While undertaking ‘acceptance testing’ of a refurbished Mirage 2000, two test pilots, squadron leader Samir Abrol and Siddhartha Negi, belonging to Indian Air Force’s (IAF) Aircraft and System Testing Establishment (ASTE), lost their lives. This provided ammunition to many to vent their anger at Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd HAL), damn the public sector for their “incompetence”, and push for a private sector-led military sector.
The former Navy Chief, and himself a naval aviator, Admiral Arun Prakash, accused HAL by claiming that for decades “(m)ilitary has flown poor quality HAL machines”. He added that “HAL bashing maybe justified to a point...” A sitting BJP MP and industrialist Rajiv Chandrashekhar, who has business interest in the military sector, offered help to the family of the deceased pilots to sue HAL, taking vendetta against the defence PSU to another level.
All this comes against the background of a swirling cloud over the Narendra Modi Sarkar’s Rafale deal to gratify a crony, by robbing HAL of the deal to manufacture 108 fighter jets. In other words, many Modi ‘bhakts’ of the corporate kind used the crash as an opportunity to run down HAL.
The Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal BS Dhanoa, was unsparing in his comments on HAL prior to the crash. He spoke of the IAF sacrificing 17 test pilots and others. According to a Times of India report, since 2015-16 there have been 35 crashes of aircraft and helicopters, killing 45 persons. In other words, not just test pilots, there are others who have died in crashes. So, undeniably crashing of aircraft and helicopters and loss of lives is a serious problem, and HAL cannot escape from the blame. But it is also true that testing aircraft is risky and despite the best safety standards, crashes still occur.
It does seem that the votaries of private sector have been deliberately playing up HAL’s deficiencies. NDTV’s Vishnu Som quotes an unnamed HAL test pilot and an eyewitness to the recent crash as saying that “In this particular case we had finished testing and handed over the aircraft to ASTE” for acceptance testing by IAF. Som goes on to say that the aircraft had been test- flied six times by HAL test pilots before it was handed to ASTE. The source told NDTV that “(a)s far as HAL producing sub-standard aircraft, remember that we fly these aircraft to its limit before anyone from IAF touches it”. The source added that there could be any number of reasons for accident “from technical defect, maintenance failure to pilot error”.
In other words, we are yet to know the reason for the crash and what caused the pilots’ death. So, before rushing to pin blame on HAL, especially by those who have gone out of their way to defend the arbitrary Rafale deal struck by the Prime Minister on April 10, 2015, a win-win for Dassault Company and the Anil Ambani Group, by cancelling HAL’s production of 108 jets, by claiming that HAL is incompetent, must be judged, because they are interested parties wedded to a scam-ridden Rafale deal.
Two days before the crash, the Air Chief said: “I as a service chief can make concessions to HAL. Will the enemy make concession to me, when I go and meet the enemy?” But if this is the harsh truth about HAL, then what do we make of his statement after the massive air exercise, first in three decades, Gaganshakti 2018, in which 1,000 plus aircraft participated and HAL ensured 70% availability of combat aircraft. Was it a grudging acknowledgement by the Air Chief of the fact that HAL can be criticised but not run down?
It is striking that while so many serving and retired officers are trenchant in their criticism of the public sector in general and HAL in particular, they are rather reticent to speak truthfully when “dubious” deals are arbitrarily struck, driving a hole through military preparedness. As the Modi Sarkar’s Rafale deal does by arbitrarily reducing the number of fighter jets from 126 to 36, reportedly paying a much higher price for the fighter jets, gifting Dassault 50% of the Rs 64,000 crore price, without receiving a single jet. All this in the absence of sovereign or bank guarantee. Such generosity for a foreign Original Equipment Manufacturer? Not to forget that all this was done while starving HAL of payments by IAF for last two years for services rendered and products delivered and contracted.
HAL has to show utmost transparency and accountability commensurate with its status as a defence Navratna. Newsclick’s defence analyst and aeronautics engineer D Raghunandan has in several interviews pointed at the poor work ethics and deficiencies of HAL as also how these can be overcome. Indeed, he insists that it’s doable if it’s done in mission mode.
So, instead of rushing to use the death of two pilots to propagate the dogma of private sector profit-making as virtuous, our energies ought to be spent in ensuring that scarce resources invested in the defence sector are better utilised and accounted for. It is by placing trust in public ownership of the military sector that we can bring about a sea change. If this can be done by Indian Space Research Organisation and Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, as well as Mazagon Docks Ltd, then there is no reason why others, including HAL, cannot do the same.
So, by all means, criticise HAL, but do not diminish it or destroy it. We need to push for overcoming deficiencies because the military sector must remain under public control and not become centres for profit-making and foreign dominance.