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Golden Opportunity To Realize ‘Make In India’ Dream When Replacing Soviet-Era Transport Plane

The induction of the C295 into the Indian Air Force brings into focus another workhorse transport plane of the IAF, the Ukrainian Antonov An-32. India has the option of fully localizing its manufacturing with spare parts and engines for its advanced An-132 variant when the need arises to replace it. 

The C295, on the contrary, has little to no local manufacturing, whereas Tata Advanced Systems Limited’s (TASL) involvement is limited to assembling the plane from knocked-down kits. The Antonov option better serves India’s ‘Make in India’ through defense and employment generation goals.

Ukraine’s Antonov, whose An-32 serves the IAF as its workhorse medium-lift transport, has long offered to develop, test, and manufacture its An-132 advanced variant in the country.

Defense industry sources say the proposal also covers manufacturing the full range of spare parts and components with local Indian companies, building upon the An-32’s domestic vendor base developed over the last 40 years. 

C295s to Replace Vintage Avro HS-748s 

On September 20, the first C-295 landed at Gujarat’s Vadodara air base. The nearly Rs 20,000 crore deal ($2.5B) with Airbus Defence and Space to procure 56 C-295s involves procuring 16 units in a flyaway condition. 

The rest will be assembled at the TASL facility in Vadodara – part of a joint venture between TASL and Airbus. The C295s are meant to replace the IAF’s aging fleet of 50 Avro HS-748 twin-turboprop aircraft. 

An IAF AN-32 lands in Leh powered by indigenous biojet fuel. (via Twitter)

The second C-295 is in final assembly at Seville in Spain and will be delivered in May 2024. The last of the 16 flyaway aircraft will be delivered to the IAF by August 2025. The first “made in India” C-295 will roll out of the Vadodara facility in September 2026 and the remaining 39 by August 2031.

These are believed to be knocked-down kits with dismantled assemblies of a large number of parts and components. However, given the employment generation and techno-industrial development goals of the government’s flagship ‘Make in India through Defence,’ Ukraine’s Antonov appears to be better suited for the purpose. 

IAF’s Medium-Lift Backbone

For one, the An-32 has been in the IAF’s service since 1982 and has been widely described as an immensely reliable aircraft with nearly unmatched durability and performance in extreme weather environments.

There are 105 An-32 aircraft purchased from the Soviet Union. It also remains widely employed in South Africa, South America, and Ukraine itself.

It has been the workhorse of supply and transport sorties in the high-altitude Himalayan airfields across India’s Northern and North Eastern borders facing China. Its distinctive over-wing turboprop engines keep off the dust and sand from the desolate Himalayan deserts in Ladakh – thrown up in plumes when the turboprops operate from the paved Advanced Landing Ground (ALG) and airstrips – from entering the delicate mechanics owing to their high ground clearance.

The advanced An-132 Technology Demonstrator (TD), an upgraded variant with advanced engine avionics, has long been offered to India and other An-32 users, with the signature feature being establishing an entire production line in the client country and complete Transfer of Technology (TOT) for continuing to manufacture the aircraft.

An-32 Has An Established Vendor & Industrial Base In India

The existing An-32 is repaired and maintained by the 1 Base Repair Depot (1 BRD) and 4 BRD at Kanpur. While the former maintains the engine, the latter is a Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facility that upkeeps and fixes the rest of the airframe to ensure serviceability. 

In Kanpur and Telangana, almost 400 local Indian companies supply various ‘rotables’ – parts that need to be replaced and repaired at frequent intervals following a certain number of flight hours – to the An-32 fleet.

Antonov has offered manufacturing of all parts and components within India with Indian companies. This would have directly benefited all technology and manufacturing start-ups that had sprung up since 2015 after ‘Make in India’ kicked off.

The C295, on the contrary, does not have any domestic production of any spares or sub-assemblies inside India, except for assembling the aircraft in the dismantled kits that would come from the Airbus facility at Seville in Spain. 

Aero Engines, An Indian Weakness, To Be Produced Too 

Even the engines, made by leading Ukrainian engine manufacturer Motor Sich and the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU), had been on offer to be produced in India. The Ukrainian pursuit to revive its defense industrial base after being nearly destroyed by Russia – part of its “demilitarization” goal of the Special Military Operation (SMO) – could have been leveraged to extract greater ‘know-why’ on the engine technology. 

This is assuming Kyiv follows the general tendency of engine developers to not fully disclose aero-engine technologies. The world’s largest heavy-lift civilian transport aircraft, the An-224 Mriya, which was destroyed in the Russian assault on the Gostomel airport early in the war, too, is viewed as a prestige of Ukraine’s Soviet-era defense industrial base. 

A certain sense of desperation for fund infusion into the company cannot be ruled out and can serve as a tool to derive greater Transfer of Technology (ToT). Yuzhmash, the Ukrainian aerospace major that manufactures the An-32’s landing gear, already has Dron Vayu Aerospace, an Indian firm, as an official partner.   

Short-Lived Saudi-Ukrainian Made An-132

A similar effort with Saudi Arabia successfully produced the Antonov/Taqnia An-132 Technology Demonstrator (TD), where Antonov’s partnership with Saudi government firm Taqnia saw the prototype flying at the Paris Air Show in June 2017. A significant part of the airframe made up of composite materials was fully manufactured by Saudi companies.

The initial Saudi payment of $150 million would include setting up production lines in both countries, with a line at the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology. 

The An-132 manufactured in Saudi Arabia used Pratt & Whitney’s PW-150A turboprop engines replacing the ones made by Motor Sich; an Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) from Hamilton Sundstrand; avionics from Honeywell; British propellers and French Flight Control System. This bared Ukraine’s willingness to integrate with Western (or non-Russian) suppliers.  

To balance its defense-diplomatic obligations with the US, India, too, can take the Saudi route and have more Western components in the An-132. In other words, India helps the US to attain its geopolitical goal of curtailing the Russian defense industry if it flies the An-132 with US and European parts. 

However, such an arrangement runs the risk of having a complicated supply chain with diverse international vendors for a single platform. 

Ukraine Needs the Business

Following the 2014 revolution in Ukraine and the subsequent Crimean War, Kyiv had long been eager to reduce dependence on Russian companies for spares and components that had been part of the supply chain since the Soviet Union.

With the problem still dogging many Ukrainian aerospace and defense firms, India could have capitalized on the situation to secure a better deal on local manufacture of components.

Given the plane’s global popularity, a production line in India with a full manufacturing ecosystem can also supply the parts to all the plane’s international customers. 

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Aatmanirbhar Bharat


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