• 09 August, 2022
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Indigenisation: The Unsung, Unknown and Untold Story of IAF

Air Vice Marshal Samir Borade, VSM (Retd) Wed, 27 Jul 2022   |  Reading Time: 8 minutes

In a recently organised seminar at Pune, AOC in C Maintenance Command mentioned the indigenisation plans and achievements by IAF. The crux of his statement was achieving self-reliance for 95 % of the spares required for maintaining a wide variety of aircraft and ground systems. However, an article in “The Wire” dated 22 July 2022 by Rahul Bedi has downplayed and brushed aside the gains made till now through indigenisation by IAF. While the article mentions experts, a senior three star ranking fighter pilot has been repeatedly quoted in the article. It would have been apt to obtain views from experts on indigenisation and covered in this article. While criticism always propels improvement in performance and results, in this case it doesn’t do entire justice to the hard work by many maintenance personnel of the IAF and as a result the advantages accrued due to indigenisation.

Indigenisation by IAF started from absolute zero state, without adequate information or knowledge and what has been achieved till now is worthy of mention. Driving these efforts myself for two years from Maintenance Command Headquarters and earlier, I am aware of the intricacies, difficulties and challenges for indigenisation. While making presentation to many senior functionaries including the Hon’ Raksha Mantri Sri Rajnath Singh, NSA Sri Ajit Doval and the CDS late Gen Bipin Rawat, I am also sanguine of the fact that these efforts by IAF though well appreciated, were however, not completely understood by many. Though each of the issue brought out in the article by “The Wire” can be argued upon, I will not like to delve specifically into them however, will try to bring out the story behind the scenes. It is pertinent to mention that the slogan of AtmaNirbhar Bharat has reinvigorated and brought focus to the indigenisation efforts and enthusiasm amongst the work force driving the indigenisation efforts at all levels.

Indigenisation in IAF has been an unsung, unknown and untold story so far. Though the indigenisation efforts and requirements are showcased during various defence expos, these generally take a back seat due to the other glamourous facets of IAF. Not many would be aware of the tedious process of maintaining a wide variety of war machinery and keeping them operational at all times. A disrupted supply chain, rising costs, shrinking budgets, complicated procurement procedures, unreasonable quotes and arm-twisting by the OEMs, adversely affect product support and make maintenance operations challenging. The indigenisation story needs to be unravelled for a clear understanding and understanding the challenges for the IAF.

It may be known to very few that the indigenisation in IAF, commenced in mid-nineties after the break down of Soviet Union, that is almost three decades ago. While Maintenance Command headquartered at Nagpur is the nodal agency for driving the indigenisation efforts, its Base Repair Depots (BRDs) located across the country which undertake the repair and overhaul of various aircraft and systems, progress the indigenisation efforts at the functional level. The Directorate of Indigenisation at Air HQ was formed later to harness the efforts of indigenisation to meet the needs of IAF and to coordinate with its various directorates, industry and the ministries at the apex level. When the indigenisation efforts began by few BRDs, they were limited to low value and simple spares.

