Need to Fast Track the Induction of Tejas
#1484 461 December 11, 2015 By Radhakrishna Rao
Abstract: The Indian Air Force(IAF) is exploring all the options to boost its depleting squadron strength and meet its operational requirements in a time bound and cost effective manner. With the much debated Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft (MMRCA)tender being diluted to the outright, off the shelf purchase of 36 Rafale aircraft , the only feasible option open to IAF seems to be the induction of the home grown Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) in sufficiently large numbers.
With the ruling dispensation in New Delhi clearly set against the import of fighter aircraft on a scale that would immediately mitigate the serious problem of squadron depletion haunting the eight decades plus old Indian Air Force (IAF), the only way out of the impasse seems to be fast-tracking the induction of the home grown, fourth generation LCATejas.The dilution of the scope of MMRCA-- once described as the mother of all defence deals—to the outright, off-the-shelf acquisition of 36 Rafale fighters from France has the IAF worried. For in its original avatar, MMRCA tender envisaged the acquisition of 126 fighters with initial 18 aircraft to be supplied in a flyway condition by the vendor bagging the contract and remaining to be assembled at the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited(HAL). The IAF has however left none in doubt that it needs more than 36 multi role medium combat aircraft. But in the ultimate analysis,the concern in IAF is that it may be saddled with the problem of maintaining a variety of squadrons of fighters of different category and configuration, imposing a strain on its limited budget.
Clearly and apparently, the Indian Defence Ministry wants the IAF to go in for Tejas in sufficiently large numbers and encourage the domestic aeronautical industry in a big way in line with the Make in India policy of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.One of the key objectives of the revised defence procurement policy of the Indian government is to reduce imports by a substantial extent and help end India’s not so pleasant reputation of being the largest importer of defence hardware in the world. On another front, the message that the Indian Defence Ministry wants to deliver to the services is that the fascination for the costly, glitzy imported defence hardware cannot go on forever.
Even so, there are divergent views on the feasibility of IAF falling back on Tejas which is notyet a fully proven fighter. Brushing aside the concern that Tejas will not fully well meet the requirements of IAF.K.Tamilmani, Director General (Aero-Systems)of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO)says “Almost all the problems will get solved in the current configuration of Tejas. There is always a scope for improvements.But there are no flight safety issues.” Incidentally, not a single accident or mishap was reported while Tejas was being subjected to a variety of qualification trials across different geographical regions of the country. However, the big worry is that whether HAL will be in a position to deliver Tejas to IAF in a time bound manner. In this context,HAL has said that it would be able to ramp up the production of Tejas to 16 a year by 2017 to meet the requirements of IAF. Even if in the immediate term, HAL manages to ramp up its production rate of 12 jets a year from the existing 8 per year,how far it will take care of the needs of the IAF, only time will tell.
And how fast India will be in position to acquire the Rafale fighter being bought under a government to government deal, there is no clue as yet. But the vexatious process of negotiations for the finalization of contract for buying 36 Rafale aircraft from Dassault aviation is expected to take its own time.For a number of tricky issues including the offset clause and technology transfer are too complex to be settled easily .As envisaged now and granting that everything moves as per the plan, the first of the Rafale fighter is not likely to land in India before 2017.Clealry and apparently, IAF would need at least six squadrons of aircraft similar to Rafale in capability to boost its operational requirements. As it is, the deal to acquire 36 Rafales was announced during April 2015 visit to Paris of the Indian Prime Minister.
IAF chief Arup Raha has nonetheless expressed concern over the delay in the schedule of inducting Tejas into the squadrons of IAF.HAL, which is being blamed by IAF for cost escalation and time overrun in delivering the fighting equipment, is planning to rope in industrial units to speed up the assembly and integration of Tejas. As it is, HALis keen on roping in about a dozen industrial units as Tier-1 and Tier-II suppliers. This strategy is seen as a supplement to HAL’s existing capability to increase production and match delivery schedule of Tejas.
