Hype vs Reality

Will the Tejas be able to make an impact in the discerning global market where the platform will be subjected to intense scrutiny by aerospace professionals from across the world?

Issue: 1 / 2016By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)Photo(s): By DRP

The Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas Mk I, pride of the Indian aerospace industry, is participating in Bahrain International Air Show (BIAS) 2016, the International Air Show being held at the Airbase in Sakhir in Bahrain from January 21 to 23 this year. The two aircraft participating in the airshow are the Limited Series Production 3 (LSP 3) and LSP 4. One of these two aircraft will be carrying out the flying display and the other will be on static display. On standby at Bengaluru will be the SP 1 that was registered on the inventory of the Indian Air Force (IAF) precisely a year ago.

The Tejas has been participating on a regular basis in air displays in the Aero India International Air Show held every two years at the Air Force Station Yelahanka on the northern outskirts of Bengaluru. The LCA Tejas has been on static display at Bahrain in 2014. However, this is the first time that the aircraft will be participating in a flying display beyond the shores of the nation. Apart from the fact that positioning two aircraft at Bahrain along with the required manpower, spares and support equipment, will be a logistical exercise of extreme complexity, it will undoubtedly entail careful planning, herculean effort and heavy expenditure. However, the Indian aerospace industry has twin objectives in its vision to be achieved through showcasing the LCA Tejas Mk I at BIAS 2016. Firstly, its debut at Bahrain will provide it an opportunity to the Indian aerospace industry to transmit a clear message to the global market that it has developed the capability to build a modern combat aircraft. Secondly, through participation in an international airshow, the Indian aerospace industry will be able to explore the potential for markets abroad for the Tejas and hopefully compete with the JF-17 Thunder manufactured by Pakistan Aeronautical Complex that appears to have stolen a march over the Tejas. But will the Tejas be able to make an impact in the discerning global market where the platform will be subjected to intense scrutiny by aerospace professionals from across the world?

It is widely known that it took the Indian aerospace industry more than three decades to hand over the first LCA Tejas Mk I to the IAF. Its history of development is marked by design and performance problems, technical glitches as well as missed deadlines. Initially, two squadrons of the aircraft were planned to be inducted by 2010. However, the aircraft has just about managed to obtain initial operational clearance (IOC) and that too after the second attempt, the first not being acceptable to the IAF. Induction of the platform into the IAF commenced in the beginning of last year and the IAF placed an initial order for 40 of the IOC II configuration. With the current rate of production of four to six aircraft per year, it would have taken up to a decade for the delivery of 40 aircraft to be completed. Fortunately, the government has sanctioned creation of infrastructure to progressively ramp up production to 16 aircraft per year.

After several procrastinations, the final operational clearance (FOC) is now expected to be obtained by the middle of the current year provided there are no further technical issues. Unfortunately, in May last year there was another setback when the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) submitted a scathing report to the government that was tabled in the Parliament. The report listed 53 shortcomings in the LCA Tejas Mk I that would severely limit its operational capability. The report by the CAG implied that the platform was not yet suitable for induction into the IAF as an operational asset.

Meanwhile, the IAF is confronted with a serious dilemma as the strength of its combat fleet is dwindling rapidly and attempts at inducting replacements in the numbers required over the last decade or so have failed miserably. There appears to be no option before the IAF but to induct the LCA Tejas in larger numbers. The IAF has been offered a marginally improved version dubbed as the LCA Tejas Mk IA. It is understood that the IAF has opted to enhance the order to 120 including 100 of the LCA Tejas Mk IA version. With the second production line being established, the Indian aerospace major the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) hopes to enhance the rate of production to 16 per year.

Unless the projected rate of production of the Tejas Mk IA is enhanced, the aircraft is inducted into the IAF in sizeable numbers and the reputation of the platform is established as a proven and capable operational platform, its debut at BIAS 2016 is not likely to be of much help in the efforts of the Indian aerospace industry to penetrate the global market.