Challenges for Indigenisation

  • It is a wrong perception that split pins, nuts, bolts and sealing rings are simple spares and therefore much easily should have been indigenised long ago. Each of these simple components have a important function and role to play in the aircraft. Failure of these can result in catastrophic consequences and hence loss of costly platform as well as human life. There have been several instances of such failures, well known to aviation experts all across the globe. In that sense airborne platforms are different than the land or water borne systems, and therefore need to meet stringent airworthiness requirements.
  • These simple spares are also important for routine maintenance activities. Non availability of one small pin can keep the aircraft on ground. These small spares alternatively called Aircraft General Spares (AGS) form bulk of the replacement requirements during repair/overhaul and provide a fresh lease of life to the platform. At the flying bases, they are part of the Automatic Replenishment System (ARS). Many times, it is not the major components, but these small spares which affect the serviceability of war machinery. In addition, their annual requirements are so large that they constitute a large proportion of the budget required for spares procurement.
  • To ensure stringent quality of aviation spares, procedure for indigenisation was formulated in consultation with the regulating bodies that is the CEMILAC (Centre for Military Airworthiness and Certification) and the DGAQA (Directorate General of Aircraft Quality Assurance(DGAQA) along with the support of DPSUs such as Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). These have been compiled as the “Manual for Indigenisation”, which is the guiding document for undertaking indigenisation in IAF. It is also a matter of pride that certain Base Repair Depots were designated as Design Houses by the CEMILAC, and were authorised to approve the indigenised products.
  • Hence a systemic procedure for certification was evolved, which starts from material identification, dimensions, drawing generation, prototype making, functional tests and flight evaluation. For critical spares, the testing part can be much more complex including functional and environmental testing, which is not only time consuming but also require special facilities. In the initial days, I am aware of vendors struggling to even fabricate a so-called simple spare, because of the accuracy required. While the capabilities of automobile industry have been quoted, for the reasons well known, the major industries were always shy of participating in the tender enquiries, which were open to all. It is mainly the MSMEs, that came to the rescue of IAF in its initial days of indigenisation.
  • The process is time consuming and for a simple product may take nine to twelve months. For complex spares, it could be much more due to  absence of design data, functional testing and flight evaluation. Sometimes, if the prototype fails, the entire process needs to be revisited. The technical proportion in this time frame could be less, but to get the financial sanctions in spite of decentralised powers to the Competent Financial Authorities through the Integrated Financial Advisors, depending on the overall cost of the proposal is a time-consuming process. The main reason for this is that Indigenisation follows the procurement route (Defence Procurement Manual is the guiding document), which itself is a lang drawn activity.
  • It has been mentioned that for certain platforms, indigenisation was initiated too late. The decision to indigenise is based on many factors. With the acquisition of the main platform, certain insurance spares are always procured for sustenance in the initial years. The initial stock availability may not provide adequate justification for indigenising the spare or the component. Hence, for bulk of the maintenance spares, requirement to indigenise is decided based on balance stocks, consumption pattern, annual requirement, MOQ by the industry etc. Only after ascertaining the economic viability, the indigenisation process is initiated. In few cases, the technology of original component itself may be outdated to initiate reengineering. This is especially applicable to the electronic components. In such cases it is considered appropriate to change over to latest technology which however, have their own fall outs in terms of compatibility with the other systems and formulating the testing and certification process.
  • The vast and varied inventory of spares in IAF makes this decision making extremely complex, which however has been overcome with the utilisation of IAFs IMMOLS system (Integrated Material Management Online System). However, to explain the complexity it needs to be understood that each aircraft/system will have spares extending to tens of thousands unique lines, which are different in size, shape, function, material, technology etc. Some of these are mandatory replacements during maintenance and some depend on the condition for which a consumption pattern over 4-5 years needs to be derived. Some of these, based on the failure pattern may be later converted into mandatory replacements. Multiplying the number of platforms and systems in IAF, one can imagine the enormity of task. However, when it is stated that 95 % of these requirements have been indigenised, it is no less achievement.
  • Indigenisation in the initial days can also not be completely relied upon, as success is not always guaranteed. There are many examples of certain indigenous products being planned during initial procurement or aircraft upgrade, which failed to keep the timelines in sync with the operation of the platform. The reasons for such failures are more attributable to the technological prowess and industrial capabilities within the country. Hence procurements need to continue till the indigenised spare has completely established its reliability, quality and performance. The performance monitoring of an indigenised product is an ongoing process and this analysis itself takes few years. While majority of indigenous spares have met the quality standards and ensured reliability in functioning, in certain cases the indigenisation certification had to be cancelled as they failed to meet the required standard during operations. As Flight Safety is paramount, no substandard performance is acceptable.
  • It is easier to laugh at the indigenisation of nuts, bolts, washers and sealing rings but experts are only aware that each of these require different material and follow-up treatments. These materials cannot be compared with the auto industry. The availability of these materials both metals and rubber has been a major constraint for indigenisation. Successful indigenisation of hoses, diaphragms, valves etc have taken years due to several reiterations and in many cases also failed. Dependence for metallic raw material on foreign sources is still a limitation, though certain substitutes have been identified. A systematic study undertaken by IAF has identified substitutes to facilitate indigenisation and identification of raw material to be indigenised.

