Such a Long Wait
Tejas Mk1 and Mk2 will test the capabilities of ADA and HAL to the hilt

LCA at Leh
LCA at Leh

The Tejas ‘Light Combat Aircraft’ (LCA) is now approaching a critical period for its designers, the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) on whose shoulders rest the rate of production and service support for production aircraft.

According to Air Marshal (retd) Phillip Rajkumar, “The most pressing issue affecting the programme is rate of production of the 20 aircraft ordered by the Indian Air Force (IAF). Even if Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) is obtained in the next few months and Final Operational Clearance (FOC) by 2015, the IAF will be able to field a full squadron with operational pilots only by 2017.” The IAF requires at least eight Tejas aircraft by 2015 to begin squadron flying, and production support (which has been a bugbear for indigenous platforms) will play an extremely important role here, if its pilots are to fly the Tejas extensively and gain confidence in the type.

Unfortunately, the Indian Navy will see the maximum delays in its quest to have a homegrown carrier borne fighter. A poor payback for the resources it has invested into the LCA Navy thus far, which began with a sum Rs 4 crore sanctioned by Naval Head Quarters for initiating the Project Definition Phase (PDP) almost two decades ago in 1995. According to Admiral Arun Prakash (retd), former Chief of the Naval Staff, “It is difficult for an outsider to speak of any time-frames in this badly delayed programme. The LCA (N), first, needs to be equipped with a well-designed arrester-hook before it can commence carrier-operation trials. The trials will have to be undertaken in two phases; first on a shore-based test facility involving ski-jump launch and arrested landings. This is to be followed by ship borne trials in different weather conditions, by day and night. Each phase will present its own challenges.”

Plans that call for induction of six squadrons of the Tejas by the end of the 13th plan (2017-2022) are a pipe dream now. The IAF and IN are unlikely to order more squadrons of the under-performing Tejas Mk-1 and extensive work needs to be done on the Mk-2, to ensure that the services have a fighter with viable operational capability into 2030-2040. This is a veritable ‘Catch-22’ situation as the low orders mean that HAL will be unwilling to invest in state-of-the-art production techniques, resulting in low rate of production (with a resultant impact on quality) and the IAF and IN unwilling to place further orders for the Mk-1 (unless they are arm twisted into doing so).

Another area of concern is the low quantum of flying that has taken place since the first prototype took to the air almost 13 years ago. Since then, the ‘Tejas’ programme has accumulated just 2,270 test flights (as of July, last month). These flights are spread across 14 aircraft (TD1-233, TD2-305, PV1-242, PV2-222, PV3-366, LSP1-74, LSP2-275, PV5-36, LSP3-155, LSP4-90, LSP5-198, LSP7-51, NP1-4 and LSP8-19). Between May 23 to July 15 this year, only 101 flights took place and from April 25 to May 23, only 33 flights took place.
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