The first Tejas fighter from HAL's production line, makes its first flight on September 30
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 2nd Oct 14
On Tuesday, September 30, when lunch was being served in Indian Air Force (IAF) messes across the country, a small prayer ceremony was held in a hangar in Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), Bangalore, around a fighter so new that it had not even had its first lick of paint.
Gathered around it were technologists and engineers who had built the first Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA) to roll off a new production line. Blessings were sought for the new aircraft and the pilot who would put it through its first flight, Air Commodore KA Muthana.
At 1.40 p.m., Muthana gunned the engines and, racing along the runway at 240 kilometres per hour, lifted effortlessly into the sky. After an hour-long flight, in which he put the Tejas through its basic manoeuvres and checked that it was handling well, aircraft and pilot were back on the ground.
“The Tejas now stands at a point where it will catapult into being one of the IAF’s frontline fighters”, said RK Tyagi, chief of HAL.
HAL has earlier built 16 Tejas fighters, but this one is different. Those 16 were prototypes, each hand-built to changing specifications as the Tejas was developed. This new fighter --- numbered Series Production–1, or SP-1 --- was built on a modern integration line, in which every fighter is identical to the one built before and after it.
On an earlier visit to the HAL’s new production line, Business Standard learned that Tejas production tolerances are as tight as 0.08 millimetres; and 0.2 millimetres for contoured (curved) parts.
Each new Tejas currently being built will cost the IAF Rs 130 crore, based on a 2006 sanction, making it the world’s cheapest contemporary fighter. The MoD is currently considering an HAL request to enhance the price to Rs 160 crore.
In addition, Rs 14,047 crore was sanctioned for developing the Tejas. This includes both the air force and navy versions of the fighter, in their current configurations and improved versions called the Tejas Mark II.
HAL’s new assembly line has been established at a cost of Rs 1,556 crore, with HAL paying half and the remaining shared between the IAF and navy.
HAL plans to build 8 Tejas fighters annually by 2015-16. Since the build time of a modern fighter is 2 – 2 ½ years, production and ordering of sub-systems must begin well in advance.
MoD sources say HAL has proposed that production output be doubled to 16 Tejas per year from 2016-17.
However, IAF caution stands in the way of HAL’s enthusiasm. The IAF has ordered just 40 Tejas fighters --- 20 built to current specifications, and another 20 built to a higher set of specifications that will be realised when the Tejas achieves “final operational clearance” (FOC), which is likely only by mid-2015.
Yet, without additional orders, the Tejas production line will shut down 3-4 years from now, when HAL would have delivered the 40 Tejas on order. The IAF says further orders will be placed only for the advanced Tejas Mark II.
Developing this will take some 5-7 years, since it involves extensive redesign. The General Electric F-404 engine that currently powers the Tejas will give way to a larger F-414 engine, requiring major re-engineering. The systems and avionics will also be redesigned; and then a test flight programme conducted.
While this happens, keeping the Tejas production line alive and benefiting from the economies of scale manufacture, would require additional IAF orders for the Tejas Mark I, or large export orders.
Says a top MoD official: “This is a test case for defence manufacture. We have a Defence Production Policy, a Defence Export Policy, and a Make in India slogan. But none of these are of use unless the IAF recognises the benefits of ordering more Tejas to keep the assembly line running.”
Pushpindar Singh, aerospace expert and publisher of Vayu magazine, underlines the IAF’s dilemma in ordering additional Tejas Mark I fighters: “If the additional fighters turn out to be sub-standard, the IAF will lose out. On the other hand, the Tejas will never turn out to be a world class fighter if the IAF does not order and operate it in numbers”.
Last December, then defence minister AK Antony had stated that about 200 Tejas would eventually be inducted. In addition to the six squadrons (108-120 fighters) committed by the IAF, the navy is expected to induct 40-50 fighters.
For now, the IAF is gearing up to operate the Tejas. Its maintenance teams and ground staff are training at HAL on maintaining and operating the fighter. Once familiar with the Tejas, they will constitute the IAF’s first Tejas squadron, which will be based at Sulur, near Coimbatore.