Sunday, October 30, 2011

BAE Systems careful in expanding HAL role in Hawk

Public sector aeronautical giant Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) is in talks with BAE Systems about an expanded role in building Hawk jet trainers for the global market. A month after the UK-headquartered giant effectively shut down a decades-old UK production line for Hawks, HAL says that a share of that could move to the Hawk production line in Bangalore.

Transferring production to Bangalore is logical, says HAL’s chief, with the Indian Air Force emerging as the largest operator of the Hawk advanced jet trainer (AJT) outside the UK. Close to 150 Hawks will wear the IAF roundels: an initial order for 66 Hawks, bought for Rs 6,600 crore in 2004; and another 57 contracted last year for Rs 5,500 crore. A third order for 21 more Hawks is currently being processed. Other than the first 24 Hawks that were imported ready built, HAL Bangalore will be manufacturing the rest.

“Last year, while negotiating the contract for 57 Hawks, BAE Systems wanted to give HAL additional work in building Hawks in the future. If BAE Systems gets a fresh Hawk order, HAL is looking for a large role in that build. What exactly, is still being discussed,” HAL chief, Ashok Nayak, told Business Standard.

The stakes are enormous for BAE and HAL. Up for grabs is the US Air Force’s “T-X program”, potentially the world’s largest-ever overseas aircraft procurement. With the USAF replacing its 40-year-old fleet of Northrop T-38 Talon trainers, BAE Systems is eyeing an order for at least 350 Hawks, with that initial order possibly rising to over 1,000 aircraft. The Hawk’s rivals in this contract are expected to be the T-50 Golden Eagle, built by Korean Aerospace Industries and Lockheed Martin; and the M-346 Master built by Alenia Aermacchi.

BAE Systems confirms to Business Standard that it is in discussions with HAL, but the company is keeping its cards close to its chest. There is sensitivity in transferring manufacturing to India at a time when BAE has just laid off 3000 skilled aerospace workers in the UK. Furthermore, if the Hawk is selected for the T-X programme, the USAF would probably insist that the initial, ready-built aircraft be sourced from the UK.

Says Andrew Gallagher, Managing Director and Chief Executive, BAE Systems India: “BAE Systems retains the capability to build Hawk in the UK to manage any additional export orders which may arise and will also continue to work closely with HAL on both current and future Hawk activities.”

According to the BAE website, “the Company has commenced consultation on ending (Hawk) manufacturing capability at (Brough).” But that capability will now be kept alive at two other BAE facilities --- Warton and Samlesbury --- which build the Eurofighter Typhoon and components for the F-35 Lightening II Joint Strike Fighter.

HAL is understanding of BAE Systems’ sensitivities, but also confident that there is a business case for HAL to play an expanded role in building Hawks. Says Nayak: “Naturally BAE Systems is worried about the comfort level of potential customers, who might prefer a made-in-UK Hawk. After all, you would want to buy a Mercedes only from the original dealer… not from a sub-vendor. For now, BAE Systems is looking at getting only a part of the production work done in HAL. But we have a fully up-and-running line… and we’d be happy building the entire Hawk.”

Notwithstanding the HAL chief’s confidence that HAL’s role will expand as a major Hawk production centre, industry sources point out that the USAF will insist that the bulk of the T-X order be built in America. Only the initial aircraft might be imported fully built.

Underlying BAE Systems’ continuing interest in HAL is a strategic logic that extends beyond the Hawk to the Eurofighter Typhoon. Having partnered HAL in setting up the successful Hawk line in Bangalore, BAE Systems (a major partner in the Eurofighter programme) believes that it has a credible argument that the Typhoon production line will also be set up smoothly.

“If Eurofighter is selected as the MMRCA solution for India there will be further opportunities to strengthen our relationship through Typhoon manufacturing and support,” says Gallagher.

Eurofighter-affiliated executives also argue that the Hawk is the natural trainer for fighter pilots who will fly the Typhoon. But this logic cuts two ways; in the T-X procurement, this argument is deployed by BAE Systems’ rival, Lockheed Martin, who argue that their T-50 Golden Eagle is the natural trainer for pilots who will eventually fly their F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightening II, both built by Lockheed Martin.

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