In keeping with a consistent pattern over the last year or so which has seen all Indo-Russian defence projects run into delays for some reason or the other, now comes the news that Russian aerospace major, Irkut Corporation, has decided to pull out of a joint venture with Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) under which a sorely needed Multi-role Transport Aircraft (MTA) would have been developed for the Indian and Russian Air Force.
A report in the Russian daily Vedomosti says that Irkut Corporation would instead focus on the MS-21 medium-haul passenger airliner, which it is developing together with Sukhoi Civilian Aircraft. Reports have also emerged that HAL is already looking for partners from Western nations to develop the project.
Under a 2002 deal, India and Russia had said that they would create a 50-50 joint venture, with a Russian consortium - Irkutsk Aviation and Industrial Association, the Ilyushin Aviation Complex and Rosoboronexport - contributing half of the $300 million development costs and HAL contributing the remainder.
Irkut-controlled Beriev and possibly Yakovlev were also due to join the programme at launch.
The MTA is meant to be a replacement for Russia's ageing inventory of Antonov An-12 and An-26/32 turboprop transports, which first entered service in the 1970s. In 2002 the combined Indian and Russian market was estimated to be at 200 aircraft.
The twin-turbofan MTA was to be designated as the Ilyushin Il-214 in Russian service. Ilyushin had apparently begun the preliminary design phase by 2003.
According to the JV understanding, HAL was to design the front fuselage and wing while Russian companies would work on the rear and centre fuselage. While HAL would also contribute in the development of the avionics, engines would be sourced from Pratt & Whitney or Russian manufacturers.
Once again a familiar pattern is beginning to impose itself on this deal where all Russian-based defence programmes have run into trouble, with relations between the two countries cooling off as India and the US engage in a rapprochement, which also aims at reviving defence relationships between themselves.
Keeping in line with a commercial approach, which the Russians have adopted with their arms exports, Russians are now looking at India purchasing a limited number of aircraft directly and producing the remainder under license at HAL facilities. For India that option has already been foreclosed as it seeks to increase the quotient of locally developed technologies to higher levels in strategic areas.
Historically, India has struggled in the past with sanctions regime imposed by the West, and has also paid a terrible price dealing with unreliable and shoddy Russian spare parts. The Indian defence establishment is now determined to promote its indigenous arms industry and reduce reliance on Western and Russian suppliers.
According to industry sources, if HAL fails to get an appropriate response from the non-Russian companies, or if negotiations with Irkut and Ilyushin fail to make progress, the MTA programme could be abandoned and an open tender could be called for the aircraft.
Under the original plan, India would commit to a production order of 100 aircraft and take options for another 100, while Russia would have bought another 100. Production was to begin by the end of the decade, with the first aircraft entering service with the Indian Air Force in 2013.
By August 2007, with the project running into dispute with Russian companies over funding, HAL began seeking Western partners.