By the end of May, this year, India is slated to raise the second squadron of the Light Combat aircraft (LCA) TEJAS. It shall comprise the upgraded version of the TEJAS having enhanced war fighting abilities, over the first twenty of the jets produced so far.

The first series production plane of the final operational clearance (FOC) version of the jet – its now capable of going to battle — flew for the first-time at Bangalore on March 17.

Piloted by Air Commodore KA Muthana, a retired officer from the Indian Air Force, the Chief Test Pilot, the aircraft took-off from Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Airport at around 1230 hours on March 17 and was airborne for 40 minutes.

The FOC-version aircraft are equipped with advanced features such as Air-to-Air refuelling and Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missile system, the Derby from Israel. The single-engine fighter will continue to use the same GE 404 engine, made by US giant General Electric.

Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) – the aviation company owned by India’s Ministry of Defence — has promised to deliver 15 such jets by April 2021, that is 13 months from now. The first four jets, including the one that flew on March 17, will be delivered by end-May and will form the second squadron of the HAL-produced jet.

The FOC-version has several manufacturing improvements which were based on the operational feedback of first planes called the Initial operational clearance (IOC) version, already inducted into the IAF and form the first squadron. The IOC version of the TEJAS participated in IAF exercise Gagan Shakti (power of the sky) in 2018 and also at the exercise Vayu Shakti (air power) the aircraft’s accuracy in dispensing weapons on target was demonstrated.

The HAL made the FOC-version plane within 12 months of getting the Drawing Applicability List –the drawings and sequence — and getting an okay by Centre for Military Airworthiness and Certification (CEMILAC).

Active Production Line

The production facility at HAL is abuzz with activities as four sets of airframe structures (SP-25 to SP-28) are under advanced stages of completion. These structures will be ready to move to the coupling stage by end of March 2020.

“One of the airframe structures will be dedicated for MAFT (Main Air-frame Fatigue Test Specimen), which will be used for testing to extend the life of aircraft to minimum 3000 hours of flying. Fabrication of this test specimen will be completed by March 2020,” the official adds.

With HAL opening doors for private players to speedup Tejas production, some of major assembly works are being undertaken at Dynamatics Technology Limited (Front Fuselage), Alpha Tocol (Rear Fuselage) and VEM Technologies (Centre Fuselage).

“All these works are progressing well and are expected to be available for coupling stage by March 2020. With the learning from the first structure build up, partners would be capable of increasing the production rate in the next year,” says the official.

With all these strategies in place, HAL is confident of completing FOC contract of 16 fighters by March 2021, less than 24 months from getting FOC. As per the current plans, HAL might next take up the work of 18 TEJAS Trainers from next year to avoid a possible production holiday.

Upgrades Means Longer Flying Hours And Better Missiles

The Indian Air Force had defined the parameters of the FOC-version of the TEJAS and insisted on extended range of the plane, to include drop tanks. The air-to-air refuelling and BVR were part of the upgrades.

The much needed AESA radar is still not part of the upgrades. IAF believes the TEJAS is now battle worthy.

The mid-air refuelling will enhance the range without additional touch downs to refuel.

Additional drop tanks means the fuel capacity will go over the 2350 litres fuel carrying capability of IOC variant. Besides External drop tanks of 1200 and 800 litres capacity, TEJAS FOC has an additional 725 litres centre line drop tank with pressure refuelling, In other words, drop tanks can carry 2725 litres of additional fuel.

The FOC version includes structural modification for the refuelling probe and software — flight control software – modifications.

The BVR was needed as over the years betters radars mean the fighters could be seen and consequently they needed better BVR missiles. The Derby made by Rafael Advanced Defence Systems is an an air-to-air missile designed to engage targets at 50 kms or so. The missile has an imaging seeker, inertial navigation system beside other goodies like a solid fuel rocket motor and warhead ensure a high probability of success. The missile features an advanced electro-optical imaging infra-red seeker which scans the target area for hostile aircraft and then locks on to the target.

India Now Has Four Types of BVR’s

Modern day BVR’s on jets can fire at targets that are more than 180 km. In the Military terminology, a missile that fire at targets 20 miles (37 km away) in the air is classified as BVR. India now has multiple BVR’s.

The ‘Python’ from Israel is mated with the Sukhoi-30MKI and is designed to engage very short range and near beyond visual range targets. The Russian R-73 missiles are fired from the MiG 29 and also the Sukhoi-30MKI. But the R- 73, with its capacity of some 30 km, is now considered previous era.

The IAF arsenal is undergoing a change as the ‘Aastra’ developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has been tested from the Sukhoi-30-MKI. It can fire at targets 80 km away. The DRDO is already talking about ‘Aastra-2’

MBDA’s ‘Mica’ is part of the IAF’s Mirage fleet. In 2012 the Cabinet Committee on security (CCS), the country’s apex security decision making body, gave its nod to a $ 1.23 billion deal to get 450 MICA BVR missiles.

The Rafale fighter jets, of which India ordered 36, will carry the Meteor BVR missile

IDD Bureau