The project to build C-295 transport aircraft in India is one of the most significant steps taken to enhance our pursuit of Atmanirbharta. The fact that a private company has launched the project in conjunction with the OEM should enhance our design and manufacturing capabilities in the aerospace sector. The Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL) and Airbus Defence & Space, S.A., Spain venture could quickly go beyond its current mandate and, subject to finding an adequate market, enhance their proposed manufacturing capacities in due course of time.
Modernisation of the Indian Armed Forces is one of the key focus areas of the Government of India. The Government of India has finalised a roadmap to spend $ 130 Billion for fleet modernisation across all armed forces, including the military aviation sector. In a significant boost to the “Make in India” initiative and a big step toward the modernisation of the Indian Air Force (IAF), Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL) and Airbus Defence & Space, S.A., Spain launched the C-295 transport aircraft manufacturing facility in Vadodara, Gujarat on 30th October 2022. This initiative assumes a unique place in the “Atmanirbharta” (self-reliant) pursuit as it will be the first plant in the private sector to manufacture military aircraft in India.
Military Aviation Industry in India
Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), since its inception in 1942, has been engaged in licenced production, designing and manufacturing of fighter jets, helicopters, jet engines, avionics, software development, spare supply, overhauling and upgrading of Indian military aircraft for the IAF and more recently for the Indian Army Aviation as well as for the Indian Navy. HAL has practically been involved in strengthening the fighter stream of IAF, ranging from Mig-21, MiG-27, Bison, Jaguar, Hawk, and Su-30, along with various training aircraft like Kiran and HPT-32.
In the helicopter manufacturing arena, HAL very quickly expanded its reach to support all three-armed forces and Coast Guard, initially building and supplying Chetak, Cheetah, Lancer, Cheetal, and Chetan helicopters and later moving on to advanced versions. The major breakthrough was achieved with the indigenous Advanced Light Helicopter “Dhruv”, which has been inducted in all three services in large numbers. The weaponised variant “Rudra” and the recent success of the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) “Prachand” have firmly placed India on the path of “Atmanirbharta” in the field of military aviation manufacturing.
Progress in the fighter fleet is also commendable. India’s Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) developed, and HAL built Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) “Tejas”, which is currently under production. It is a 4.5 Generation aircraft for which the Indian Air Force (IAF) has committed more than 300 numbers. The other LCA variants include Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF) for the Indian Navy. The enhanced focus towards meeting the targeted timelines of the underdevelopment Fifth-Generation stealth fighter, Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), stands as testimony to the new face of Indian Military Aviation in Atmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India).
Indigenous Transport Aircraft Production
While maintaining its focus primarily on fighters and helicopter production, HAL maintained a reasonable pace of development of transport aircraft for the need of the IAF and Indian Navy (IN). HAL had initially built Hawker Siddeley HS 748 aircraft “Avro” for IAF and Indian Airlines and later added the Dornier 228, a twin-turboprop Short Take-off and Landing (STOL) utility aircraft, to its list. These two aircraft were extensively used by IAF in the communication role and Dornier by IN in the reconnaissance and communication role, along with utilisation in the training role by both services. These two light transport aircraft continued to be the mainstay for the light utility roles of IAF for a very long time. Over just two decades back, the National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) designed the first Indian multi-purpose civilian aircraft, “Saras”, in the light transport aircraft category. As a further boost to the sector, Regional Transport Aircraft (RTA) or Indian Regional Jet (IRJ) is a regional airliner designed by NAL to be manufactured by HAL by 2026.
C-295 Manufacturing in India: A step further towards Atmanirbharta
The long-pending critical requirement for replacing the old HAL license-built Avro finally seemed to end by the launch of the C-295 transport aircraft manufacturing facility in Vadodara with the finalisation of a contract between M/s Airbus Defence and Space (Spain) and TASL under “make in India” initiative. As per the contract, the first 16 flyaway aircraft would be delivered between September 2023 and August 2025, while the first Made-in-India aircraft will roll out of the new facility in September 2026 and the remaining 39 by August 2031. Of the 40 C-295s that Tata Aerospace and Defence (Tata A&D) will build, eight will be from semi-knocked down (SKD) kits and another eight from entirely knocked down (CKD) kits. The remaining 24 will have indigenising assemblies and sub-assemblies incrementally. This would mean approximately eight aircraft production per year.
The CASA C-295 is a transport aircraft of 5-10 Tonne capacity with contemporary technology, employed as tactical transport aircraft, designed for the movement of personnel and cargo within military conditions. Accordingly, it can be operated from austere airstrips, with minimal reliance on ground support infrastructures; it can reportedly be used even when heavily loaded on soft ground without significant issues. It has an auto-reverse capability, turning 180º on runways as small as 12 meters wide. It can carry up to 71 troops or 50 paratroopers and for logistic operations to locations that are not accessible to current heavier aircraft.
Beyond its use as a tactical transporter, the C-295 can perform a wide variety of missions effectively. These include parachute and cargo dropping, Electronic Intelligence (ELINT), Medical Evacuation (MEDEVAC), and maritime patrol. Some of the equipment for adapting the aircraft to perform various roles has been mounted onto pallets, allowing for rapid installation and removal. As the aircraft can operate from short or unprepared airstrips, it will be well suited for operations in the valleys and advanced landing grounds in the Himalayas. Aerial bombing role modification could be another role that the aircraft could be modified for in the future.
It is the first of its kind and the largest investment in the defence sector, propelling the country’s advancement of the domestic defence and aviation manufacturing ecosystem. The TATA-Airbus C295 manufacturing facility offers the Indian private sector an incredible opportunity to enter a technology-intensive and highly competitive aviation industry. It will elevate domestic manufacturing capabilities leading to reduced import dependence and increased defence exports.
The C 295 Project and its Impact on Future Military Aviation in India
Military aviation in India is progressing well, and with the recent impetus through the “Atmanirbhar” initiative, the sector is expected to grow at a breakneck pace. The inclusion of contemporary technology to augment domestic manufacturing capabilities with the inclusion of the private sector will definitely give a formidable push for the establishment of indigenous manufacturing infrastructure supported by a requisite research and development ecosystem in India.
The launch of projects like C-295 manufacturing in India symbolises the strides that the country has made in the “Make in India, Make for the World” initiative. It is the first of its kind and the largest investment in the defence sector, propelling the country’s advancement of the domestic defence and aviation manufacturing ecosystem. India is the fastest-growing airline market, and there is a huge demand for civil aircraft and engines. There is also a considerable Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) market to be tapped. India has already started exporting its indigenous aircraft like LCA and LCH and weapons like Brahmos as part of progress in the military aviation sector. The focus must remain on similar improvements in the transport sector and UAVs.
Today, we are witnessing a transformation of India into a global manufacturing hub supported by progression in the value chain under the Aatmanirbhar Bharat mission. This pace needs to be maintained to establish India’s credentials as a reliable defence manufacturing nation.
Air Cmde SP Singh, VSM (Retd)