PS Subramanyam, Director Aeronautical Development Agence (ADA), in an exclusive interview with Broadsword
Q. How good is the Tejas, which now has an initial operational clearance?
As a technologist I would say that many improvements have been made in the last three years. We have successfully addressed all the apprehensions the Indian Air Force (IAF) had.
Today there are no serious technology challenges ahead. This year, we have test-flown the Tejas from IAF bases like Jaisalmer, Uttarlai, Jamnagar and Gwalior. In all these places, we operated the aircraft ourselves, while the IAF watched. We demonstrated that we could turn around the same aircraft after a gap of an hour or so. On occasions, one Tejas did three sorties a day. The IAF technicians and maintenance officers eventually told us that they now see an aircraft that is reliable enough for combat operations.
Q. Is the Tejas Mark I ready for war?
From the standpoint of operational preparedness, Initial Operational Clearance provides the capability of firing missiles, dropping laser guided bombs, conventional bombs and practice bombs. These weapons have been fired with sensors --- inertial navigation systems, and radar and laser systems. That show the Tejas performs well as an integrated weapons platform.
Q. But there are many weapons systems that are still not fitted?
All that is pending is the integration of the “beyond visual range”, or BVR, missile. We are obtaining a BVR missile from Israel for integration and demonstration.
Inflight refuelling capability, and the integration of a BVR missile and a gun are capabilities that will be achieved before the Tejas gets Final Operation Clearance. The IOC clearance, according to conventions world wide, are this --- conventional and guided bombs and close combat missiles.
Q. Given the long time that IOC has taken, what would you say is a realistic date for getting FOC?
I’m targeting FOC for end-2014. This is realistic because the design processes are not starting now. The inflight refuelling system was ordered a year ago. Design and development for this has been on-going and some of the work is already half completed. So I am confident.
Q Is the Tejas going to be a hangar queen” or is it easy to maintain?
I’m glad that the IAF has pushed us to ensure that this aircraft is maintenance friendly. We have had IAF technicians and officers on the shop floor with us when we prepare the aircraft for sorties. They watch for difficulties in maintenance. Based on their suggestions, which they convey to us through “Requests for Action”, we have carried out some 200 design corrections to make the Tejas more maintenance friendly. We are trying to reduce the “maintenance man-hours per flight-hour”.
This exercise has been done over the last three years and the IAF now believes that Tejas is maintenance friendly. Notwithstanding that, Maintenance Evaluation Trials will be carried out in a couple of months. I always say that when we buy a car, we don’t just want it to go at 140 kmph. More importantly, we want it to be available to us everyday.
Q. You’ve set ambitious timelines for the Tejas Mark II. Are they unrealistic?
We are close to finalizing the engine contract with General Electric, the chosen vendor. By the first quarter of the next year, i.e. March 2014, the preliminary design would have been frozen. Somewhere in 2018, the Mark II will be ready for productionisation. This time there will be no prototypes. We will design for production. We have learned from the mistakes we made in the Tejas.
Besides, there is no ambiguity in the Mark II, as there was in the Mark I. There are not likely to be any changes in the engine, radar, missile, communications. The equipment is known.
Q. The navy is concerned at the lack of progress in the Naval LCA
The naval Tejas is a different challenge. We had incorrectly thought that deriving a naval variant from an air force variant would be easier. But, as we learnt, it is the other way round.
We began with an undercarriage built for the air force Tejas. But landing on an aircraft carrier involves a much higher descent rate, which means the landing gear must be much stronger. When the aircraft catches the arrestor hook, the deceleration is enormous. When we did the load analysis, the whole bottom gear had to be re-engineered.
I will not hesitate to say today that deriving a naval variant from an air force variant of the Tejas is a sub-optimal solution. But, having learnt this, the Mark II will be an optimal solution. We will not do any derivative from the air force version. It will be, ab initio, a naval design.
Q. After the Tejas, ADA has been pushing hard for a programme to develop an Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA)? Where is that?
There is no approved programme yet, but the DRDO had approved a feasibility study which we have done. We are trying to arrive at the specifications of an engine that can give us supercruise (i.e. flying at supersonic without afterburner) but that kind of engine is not readily available. So we are deliberating on whether we should start designing an engine ab initio, or improve upon an existing engine. The IAF is very keen on the AMCA.
Q. How long would this take to enter service?
The AMCA would need 7-10 years for development, and so would enter production only in the mid-2020s. We would require time for building prototypes, stabilising the design, establishing a production line. We would gain expertise from the (Indo-Russian) Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) programme.
Q. Would we have both the AMCA and the FGFA?
These are two different classes of aircraft and there is no clash between them. The FGFA is a 30 tonne class heavy fighter with a long range. The AMCA would be a 20 tonne medium fighter, with an extreme range of about 1000 km.
Nor does it clash with the MMRCA. The Rafale is an early-1990s design. It does not fall into the 5th generation in terms of stealth characteristics. So the air force sees a place for the AMCA in its future fleet.