By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 5th July 16
Over the preceding decade, under-informed defence writers and commentators have made careers out of bad-mouthing India’s Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). The commentary focused primarily on development delays, criticized the fighter’s performance and sneered at the under-funded, under-staffed Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), a Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) agency responsible for the Tejas programme. Regrettably, the Indian Air Force (IAF) colluded in undermining ADA, passing on tidbits to the media in order to show the Tejas in a poor light, apparently to clear the way for importing expensive aircraft. Thanks to this, most Indians came to regard the Tejas as a byword for delay, incompetence and the untrustworthiness of the DRDO. Most Indians concluded that the purchase of exorbitantly priced foreign aircraft like the French Rafale was unavoidable to keep India safe.
These critics have now done an about-turn after Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar inducted the first two production version Tejas Mark I fighters on Saturday into the IAF’s first operational Tejas squadron (45 Squadron). In January, the Tejas made its foreign debut, performing well-received aerobatics displays at the Bahrain international Air Show. Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, a steady hand at the IAF’s tiller, has supported the Tejas and committed to ordering 100 Tejas Mark 1A fighters --- similar to the current version, except for four specified improvements. Test pilots involved in the Tejas’ flight-testing had always praised its performance and reliability, but now there is also praise from the IAF. Group Captain Madhav Rangachari, the 45 Squadron chief who flew the Tejas on Saturday, reportedly observed afterwards: "I felt like being on top of the world when flying the Tejas fighter. It’s an excellent aircraft and a generation ahead of other fighters in the world.”
That nobody has contradicted Rangachari is a measure of how effusive the media has suddenly become in reporting this story. It needs to be pointed out that the Tejas is not “a generation ahead of other fighters”; it is a contemporary fighter, with several features that match the “best-in-class”, while others still require improvement. Even so, the most astounding achievement of the Tejas project is the development of a fourth-generation fighter and a respectable aerospace development, production and testing eco-system in India for the pittance of Rs 14,047 crore, just over $2 billion. This was done in the face of intensified international technology sanctions since the 1998 nuclear tests and, as discussed above, amidst media and IAF hostility.
The operationalization of the Tejas has not taken “over three decades” as critics dishonestly maintain. They incorrectly cite August 22, 1983 as the start of the Tejas project, when the government allocated Rs 560 crore for “feasibility studies and project definition”. In fact, it took another decade, until April 1993, when the defence ministry sanctioned the “Full Scale Engineering Development” (FSED) of the Tejas, and provided funds to build two fighters as “technology demonstrators”.
Taking April 1993 as the start of the Tejas development programme, the timeline suddenly looks more respectable. It took just eight years for the Tejas’ first flight in 2001; 20 years for initial operational clearance in 2013, and 23 years for final operational clearance and induction into IAF service. The significantly more capable Tejas Mark IA is expected to be completed by 2018 to meet standards that four agencies --- the defence ministry, IAF, ADA, and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), which builds the fighter --- have hammered out between them, to make the Tejas clearly more capable than current enemy fighters. If that deadline is met, the Tejas will have taken exactly a quarter century in development. That is a creditable record for building a first fighter.
The improved Tejas Mark IA will have an AESA radar, which the DRDO-HAL combine proposes to build in partnership with Israeli company Elta. It will be capable of air-to-air refueling to increase range and combat endurance. It will also have a “self-protection jammer” (SPJ) mounted in an external pod to confuse enemy radar. Finally, it will have an improved layout of internal systems to ease maintenance and allow rapid “turnaround time”, i.e. the quickness with which the Tejas can leave on a fresh mission after returning from an earlier one.
The IAF has already detailed the Tejas’ performance parameters, announcing: “The LCA has a very competitive and cotemporary operational envelope. It is capable of operations up to an altitude of 50,000 feet and a maximum speed of 1.6 Mach at [high] altitudes or 730 knots… at low levels. The aircraft [can turn at] +8G to -2.5G (which allows it to U-turn in 350 metres) in operationally clean configuration… or +6G to -2.5G with other external stores.” This respectable performance envelope will be further enhanced when the Tejas IA enters service. It is, therefore, incorrect to suggest, as some commentators and editorial writers have done, that only the import of fighters like the Rafale would give the IAF an operational edge. Directing those billions into the Tejas programme instead would be a more sensible course.
Even as the Tejas Mark IA is being developed, ADA is working on the Tejas Mark II. The key enhancement in that will be the replacement of the current General Electric F-404 engine with the larger, more powerful GE F-414 engine. The technological challenge --- which is to re-engineer the Mark I fuselage to fit in the bulkier F-414 --- would be offset by the Mark II’s greater power. The re-engineering would also provide the opportunity to replace the current generation of avionics with enhanced, new-generation avionics. Realistically, the Mark II can be expected to enter service by 2023-24, until when HAL can build the 100 Mark IA fighters that the IAF has committed to buying.
Supporting ADA through this programme is essential. That agency is simultaneously working on an Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), which will be a fifth-generation fighter with stealth features, and incorporating an advanced engine that will allow it to supercruise (fly at supersonic speed without lighting the fuel-guzzling afterburner). To enable and empower this project, it is essential to quickly conclude the contract with Russia to co-develop the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) that has been mired in negotiations for a decade. The FGFA experience would provide Indian aeronautical engineers the knowhow and experience in working on fifth-generation technologies, which would be translated into the AMCA.
The area of concern, which the defence ministry needs to address on priority, is to ensure that HAL builds the Tejas Mark I and Mark IA at a rate of 12-16 fighters per year. That would allow the IAF to conduct operational planning, obtain buy-in from that service, and translate the Tejas from a debutante into a real combat asset.