Without radical changes in the organisation, HAL’s quest for making the nation self-reliant in production of combat aircraft may continue to remain a distant dream!
January 17, 2015, was a red letter day for the Indian aerospace industry when the first Series Production light combat aircraft (LCA) Tejas Mk-I was handed over at Bengaluru by the Minister of Defence, Manohar Parrikar, to Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, Chief of the Air Staff, Indian Air Force (IAF). This event which was a quiet affair away from media glare, has indeed flagged a historic milestone for the Indian aerospace industry. After the HF-24, the Tejas is the second supersonic fighter developed by the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). The IAF has plans to induct around 220 Tejas aircraft and the Indian Navy around 40.
The 32-year journey of the Tejas began in August 1983 when the project for the development of an LCA was initiated by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) supported by the government with sanction of Rs. 560 crore initially. In 1984, the Ministry of Defence established the Aeronautical Development Agency at Bengaluru to oversee the development of the LCA. Thereafter in mid-1993 full scale engineering development (FSED) was launched supported by a sanction of Rs. 2,188 crore to build two Technology Demonstrators. It took less than eight years for the maiden flight of the prototype that was undertaken on January 4, 2001. Thereafter FSED Phase-II was sanctioned for the design, development and flight testing of three prototypes and eight Limited Series Production Aircraft at a cost of Rs. 3,301.78 crore. In 2003, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the then Prime Minister, christened the LCA as ‘Tejas’ meaning ‘Radiance’ in Sanskrit.
The Tejas LCA Mk-I is perhaps the only aircraft in the world to have received initial operational clearance (IOC) twice, the first on January 10, 2011. This was not accepted by the IAF on account of a number of inadequacies. The second, i.e. IOC-2, was finally obtained on December 20, 2013. The final operational clearance (FOC) is expected by the yearend. However, given the frequent slippage in the programme, there is no certainty of the time frame indicated. For the present, the IAF has placed an initial order for 40 Tejas Mk-I to equip two squadrons. At the current rate of production of eight aircraft per year, a somewhat optimistic figure, it will take five years for HAL to supply 40 aircraft. HAL has plans to increase production rate to 16 platforms per year.
The LCA programme was initiated with the aim of replacing the MiG-21 family of aircraft that at that point in time was the mainstay of the combat fleet of the IAF. However, from the small number of LCA Tejas Mk-I ordered, it appears that the IAF is no longer considering the Tejas Mk-I as the pillar of strength of the fighter fleet primarily as it falls short in performance. The IAF is now looking at the LCA Tejas Mk-II that will have a more powerful engine, the GE-414 that has a thrust rating of 96 kN thrust as against the currently fitted GE 404 which generates 85 kN of thrust. However, as the installation of a new, heavier and more powerful engine will require redesigning of the air intake and the fuselage to cater for shift in the centre of gravity, the LCA Tejas Mk-II will practically be a new and possibly a next-generation aircraft far more capable than the Tejas Mk-I. It is therefore unlikely that the maiden flight of the Tejas Mk-II would be possible in 2018 as currently projected. In fact, with the wisdom of hindsight and the rate at which the project has progressed thus far, it would not be prudent for the IAF to bank on this optimistic forecast. It could even well be that the LCA Tejas Mk-II is outdated by the time it has achieved FOC and is ready for induction. The IAF must be prepared with other options to face this eventuality especially in the context of rapidly dwindling strength of its combat fleet.
While the Tejas development programme has taken over three decades and is yet some years away from completion, hopefully, the Indian aerospace industry would have derived some valuable lessons from the experience which would benefit future indigenous aircraft development programmes. But perhaps the delay in Tejas project could well be attributable to the malaise that afflicts most if not all public sector undertakings in India namely inefficiency, mediocrity, questionable work culture and lack of accountability. Under the present dispensation, it may not be easy to remove these deeply-entrenched maladies and transform the aerospace industry. It is therefore time to seriously consider privatisation of HAL as well as collaboration with successful global players. Without such radical changes in the organisation, HAL’s quest for making the nation self-reliant in production of new generation combat aircraft may continue to remain a distant dream!