Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts to refresh an aging air force are skirting state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd., India’s largest defense contractor, and signaling opportunities for the private sector.

The nation this month agreed a $1.9 billion deal for Airbus Group NV military planes to be built jointly in India by Tata Advanced Systems Ltd.rather than Hindustan Aeronautics. Modi in April shelved plans for the state firm to make French Rafale jets under license, putting other local manufacturers on alert.

Modi’s goals of a stronger military and modern defense industry that makes greater use of private sector skills puts Hindustan Aeronautics at a crossroads. It dominated India’s aerospace market after independence from Britain, but project delays and crashes of jets the company assembled are hurting the air force as rival China pulls ahead with stealth fighters.

“India’s private companies may not have Hindustan Aeronautic’s aerospace experience,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president at defense consultancy Teal Group Corp. in Virginia. “But they’re much better managed and can do a better job delivering products.”

Talks between the government and Dassault Aviation SA over a 2007 tender for 126 Rafales, including 108 to be made by Hindustan Aeronautics, stalled partly because India sought quality guarantees from Dassault for the locally made jets.

Modi’s Decision

Modi then chose to buy 36 Rafales directly from the French government to get them faster, leaving open the possibility of a separate order for more and in effect killing the earlier $11 billion tender.

The separate purchase could involve a private company for local assembly, said Amit Cowshish, a distinguished fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi.

“India is a huge market for defense products,” he said. “There’s room for more than just Hindustan Aeronautics. The Airbus-Tata decision is a good beginning.”

Modi’s vision is to develop a defense-industrial complex that can strengthen India’s sometimes poorly equipped armed forces, spur manufacturing and curb overseas acquisitions by one of the world’s biggest arms importers.

He’s approved about $45 billion of weapons purchases since taking power last May. The Defense Ministry has also cleared two deals worth more than $3.1 billion for U.S.-built Apache attack and Chinook heavy-lift helicopters, the Hindustan Times reported today.


Hindustan Aeronautics has assembled about 200 Russian Sukhoi SU-30MKI warplanes locally under license, six of which have crashed since 2009, most recently on May 19 with both pilots ejecting. The fleet was temporarily grounded after a Sukhoi ejected its pilots without warning in October.

The company’s project to develop an indigenous fighter, the Light Combat Aircraft, has yet to produce a fully operational jet decades after it was conceived, Teal Group said in April.

The Indian Air Force estimates at least 45 squadrons are needed to repel a joint attack from Pakistan and China, compared with a current active strength of about 25. China’s J-31 stealth fighter made its debut last year, a sign of the nation’s lead over India in warplane development.

An “overall system inefficiency” of all involved scuppered the Rafale tender, said M. Matheswaran, an adviser to Hindustan Aeronautics’ Chairman T. Suvarna Raju.

The 75-year-old company may yet benefit from a requirement that some of the money to be paid for the 36 Rafale jets must be recycled back to India -- a rule known as the “offset clause.”


If the jets cost about $7 billion, more than $3 billion may come into India’s defense sector via offsets, some of it to Hindustan Aeronautics, Matheswaran said. The company is busy assembling Sukhois and developing the Light Combat Aircraft as well as a so-called fifth generation fighter, he said.

Bengaluru-based Hindustan Aeronautics made pretax profit of 35.8 billion rupees ($563 million) on sales of 151 billion rupees in the 2014 financial year. The government wants to list it on India’s stock market.

Building a bigger role for private industry in defense requires much greater local knowhow and expertise. Modi has eased curbs on joint ventures between Indian and foreign defense companies to that end, but India has a long way to go.

For aircraft such as Rafale, India remains to some extent dependent on Hindustan Aeronautics for assembly, said Kabir Bogra, an associate partner at law firm Khaitan & Co. in New Delhi. To alleviate quality concerns, private businesses could be involved in the manufacture of certain components, he said.

Amid the flux, companies such as Chicago-based Boeing Co. are already looking for investment options in India. These trends show Hindustan Aeronautics must change or else “continue to be punished by the Indian government and military,” Aboulafia said.