By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 21st Dec 13
As Defence Minister AK Antony watched from a shamiyana overlooking the Bengaluru runway, two Tejas light combat aircraft (LCAs) came screaming down the runway, bombs and missiles fitted under wings, lifting effortlessly into the sky. As the fighters quickly faded into specks and then out of sight, hundreds of spectators watched two giant projector screens that played out video being transmitted live from the pilots’ cockpits.
As the pilots positioned for their air-to-ground attack mission, the commentator revealed their target --- the spectators’ shamiyana. The screen showed the view from the pilot’s head-up display (HuD) as he locked his navigation-attack system onto the target. Even as both fighters simulated a successful bomb release, a third Tejas closed in behind them. This was a friendly fighter on an air-to-air mission, tasked to shoot down the intruders. The projector screens switched to the pilot’s helmet mounted display system (HMDS), which allows him to aim his weapons merely by looking at the target. In seconds, the intruders were in the “no-escape zone” of his R-73 air-to-air missiles. Mission accomplished!
Also accomplishing a mission today were hundreds of technicians, engineers and scientists, who cheered wildly from the spectator stands as the three Tejas turned in for their final approach and landed smoothly, their arrestor parachutes streaming out behind them. Twenty-eight years of toil, heartbreak and eventual success had culminated this day, when the Tejas LCA obtained its initial operational certificate (IOC), entitling it to be a part of the IAF fighter fleet.
“As an Indian I feel proud to stand here on the occasion of the IOC of Tejas,” said Dr RK Tyagi, the chairman of Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), who has been one of the hard-drivers behind Tejas flight-testing through this year, which saw a record-breaking 500 test-flights conducted.
The programme to build a LCA began in 1985, although serious funding started only in Jan 1993. So far, about Rs 7,000 crore have been spent on the IAF version, which obtained its IOC today. Development continues separately of a naval version, which will fly from the navy’s aircraft carriers.
The Tejas, as the LCA was named, is a light fighter, a category that broadly includes fighters under 14 tonnes in weight. It was planned to replace the IAF’s fleet of MiG-21, which is gradually being retired. The MiG-21 FL, a variant that was the IAF’s first supersonic fighter, retired from service on December 11. Other variants continue in service, but are unlikely to fly beyond 2017-18.
While the IAF was initially reluctant to introduce the Tejas into operational service in large numbers, it eventually ordered two squadrons (40 fighters) of the Tejas Mark I. HAL will manufacture these on a high-tech new production line in Bangalore. The HAL chief stated today that the initial production target of 8 fighters per year would soon be ramped up to 16 aircraft annually.
The IAF has additionally committed to ordering another four squadrons of the LCA Mark II, a more powerful, capable, version of the current Mark I fighter. The Tejas Mark I’s General Electric F-404IN engine would be replaced by a F-414 engine; and the mission avionics and weapons would be significantly upgraded.
The IAF chief stated, “(T)he final goal for all of us is not just the LCA Mk I, but the LCA Mk II. While our air warriors are fully geared up to induct and operationalise the two Mark I squadrons, IAF keenly looks forward to induction of four squadrons of LCA MK II as the final version in its projected force structure.”
In addition to the six squadrons (108-120 fighters) committed by the IAF, the navy is expected to induct 40-50 fighters. Mr Antony stated today that about 200 Tejas would eventually be inducted.
The immediate objective for the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), The Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) setup that is developing the Tejas, is to obtain Final Operational Clearance (FOC), which would signify that the fighter is fully kitted and cleared for combat. Mr Antony has set a target of December 31, 2014 for FOC.
Urging ADA to meet that deadline, DRDO chief, Dr Avinash Chander, stated today, “Those who perform will be asked to perform more. The Team Tejas will have to now sprint the last lap towards FOC. The FOC will equip Tejas with in-flight refuelling, beyond visual range missiles, a new close combat missile, gun GSH2, additional weapons and new drop tanks for supersonic flight.”
Perhaps the finest certification of the Tejas’ capability comes from its test pilots, veterans of the National Flight Test Centre who test-fly the fighter everyday. Says Group Captain Suneet Krishna, who has nurtured the Tejas for years, “This is a pilot’s aircraft. It flies beautifully, and the avionics are excellent. There is a huge flow of information coming in to the pilot and the avionics processes that and presents it to the pilot far better than most other fighters.”