMB member.
The initial structures currently set up could see change. There is dichotomy in placing both the NACG and DDMB under the MoD, while other ministries share responsibility for aerospace development. The government's Allocation of Business Rules makes the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) responsible for developing commercial aircraft, a task the MoCA has not seemed inclined to take up. The project to develop a Regional Transport Aircraft (RTA) is being jointly pursued by NAL/HAL without MoCA oversight.
"There is a need to change the Allocation of Business Rules in order to bring rules in line with reality", points out a senior MoD official.
(By: Business Standard)