“We are trying to get modules of LCA done by private industry. We have already sent RFI (Request for Information) to the industries interested in taking up this job,”said T SurvarnaRaju,Chairman,HAL.HAL would need to handhold the industrial units participating in this project till they attain maturity. In the quest to build the fighter squadron capability to 42 by 2017, the IAF is keen on inducting as many combat aircraft as possible without any delay. The two squadrons of Rafale, expected to carry a price tag of US$5-billion, will only partially make up the deficiencies faced by IAF in terms of combat aircraft capability.” I would certainly want more…at least six MMRCA squadrons,whether they are Rafale or some other alternative. But they have to be viable in terms of cost, transfer of technology and Make in India policy,” said Raha.
Certainly,the IAF would also be interested in inducting the twin-engine fifth generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) to be developed as a follow on to Tejas in sufficient numbers. But the project to develop AMCA with advanced features is yet to get mandatory sanction from the Government. This would make for the delay in the developmental schedule of AMCA.The twin engine AMCA fighter in 20 tonne class, for which a feasibility study has been completed, will not enter service until the middle of the next decade. Of course, AMCA will have features such as stealth, thrust vectoring, swing role, serpentine like air intake and use of radar absorbing composites.
The IAF has hinted that it is ready for the large scale induction of Tejas in its Mark One configuration subject to the condition that some of its features are upgraded.”We will induct them in the present shape in large numbers and not insist on the Mark-II version” said Raha. . The immediate priority is to set right the flaws in Tejas and induct it as early as possible.The development of Tejas Mark-II version for which the Government has sanctioned Rs.24310-million with a higher performance engine and multi-mode radaris expected to proceed a pace. So far, IAF is committed to inducting only six squadrons of Tejas—two squadrons of Mark-I version and four squadrons of Mark-II.Even so there is a feeling that in the context of Tejas-I meeting the immediate needs of IAF,the Mark-II version could be junked in preference to the proposed AMCA.
IAF sources point out that they are looking at two possible scenarios:of ordering more Rafale fighters or filling the gap with more indigenous Tejas and the proposed Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).All said and done,the IAF is looking at inducting Tejas-I with improvements in electronic warfare suite,refuelling capacity, better radar and better missiles. The present Mark-I version LCA was assessed by IAF to have57 deficiencies of which 45 have been addressed.Tejas is claimed to be superior in capability and performance to the Chinese JF-17 which is also in service with PAF(Pakistan Air Force).
Of course,Tejas has come in for criticism for cost escalation, time slippage and operational deficiencies.And there was also a motivated campaign to ground the Tejas project.But at the end of the day,Tejas has proven its flying capability and fighting punch. It may not be a “dream, fighter” that the IAF has been keen on operating. But after induction its performance can be improved in a phased manner with the feedback routinely made available by IAF. Tejas in, its current configuration, may not be in a position to meet the entire range of the operational requirements of IAF. But then as a tactical fighter, it could help IAF stay at the winning edge of the war. In fact, the Tejas development was taken up with a view to replace the fast ageing Mig-21 fighters forming a part of the frontline formation of IAF.The Mark-I version of Tejaswill have limited capability on account of the limitations imposed on by its power plant capable of generating less than 100-kN thrust.
Notwithstanding its deficiencies and shortcomings,Tejas stands out as a bold attempt byIndia to develop a state of the art fighter virtually from scratch and in the process help fill gap in Indian aeronautical technologydevelopment dynamics. The expertise acquired and infrastructure built during the process of developing Tejas could serve as a robust platform for building advanced futuristic fighter aircraft.Dr.Kota Harinarayana, who initiated the programme for the development of Tejas virtually from scratch as the Director of the Bangalore based Aeronautical Development (ADA) which was set up by DRDO to fast track the fighter development,says “Developing a fighter is far more complicated than developing a commercial aircraft. It takes time.For every fighter jet in any part of the world the time taken for research, development and production is around 25-30 years.I agree that it took a little longer but considering the fact that when the project was given a go ahead there were several sanctions,restriction and lack of infrastructure, I feel the attempt to develop the fighter aircraft was worth the while”
Meanwhile, there are plans to explore the export market for Tejas. Third world countries on the lookout for a cost efficient fighter aircraft are considered potential buyers. But then this fighter aircraft will have to prove its battle worthiness after its induction into IAF. Added to that a vibrant base for the maintenance and after sales service and spares supply would need to be created.
Views expressed by the Author are personal.
Press notes from HAL,DRDO and Indian Defence Ministry