Need to Shift Focus

Unless the Indian aerospace industry shifts focus decisively from mere image projection to enhancing the rate of production substantially, the LCA Tejas will not be able to meet the aspirations of the IAF

Issue: 2 / 2017By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)Photo(s): By Illustration: Anoop Kamath

The Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas, designed and developed by the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) under the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and manufactured by the Indian aerospace major the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), is planned to be on both static and flying display at the prestigious Aero India International Air Show 2017 in Yelahanka from February 14 to 18. No. 45 Squadron ‘Flying Daggers’ are pitching in three aircraft for the event. Two of these, the Series Production 1 (SP-1) and SP-2, will be putting up an aerobatic display while the trainer version of the LCA Tejas with the squadron will be on static display. HAL is working feverishly to roll out the SP-4 for it to participate in the air show.

The programme to develop the LCA Tejas was launched by the DRDO in 1983. The process of development of this indigenous combat platform has been fraught with problems caused to a large extent by the sanctions imposed on India by the US Government in the wake of nuclear test. Consequently, the US aerospace majors, who were to assist in the development of the aircraft, were compelled to withdraw support. Plagued with a host of other problems, the net result was that the first prototype, the Technology Demonstrator 1 of the LCA, could undertake its maiden flight only 18 years later on January 4, 2001.

The LCA project was the second one for the Indian aerospace industry, the first being the development of the HF-24 Marut, the airframe of which was designed to fly at Mach 2. The HF-24 Marut project had begun in 1956 with assistance from the famous German designer Dr Kurt Tank who was credited with the design of some highly successful combat aircraft flown by the Luftwaffe during World War II. The first prototype of the HF-24 Marut undertook its maiden flight only five years later in 1961 and the aircraft was inducted into the Indian Air Force (IAF) in 1964. The time period between commencement of design to service entry was just eight years. As against the experience with the induction of the HF-24 Marut in the decade of the 1950s, the long wait for 33 years for service entry of the LCA Tejas and that too with just two aircraft, was for the IAF, a cause for considerable anxiety and sometimes frustration.

From the design board to flight and finally entry into squadron service, the journey for the LCA Tejas has undoubtedly been long and arduous. However, the Indian aerospace industry has never been found wanting when it came to public display of the LCA Tejas with the aim of projecting the platform as a potent fighter aircraft that has the potential to address the disturbing erosion of the combat fleet of the IAF. The aircraft has been showcased at Aero India air show since its second edition in December 1998. It has also been a part of the flypast at Air Force Day parades initially at Air Force Station Palam and later at Air Force Station Hindon. The LCA Tejas has also been a part of air exercises related to Fire Power Demonstration such as Exercise Iron Fist. But the high point in the series of exercises for image projection was the showcasing of the platform at the International Airshow at Bahrain. It was at this venue that this fourth-generation-plus platform with sophisticated state-of-the-art features such as glass cockpit, fly-by-wire controls, multi-mode radar, integrated digital avionics system as well as several other innovations, was showcased to potential customers.

Commenting on the induction of the LCA Tejas into the IAF, the Minister of Defence Manohar Parrikar said: “This is a moment of national pride as the indigenously developed Tejas fighter jet inducted into the IAF will take our air strength to new heights.”

The Minister of Defence Parrikar went on to say: “The Tejas is as good as the Rafale fighter jet from Dassault of France and is comparable to other fighter aircraft across the world”. In fact it is believed that Pakistan withdrew participation by their JF-17 Thunder, a single-engine, third-generation combat aircraft built in Pakistan in collaboration with the Chinese aerospace industry. This was done to obviate embarrassment on account of the possibility of the international market evaluating the JF-17 Thunder against the LCA Tejas.

While the exercise at imageprojection for the LCA Tejas has been eminently successful, unless the Indian aerospace industry shifts focus decisively from mere image projection to enhancing the rate of production substantially, the LCA Tejas will not be able to meet the aspirations of the IAF to restore its operational edge with the help of this indigenous platform, with the urgency the situation demands.