Sketchy timelines, hiccups in decision-making and several setbacks over a period have impeded the manufacturing of the Light Combat Aircraft

by Prashant Dikshit

There is no doubt that with the flight of India's Defence Minister on the Tejas combat aircraft, a very positive salutary message has gone out to not only the Indian Air Force but the whole country at large. However, is this only symbolic or will it largely overcome our combat deficiencies?

This news only narrates the tale of the Light Combat Aircraft which truly started in 1969, when the Indian government agreed that Hindustan Aeronautics should design and develop a fighter aircraft. The catch was in finding a proven engine. Although HAL completed design studies in 1975, they could not select a "proven engine" from a foreign manufacturer and the IAF's requirement remained unfulfilled.

In 1983, as the years progressed, IAF noted that they have to replace India's ageing MiG-21 fighters which had been its mainstay since the 1970s. The LCA was seen as advancing the domestic aerospace industry and promoting self-reliance. In 1984, the Indian government established the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) to manage the LCA program and assume the responsibility of Tejas development, with HAL being the principal contractor. For "self-reliance", work on fly-by-wire (FBW) flight control system (FCS), multi-mode Pulse-Doppler radar, and after-burning turbofan engine were pivotal.

In addition to the hiccups of decision-making at all levels, the real impediment came in 1998 when US aircraft-maker Lockheed Martin's involvement was terminated due to a US embargo in reaction to India's second nuclear test in 1998. I believe, that, was the beginning of our difficulties which delayed us to a stage from where catching up with development became agonising.

By mid-2002, the project had suffered major delays and cost escalations. For example, the intended engine had to be replaced with an off-the-shelf foreign engine. The story at this stage gets caught up in convolutions within the Defence Establishment till, in October 2015, IAF Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha confirmed plans to order 123 (six squadrons) of Tejas Mark 1, triple the number of aircraft it had previously planned to purchase (40). Later, it was declared that those 83 additional Tejas ordered were to be the upgraded Mark 1A version. On November 7, 2016, Parrikar approved the procurement of 83 Tejas for the IAF at a cost of Rs 50,025 crores (US$7 billion). The order for those is expected to be placed by the end of 2019 after the unit price was negotiated between Rs 250-Rs 275 crores (around $40 million) per unit. By March 2020, HAL hopes to expand its production capacity to at least a squadron (16+) of aircraft every year. Three years had thus elapsed with no decision as yet.

In 2018, IAF formally committed to inducting a total of 324 Tejas aircraft of all versions if HAL and the ADA can deliver a quality Tejas Mark 2 in time.

The Indian Navy has a requirement for 50 Tejas aircraft. The first prototype of the Naval LCA made its first flight almost two years after being rolled out on April 27, 2012. Amazingly, its arrester barrier test was done a few days ago on September 13, 2019, seven years later.

What is redeeming is that out of a total of 35 major components, only three involve foreign systems. As a consequence of the embargo imposed on India after its nuclear weapons tests in May 1998, many items originally planned to be imported were instead developed locally. Obviously, these sanctions contributed to the prolonged delays suffered by the LCA.

The IAF raised the first squadron in Bangalore in 2011 and on December 20, 2013, the aircraft was cleared to be flown by regular IAF pilots; beginning induction into squadron service. The fighter had to be certified for six more criteria relating to BVR missiles and guns, etc. On February 20, 2019, during Aero India 2019, Final Operational Clearance was formally awarded to Tejas without guns. But the Tejas story is not over as yet.

What we must note is that some new developments are to be undertaken on the Tejas. Tejas MK1A is an improved version of Tejas MK1 aircraft to make it more suitable for the current needs of the IAF. The reports in public domain indicate that the improved version of Tejas MK1 A will now be integrated with an Electronic Array Radar (AESA) co-developed with Israel's ELTA corporation, in-flight refuelling capability, Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missiles Astra and Derby, Electronic Warfare (EW) sensor and several other new equipment.

Most significantly, a project will be launched to enhance the performance of indigenously made Kaveri engine, which will later be fitted to MK1 A variants. The Kaveri engine is likely to be similar in performance to the current GE414 engine. But this development will take two more years. Acceptance of MK1A by IAF would mean that the "operational requirements of the aircraft have reached acceptable norms". It is believed that there is work going on for "Stealth Technology" and with the integration of BVR missiles and the powerful Kaveri Engine, the Tejas will be a very powerful airborne weapon.

But in reality, there is no clear indication of timelines and nor is an assessment of the financial outlay. Several new methods are being adopted. The plan is to manufacture the components in several segments of private industry and HAL will act as "the Principle Contractor" and an integrator of the final product.

The author is a retired Air Commodore and strategic-affairs commentator. The views expressed are strictly personal