The Indian Air Force has not limited itself to indigenise simple and low technology spares, and for last few years also initiated indigenisation of complex, high technology spares and few LRUs (Line Replaceable Units). There have been many success stories and the list of these components is huge. The Nodal Technology Centres at each BRD have been assigned to identify such components. The effort and time required for their indigenisation is more due to their complexity in design and technology. Indigenisation of a large number of special testers and ground equipment has largely reduced their import requirements. In the recent past, many in-house projects have been undertaken with 100% indigenous support. For the sake of confidentiality, they can not be mentioned.

IAF’s efforts for indigenisation is not only limited to manufacture, fabrication and reengineering, but indigenisation also encompasses, Indigenous Technology Development for repair and overhaul, where the technology has not been available for various reasons. IAF’s inhouse efforts on refurbishment and reclamation of parts has also prevented many components being wasted. Another important achievement has been development of in-house and indigenous life extension technology for major platforms without any external support. Development of Life extension technology requires a detailed scientific study, data collation and accelerated testing plus simulations. These joint efforts with the R&D organisations and DPSUs have enabled IAF to use these platforms operational for extended periods and resulted in enormous financial savings. The benefits of indigenisation and data have also been shared by IAF to other services, mainly the Indian Navy for their aviation assets. Recently IAF has also signed MoUs with major academic institutes and scientific bodies to address identified problem areas and undertaking various projects.

It will not be an understatement that IAF and its engineers rose to the challenge of bringing Atma Nirbharta, in true sense and spirit of the slogan. The untiring efforts have ensured ever ready operational platforms, overcoming the hurdles of geopolitical situations, reducing dependence on foreign countries and bringing in huge financial savings. While IAF is a fighting force, it has also dedicated itself towards these efforts and shouldered responsibility along with the Defence Research Laboratories, DPSUs and handholding of industry.  As a result, many MSMEs are now partners with the IAF for its indigenisation drive.

Hopefully with the major indigenous weapon platforms such as Tejas, the proportion of indigenous content will increase and IAF’s efforts to indigenise spares for indigenous platforms will also reduce. The big industries and DPSUs need to invest in R&D to develop new technology and products, which would improve the lethality of existing and new platforms. This will help IAF in focusing more on its own role of defending the Indian skies, with reduced diversion of its manpower and other resources towards indigenisation. Improvisation of policies to support indigenisation has been ongoing and hopefully with the Defence Indigenisation Manual, the process will be further simplified.

Lastly, while it is easy to ridicule the gains made till now, one needs to understand the efforts, complexities and difficulties for indigenisation. It requires several experts with requisite domain knowledge who have to put in their heads together to indigenise one item. However, I am sure the country has enough of them and the need is to only focus and unify the efforts. IAF has proved its capabilities in meeting this challenge and certainly will drive its way forward towards achieving better results. While India completes 75 years of Independence, we will definitely emerge victorious in our endeavours and achieve true Self Reliance in coming years.


Author
Air Vice Marshal Samir Borade, VSM (Retd) is a graduate in Mechanical Engineering from Malaviya Regional Engineering College, Jaipur and Post Graduate in Aerospace Structures from IIT (Bombay). Commissioned in the Aeronautical Engineering (Mechanical) he has been Engineering Officer in frontline fighter squadrons, Commanding Officer of a Technical Training Institute, Chief Engineering Officer of a Fighter Base, Joint Director of Maintenance Inspections, Director of MiG-29 Wpn Cell, at Air HQ. Trained in Russia, he was part of the team which established ROH facilities for Mig-29 and later was the Air Officer Commanding of same Base Repair Depot. He was the Deputy Senior Maintenance Staff Officer at HQ Maintenance Command. He has been commended by the Chief of Air Staff in 1994 and by the President of India with Vishisht Seva Medal in 2014.

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POST COMMENTS (1)

S M Tatwawadi

Aug 05, 2022
Apparently no one is serious about indegenisation in the aviation sector, and so the poor maintenance man suffers all fancy forums do not yield desired results as the stakes are high.

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