The success of the LCA Tejas is a national requirement and institutional ego, arrogance and bureaucratic red-tapism should not be allowed to fail it
On July 18 this year, India witnessed the latest MiG-21 crash in Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh, killing the pilot. The aircraft had got airborne from Air Force Station Pathankot. This is the latest accident of the aircraft, dubbed as the “flying coffin”, which was the backbone of the Indian Air Force (IAF) for almost three decades. This fighter aircraft of Russian origin has given more than its due share to India. In spite of a large number of accidents, it is still loved by the pilots of the IAF that have flown this aircraft. However, the MiG-21 fleet needs immediate replacement; but unfortunately, on account of the inability of the IAF to procure its replacement, it is being used jeopardising the lives of pilots and the overall operational capability of the combat fleet of the IAF.
DEVELOPMENT WOES OF THE LCA TEJAS
For some time now, the IAF has been in a situation where it has had multiple options for the procurement of a fourth-generation combat aircraft; but has not been able to lock on to any one of these. The indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas was supposed to replace, the MiG-21, but it seems that the IAF is not very happy with this platform. Reportedly, the IAF is going to manage the whole of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited’s (HAL) fixed-wing aircraft production, which would obviously include the LCA Tejas project.
The LCA Tejas is still to get its Final Operational Clearance (FOC), which is a must before its full-fledged operationalisation in the IAF. According to the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report of 2015, “The LCA Tejas Mark-I achieved Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) in December 2013 with 53 waivers/concessions”. Since then, the LCA Tejas has completed several of the required tests for FOC including the firing of Air-to-Air Beyond Visible Range Missile (BVR). This was achieved on April 27, 2018 from the firing range off the coast of Goa after an exhaustive study of the separation characteristics and plume envelope of the missile.”
In a statement on April 28, 2018, Ministry of Defence (MoD) said “Integration of Derby, a BVR-class missile, is one of the major objectives of FOC for the LCA Tejas.”
“Based on the successful integration and demonstration, the Regional Centre for Military Airworthiness (RCMA), a unit of DRDO, has cleared the series production the aircraft for Number 45 Squadron that are to be equipped with Derby operational capability. The LCA Tejas has successfully completed a series of captive flight trials to clear Derby for the full operational capability in the entire FOC envelope. In the past, the LCA Tejas has qualified for the armaments and missile release related trials,” it added. The IAF had envisaged induction of 200 LCA Tejas aircraft including 20 of the trainer version to equip some 11 squadrons.
On August 06 this year, the government in Parliament reiterated that “Contract for 20 LCA Tejas with IOC was signed on March 31, 2006 to be completed by December 2011 and contract for 20 aircraft with FOC was signed on December 23, 2010 to be completed by 2016.” Till date, HAL has delivered to the IAF only nine aircraft in IOC configuration.
Speaking on the price of the aircraft, the government said, “The value of IOC contract for 20 LCA Tejas aircraft is 2701.70 crore (revised to 2812.91 crore). Amendment in IOC contract has been sought for 5362.17 crore as part of Change Order on account of changes in build standards for integration entailing procurement of additional Line Replaceable Units (LRUs), raw materials, composite materials, bought out items, consumables and tooling.”
“The value of FOC contract for 20 LCA Tejas aircraft is 5989.39 crore,” the government added. In terms of per aircraft cost, the LCA Tejas is not a cheaper aircraft; but the additional cost should be viewed in terms of investment in developing the required capability.
“IAF supports the LCA and plans to induct Tejas including 83 LCA Mk-1A and 108 LCA Mk-II” —Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa
The MoD has already cleared the acquisition of 83 LCA Tejas Mk1A aircraft with enhanced capabilities with Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) Radar, Beyond Visual Range (BVR) Missile, Self-Protection Jammer (SPJ) and Air-to-Air Refuelling (AAR) for which quotation has been submitted by HAL.” The total number of LCA Tejas Mk I and IA cleared for induction into the IAF is 123.
The sad part of the story is that with delay in development of the aircraft, the IAF also changed its requirement leading to further delay. Reportedly, the IAF has recently asked for incorporation of Software Defined Radio (SDR) in the LCA Tejas. If the IAF had stuck to its initial requirement, the LCA Tejas would have joined its fleet in the required numbers by now. The requirements projected later by the IAF could have been incorporated through a planned upgrade programme. The LCA Tejas programme is a testimony of the inability of IAF to fully understand the product development cycle.
This is even more glaring if we look at the way the IAF have been upgrading and flying five-decade-old fleets Mig-21 and Mig-27 aircraft. If these third-generation fighters can be upgraded for modern warfare, through replacement of their systems and weapons with modern avionics and missiles, then what was the reason for changing the specifications of the LCA Tejas? Some of the capability that is currently asked for could have been integrated into the initial version of the aircraft. Until a product goes into the limited series production, many of its development issues cannot be sorted out. This is the reason why aircraft development programmes the world over, begin with limited series production.
THE SINO-PAK JF-17 THUNDER
On the other hand, the JF-17 Thunder, a third-generation fighter aircraft produced in Pakistan through a joint venture with China, is entering into block-3 production. When the JF-17 entered into service, it was compared with the LCA Tejas and was described as being much inferior. But Pakistan has improved the aircraft block by block keeping in mind the financial, technological and industrial limitation of the country. The development cost of an in-production aircraft is cheaper than an under-development aircraft and also it take lesser time.
It is high time the vintage fleet of the MiGs should be retired from service and the IAF should avoid making any new demand from the development agencies. Finalisation of the 83 LCA Tejas Mk1A should be completed in the minimum time so that HAL is able to start the production with substantial orders in hand. The success of the LCA Tejas is a national requirement and institutional ego, arrogance and bureaucratic red-tapism should not be allowed to fail it. If Pakistan and China can understand and overcome the challenges of military aviation, then so can we.