Beyond LCA Tejas Mk 1

Issue: 1 / 2014By Air Marshal (Retd) B.K. PandeyPhoto(s): By DRDO, IAF

In conformity with the mantra of indigenisation, the LCA Tejas MK 1, a product of the Indian aerospace industry, is available to the IAF more readily and at much lower cost as compared to the fancy and far more expensive platforms from foreign sources

After 30 years of effort by the Indian aerospace industry, an investment of Rs. 25,000 crore by the government and constant hounding by the Indian Air Force (IAF), the light combat aircraft (LCA) Tejas has been able to achieve initial operational clearance (IOC) on December 20, 2013. The platform has been designated as the Mk 1. However, a notable and somewhat tragic deficiency that to an extent subdues the glory of this achievement, is the failure on the part of the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE), an agency under the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), to successfully design and produce the indigenous Kaveri engine for LCA Tejas Mk 1 despite over two decades of effort and staggering levels of investment. In the case of the LCA Mk 1 fleet, the IAF will have no option but to continue to depend on a foreign source for the upkeep and replacement of the power plant which represents the heart of the aircraft.

On the occasion of the formal grant of IOC for the LCA Tejas on December 20, 2013, the Minister of Defence A.K. Antony said, “Don’t think LCA programme is complete. IOC is only the semi-final. The final is yet to come. If you can come from qualifying rounds up to semi-finals, to get to finals will be easy. I asked P.S. Subramanyam, Director of the Aeronautical Development Agency, whether he is ready for final operational clearance of the aircraft by December 2014. He said that he was ready. The success is not 100 per cent, but we are nearing success.”

The IAF in the meanwhile, has placed orders for 40 LCA Tejas Mk 1 with which it plans to raise two squadrons to be located at the Air Force base at Sulur near Coimbatore in South India, at least initially. Given the initial rate of production at eight aircraft annually which is admittedly slow by any standard, it may take up to five years after the grant of final operational clearance (FOC) for the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) to complete delivery against the initial order for 40 aircraft. It is learnt that HAL plans to eventually ramp up the rate of production to 16 aircraft per year. Even then, the IAF can only hope to see the LCA Tejas Mk 1 fleet of two squadrons operational by the end of this decade at the earliest. Even while the immediate priority for the LCA Tejas Mk 1 programme is now focussed on obtaining FOC by the end of the year, the Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne was looking ahead when in his address to the gathering on December 20, 2013, he said, “As the programme gathers pace, we must remember that the final goal for all of us is not just the LCA Tejas Mk 1, but the LCA Tejas Mk 2. While the Indian Air Force will induct the Tejas LCA Mk 1, a demand for the LCA Tejas Mk 2 has already been raised, which the DRDO is working on. The LCA Tejas Mk 2 will have a better engine with higher thrust and improved radar system.” It is obvious from the above that the IAF is not contemplating on acquiring more than the initial batch of 40 LCA Tejas Mk 1 for which orders have already been placed with HAL. Instead, as per reports, the IAF plans to induct 80 (four squadrons) of the LCA Tejas Mk 2. To what extent is this course of action practicable under the prevailing uncertainty shrouding fresh inductions of combat aircraft and whether this decision by the Air Headquarters is in the best interest of the IAF, is a matter of debate.

As the IAF is seeking a higher thrust-to-weight ratio for this indigenous combat platform, the LCA Tejas Mk 2 version is to be fitted with a different engine that delivers higher thrust as compared to the F404. The new engine selected is the more powerful F414, once again from GE. It is understood that a contract with the American manufacturer for the supply 99 F414 engines has already been concluded. Although the external dimensions i.e. length and diameter of the F414 is identical to those of the F404, the former is heavier by 163 lbs, has a thrust rating that is higher than that of the F404 by 2,000 lb dry and 4,300 lb with afterburner and had a thrust-to-weight ratio of 9:1 as against 7.8:1of the F404. The F414 being capable of delivering significantly higher thrust will in all likelihood necessitate redesign of the air intake. Also, the increase in all up weight due to higher weight of the new engine and the consequent design changes required in the airframe, would in all probability, result in a shift in the position of the centre of gravity of the aircraft. This would have implications on stability and control of the aircraft as well as on its handling characteristics over the entire operating envelope. There can therefore be no short route to operational clearance of the LCA Tejas Mk 2 as is being envisaged by the powers that be as the newly developed prototypes of the LCA Tejas Mk 2 would practically be a new aeroplane and hence would have to be put through an elaborate process of evaluation and testing. The LCA Tejas Mk 2 cannot thus be regarded and treated as merely an upgrade of the LCA Tejas Mk 1. Given the experience with the development of the LCA Tejas Mk 1, the time frame for the development of the LCA Tejas Mk 2 version cannot be predicted with any degree of certainty. The only thing that can be stated without a shred of doubt is that the LCA Tejas Mk 2 will not be a reality anytime soon. Given the complexities of an aircraft development project further complicated by tardy decision-making within the government and the defence public sector undertakings (DPSUs), and in this case the HAL; it could well take another 15-20 years to have the LCA Tejas Mk 2 operational in the IAF.

The combat fleet of the IAF is already down to 34 as against the newly authorised level of 42 squadrons. With the retirement by 2017 as planned, of the 250 odd MiG-21 still on the inventory of the IAF, followed by the phasing out of the MiG-27 aircraft, the strength of combat squadrons in the IAF will only reduce to well under 20 squadrons. This drastic erosion in operational potential will be only partly alleviated by the induction of the remaining four squadrons of Su-30MKI, unless further orders are placed beyond the current 272. The time frame for the finalisation of contract for 126 Dassault Rafale medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) continues to remain uncertain. The uncertainty in the Indo-Russian fifth-generation combat aircraft (FGFA) project is also similar in respect of time frame for its induction into the IAF. In both cases, cost escalation may eventually emerge as a formidable impediment and how the next government will approach the problem, cannot be postulated at this point in time. All these factors will create new dilemmas for planners at the Air Headquarters responsible for the restoration of the combat fleet of the IAF. It is also highly unlikely that the LCA Tejas Mk 2 will be ready in time to replace the retiring MiG-21 fleet. It would therefore not be prudent of the IAF to bank entirely on the LCA Tejas Mk 2 to fill the gap in the strength of combat squadrons.

One ready solution to arrest the decline in the combat potential of the IAF is to consider replacement of the MiG-21 fleet with the LCA Mk 1, for which the programme was conceived in the first place. Former Chief Test Pilot for the LCA Tejas programme, Air Commodore Parvez Khokhar who was intimately associated with the development of this aircraft and has considerable experience on this platform, had this to share, “In my view, the LCA Tejas Mk 1 in many ways is far superior to the MiG-21 that the IAF plans to retire by 2018. In my assessment, in some respects, performance of the LCA Tejas Mk 1 is better than that of the Mirage 2000 which is currently on the inventory of the IAF. As the MiG-21 fleet will be reaching the end of its total technical life in a few years and the IAF will have no option but to retire this fleet, it will be prudent on the part of the IAF to induct the LCA Mk 1 in numbers larger than currently ordered to replace the MiG-21.” Test pilots of the IAF, who collectively have flown nearly 2,500 sorties on the LCA Tejas Mk 1, do not hesitate for a moment to express full confidence in this platform.

But the most potent argument in favour of inducting the LCA Tejas Mk 1 into the IAF in numbers large enough to sustain the operational potential of the IAF is the fact that this platform is a product of the Indian aerospace industry, is available to the IAF more readily and at much lower cost as compared to the fancy and far more expensive platforms from foreign sources. This will also be in conformity with the mantra of indigenisation.