Tucked away in a corner of HAL's generously spaced pavilion at Aero India 2015 is a non-descript little stall with a couple of tables, a few chairs, two small aircraft models and little else. This is immediately strange, given how in-your-face the HAL-UAC Multirole Transport Aircraft (MTA) programme usually is at shows (enough that HAL has proudly showed it off at the land forces show DefExpo too). As it happens, the low profile reflects the headwind that the MTA currently faces.
In September 2013, India and Russia completed preliminary design on the MTA, a derivative of the concept Iluyshin-214, but a design that officials at MTA Ltd (MTAL), the joint venture overseeing the project, insist is a "joint design from scratch", with large scale changes including "wing area and empennage area", the capability to operate from high altitudes, as opposed to largely sea-level operations envisioned for the original Ilyushin-214. Effectively, the preliminary design phase (PDS) locks in the platform's general characteristics, overall shape and possible LRUs.
For 15 months, HAL has been in conversation with the Indian Air Force, a process that hasn't been smooth. The IAF's concerns centre around the twin Aviadvigatel PD-14M turbofan engines intended to power the platform. Sources say the IAF has indicated four major critera in engine performance on paper that don't match stated performance requirements in terms of altitude, re-light characteristics (the official I spoke to requested that Livefist did not report specifics). It hasn't helped that late last year, the United Aircraft Corp. reported a rise in project cost, suggesting that HAL would need to be in for more than the $300 million initially agreed upon when the programme kicked off. Never good. A six-man team from HAL leaves for Russia early next month for what officials described as 'resolutionary discussions'.
However, HAL is still hopeful. Not that it has a choice. But so hopeful in fact that the leadership of the joint venture hopes to bring the IAF on board within the next five-six months, and close the crucial next step -- an agreement on the the detailed design phase -- before the year is out. Circumstances suggest gloom, but the team remains optimistic.
Taking the prospective signing of the crucial agreement on the detailed design phase as the starting point, the joint venture's timelines read like this: 24 months to complete detailed design, 42 months to first flight and 62 months to series production. Those are serious timelines by any stretch.
In an irony that's playing out in slow motion, the MTA has flown into the decision-making airspace of the Indian Air Force's high profile HS748 Avro replacement effort, a programme specifically designed to create aerospace manufacturing capacity within the private sector (and specifically beyond HAL). Expectedly, HAL's exclusion from the Avro replacement hasn't gone down easy, and has sparked an aggressive campaign to persuade the government that keeping HAL out is folly.
The fact that the Avro replacement programme is now presented with a sole bidder situation (an Airbus-Tata offering based on the C-295) puts the onus for a decision on the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC), but gives HAL the leverage it needs to justify not just powering on with the MTA, but effectively expanding it. At this stage in the decision-making matrix, HAL will be hoping it doesn't matter that the proposed MTA and the proposed capability for the Avro replacement are significantly different at every level.
"It isn't obvious what we can do at this time. We're awaiting a decision," Airbus Defence & Space spokesperson Kieran Daly told me at Aero India last week. "We can't invent competition."