Shadow Over India's Intermediate Jet Trainer

There's trouble in India's indigenous HAL intermediate jet trainer HJT-36 Sitara programme, and it's been brewing for a while now. First, the facts:

In an interview this week to AINOnline, IAF chief Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne is quoted to have said, "We are concerned as we are not seeing significant progress on the IJT. HAL put in a dedicated design team, yet there are no results. This is a training aircraft and we cannot compromise on safety." He also indicates in the interview that issues that continue to dog the IJT programme include "controls, engines and the aircraft’s weight, stall and spin characteristics".

The HJT-36 was to have entered service with the IAF in June this year as a Stage-II trainer, replacing the ageing HAL Kiran Mk.1/2s in service. But with trials still on to prove the platform as a robust training jet (one prototype crashed during spin tests in April last year), it is unlikely that the IJT will be accorded initial operational clearance (IOC) -- its immediate goal -- anytime soon. Optimistically, it could be towards the end of next year, but likely later. The IAF has on order 85 IJTs (12 LSPs and 73 production series aircraft).

Earlier this year, rumours swirled that the programme was on the edge of being scrapped altogether amidst its inability to deliver performance results to the IAF -- rumours that were quickly dispelled, albeit unofficially, by the IAF and HAL. But there are real situations the IAF needs to now plan for, and the IAF chief's interview (linked above) point to these.

Next year, the IAF will have no choice but to begin retiring most of its HAL Kiran Stage-II trainers. But with the IJT nowhere near entering service at that time, the IAF may be faced with a difficult choice -- (a) push its Kirans further, (b) juggle its training syllabus once again to make up for the lack of Stage-II training (like it has now with the absence of basic trainers) or, perhaps the most difficult/undesirable option for it, (c) acquire intermediate trainer jets from abroad. To be sure, this last option hasn't been lost on the global market.

Sources say the US Government has initiated (or plans to initiate) discussions with India over the possibility of a joint development that may have something to do with the now delayed Northrop T-38 Talon replacement programme, the T-X. I also hear Russia's Rosoboronexport is looking to brief the IAF on the Yak-130 jet trainer -- indeed, it has even begun advertising the aircraft in Indian trade journals.

This is not a healthy situation: from 2014, India's training arsenal will almost entirely comprise foreign aircraft -- the Pilatus PC-7 Mk.II for basic propeller training and the BAE Hawk Mk.132 for lead-in advanced jet training. At this point, it remains unclear what Indian pilot cadets will undergo crucial intermediate training on.
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