August 09, 2007

India may seek new partners for transport aircraft By Siva Govindasamy

India could seek new partners for its armed forces' military Multi-role Transport Aircraft programme, with a five-year-old joint Indo-Russian joint venture in danger of collapsing following a disagreement over its funding.

Prime contractor Hindustan Aeronautics, the Indian state-owned aerospace major, has reportedly approached other Western companies with a view to possible collaboration on the development and joint manufacture of 60t transport aircraft.

A response is expected in the next two months and HAL will then study the submissions before making a recommendation to the Indian Cabinet, which will decide on the programme's fate by the end of 2007.

Under the 2002 deal, HAL and a Russian consortium comprising Irkutsk Aviation and Ilyushin Aviation were to each contribute $350 million to the joint venture.

HAL was to design the front fuselage and wing and the Russian companies the rear and centre fuselage. HAL could also help in developing the avionics, while engines could be supplied by Pratt & Whitney or Russian manufacturers.

"The Russian companies now appear to be hesitant about the amount of money they need to invest in the project, even though everything seemed to be done and dusted just a few months ago," says an industry source. "Given that the India wants the new transport aircraft by 2013, the defence ministry and the air force must seek funding from the next financial year if the programme is to successfully go ahead."

Another industry source adds that the Russians may now want India to buy a number of aircraft directly from them, and then produce the remainder under licence at HAL facilities. That, however, may not be acceptable to an Indian defence establishment that is increasingly keen to promote its indigenous arms industry to reduce the reliance on Western and Russian suppliers.

If HAL does not get a suitable response from the non-Russian companies, or if negotiations with Irkustk and Ilyushin do not make much progress, the Multi-role Transport Aircraft programme could be abandoned and an open tender could be called for the aircraft.

Under the original plan, India was to commit to 100 transports and have another 100 on option. Russia was to have bought 100 aircraft produced by the joint venture. Production was to have started by the end of the decade, with the first aircraft entering service with the Indian air force in 2013. These would replace New Delhi's ageing Antonov An-32s that first entered into service in the 1970s.

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