Why US Envoy's Comments On HAL Are Both True And False

US Ambassador to India Tim Roemer's comments, in a confidential cable, that HAL's ability to partner effectively with American firms on the M-MRCA license build was "untested and suspect", has pissed the company off something nasty. The Ambassador's comment is an important one, because I think it at once recognizes the truth, while missing it entirely as well. Here's why:

HAL is part of the M-MRCA plan like nothing else is. It's the only constant. No matter who wins, HAL definitely does because they get to cookie-cut over a hundred fighter jets with licensed technology no matter which of the six airplane vendors emerges victorious. What Ambassador Roemer is suggesting, is that HAL is bad at something which it is actually an expert at -- building airplanes that it has had nothing to do with. In that sense, Roemer is way off the mark. Partnering with foreign firms to license-build airplanes in country is about the only thing that HAL is confidently good at. Roemer's suggestion that HAL's infrastructure is two-three decades behind US aerospace infrastructure is a ridiculous platitude -- duh! -- so we won't go there, and that's not entirely HAL's fault either. The truth is, however, that Lockheed-Martin and Boeing, despite putting out sugary quotes on how much they're looking forward to working with HAL (as if they have a choice), are in reality deeply nervous at the prospect. As a default gainer of business no matter which way the MMRCA competition goes (an atrocious situation from any angle), HAL has had little or no incentive to ramp up infrastructure or improve its systems and processes. But with a massive offset mark-up on the fighter competition -- half of contract value -- HAL will also be pulled in to absorb very large amounts of technology that it may well have simply no way to do. That is a real concern.

While the Indian defence establishment templates the M-MRCA competition to rationalize its procurement policy, offset guidelines and modernize the general way it goes about making large arms purchases, it would do well to consider giving HAL some competition. As it stands, the playing field is ridiculously narrow. While there prevails a semblance of competition among Indian shipyards -- both private and state-owned -- no single company is a threat to HAL's airplane building activity. And that's just bad business.

Photo Courtesy Ajai Shukla

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