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Tejas Mark-I Fails to Meet IAF Criteria

Issue: 06-2015By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)Photo(s): By Anoop Kamath/SP Guide Pubns

India’s light combat aircraft (LCA) Tejas project that was launched over three decades ago has come under severe criticism from the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG). The government’s watchdog has pointed out that the Mark-I version of the Tejas has 53 significant shortfalls which have reduced its operational capabilities and survivability. In a report tabled in Parliament the audit agency said that the Indian Air Force (IAF) would be constrained to induct the LCA without availability of a trainer version thereby adversely impacting pilot training. The CAG noted that it was due to the delay in the LCA project that IAF had to go for alternative measures such as upgrading its MiG-Bis, MiG-29, Jaguar and Mirage aircraft at a cost of Rs. 20,037 crore and postpone the phasing out of MiG-21 fleet.

As early as in 1969, the Indian Government had accepted recommendations of the Aeronautics Committee that the Indian aerospace major and defence public sector undertaking (DPSU), the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) be tasked to develop a supersonic combat aircraft for the IAF. Such an aircraft was required to replace the fleet of MiG-21 aircraft whose induction had begun in the mid-1960s and had since been the mainstay of the combat fleet of the IAF. As per the IAF’s Long Term Re-Equipment Plan of 1981, by mid-1990s, bulk of the MiG-21 fleet would be approaching the end of its service life and would have to be replaced. Failure to do so would lead to serious deficiencies in the operational capability of the IAF.

In the early 1970s, HAL had initiated the process of the development of an indigenous multi-role fighter aircraft based on the Air Staff Requirements (ASR) obtained from the IAF. Design studies were completed by HAL in 1975; but for some reason, the project did not move forward and ended up being consigned to cold storage for some time.

The LCA project was revived when it was accorded formal sanction by the government in 1983 with the project cost then estimated at Rs. 560 crore. However, the responsibility for design was taken away from HAL and assigned to the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) created in 1984. This institution was dedicated for the design of the LCA and management of the project. Whether the decision to create an agency outside HAL for the design of the aircraft and the management of the project was the right one, has often been a subject of debate in professional circles. For initial development of the aircraft, the power plant selected was the F-404 from the US engine manufacturer General Electric. As per the IAF, the engine is under-powered, a problem that continues to plague the Tejas Mk-I.

Simultaneously, the government sanctioned a project for the development of an engine for the aircraft. Named as ‘Kaveri’, this indigenous power plant was to be developed by Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE), a laboratory under the Defence Research and Development Organisation located at Bengaluru. Despite years of effort and colossal investments, the project failed miserably and has been abandoned.

The first prototype designated as Technology Demonstrator-1 undertook its maiden flight on January 4, 2001, nearly 18 years after the originally planned schedule for first flight in April 1990. This event was witnessed by the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who christened the platform as ‘Tejas’. On January 10, 2011, a decade later, the Tejas was granted initial operational clearance (IOC). However, this was not acceptable to the IAF as the aircraft suffered from a number of deficiencies that limited weaponisation as well as combat performance. The aircraft was granted IOC for the second time in December 2013 which was acceptable to the IAF. The project had lagged behind by eight years as IOC was originally scheduled for 2005. The IAF has ordered a total of 40 aircraft in IOC configuration. Despite the lapse of over 32 years since to project was given the formal go-ahead by the government, the time line for the grant of final operational clearance (FOC) which was originally scheduled for 2008, cannot as yet be predicted with any degree of certainty.

Although the IAF is moving ahead to set up two squadrons with the IOC version of the Tejas Mk-I, the aircraft falls short of the expectations of the IAF as also of the stipulations in the ASR. Apart from being overweight and under-powered on account of which the aircraft is unable to achieve the required maximum air speed. The internal fuel capacity of the aircraft is lower than required, lacks fuel system protection as well as protection from ground fire for the pilot. Its electronic warfare capability is questionable as it lacks the self-protection jammer surprisingly on account of the fact that there is no space to install this equipment. Also, the performance of the radar warning receiver and of the countermeasure dispensing system fitted on the aircraft have been questionable. The CAG has observed that the indigenous content is only 35 per cent as against the claimed level of 70 per cent. Also, HAL has not been moving fast enough to set up the production facility to deliver the first batch of 40 aircraft in a respectable time frame. Given the production capability currently available, the IAF may take as much as a decade to equip the first two squadrons.