The Indian Air Force (IAF) may get control of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas project from Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) and Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA). The decision, likely to be announced by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) soon, is aimed at ending the blame-game over project delays, often being played out by the stakeholders of the flagship ‘Make in India’ programme. Military sources confirmed that the idea of an IAF officer being given command and control of the Tejas project has been floating around for some time now. As per a proposal being mooted, the IAF might depute an officer of the rank of Air Marshal to head the Tejas project.
It was in 1969 that the Indian Government accepted the recommendation by its Aeronautics Committee that HAL should design and develop a combat aircraft for the IAF. However, the project was formally initiated only in 1983 and the following year, the Government decided to create a new agency outside the HAL called ADA to manage the LCA programme. While the LCA Tejas is often described as a product of HAL, its development must be credited to ADA and a consortium of over 100 defence laboratories, industrial organisations and academic institutions with HAL being the principal contractor. As per a review committee formed in May 1989, infrastructure, facilities and technology with the Indian aerospace industry had advanced sufficiently to execute the project. The design of the LCA was finalised in 1990 as a tail-less delta-wing platform that would be highly manoeuvrable and will have a number of advanced features.
The LCA Tejas is the second supersonic fighter aircraft produced by the Indian aerospace industry, the first being the HF-24 Marut whose development was initiated in 1956. However, compared with the Marut which took just 11 years from design to service entry, it took the Indian aerospace industry 33 years to hand over the first LCA Tejas to the IAF. Today, the Indian aerospace industry has the capability to produce eight aircraft per year. At this low rate of production, HAL is unlikely to contribute significantly towards making up for the deficiency in the combat fleet of the IAF in a respectable time frame. The rate of production is planned to be doubled; but as to when this new milestone will be achieved, is difficult to predict with any degree of certainty. Also, the LCA Tejas Mk I is yet to obtain Final Operational Clearance and given the way deadlines have slipped, one can never be sure whether this will be achieved by the end of 2018 as scheduled.
The LCA project was conceived with the primary aim of developing an indigenous combat platform and building it in large numbers to replace the sizeable fleet of the different variants of the obsolescent family of MiG-21 aircraft with the IAF, the last of which would be phased out in a few years. The combat fleet of the IAF is already badly deficient with the strength of fighter squadrons down to 31 as against the authorised level of 42. With the current rate of production, the LCA Tejas may not be able to play any significant role in relieving the distress situation confronting the IAF which was pinning its hope on this indigenous platform. Other than 36 Rafale jets contracted for, no inductions are likely in the foreseeable future. Perhaps because the Indian aerospace industry has failed to deliver, the government is now considering the option of handing over the management of the LCA project to the IAF.
The IAF has been associated with the LCA project, but only since 2004, the year in which a Project Management Team (PMT) of the IAF headed a senior officer of the flying branch, was constituted and attached to ADA. The responsibility of the PMT is to monitor the progress of series production of the Tejas. Currently, the team is headed by an officer of the rank of Air Marshal. Of its own choice, the IAF had remained aloof from management role and responsibility with the LCA Tejas project since its launch. The LCA Tejas programme is now at an advanced stage and is afflicted by the ills that public sector undertakings in India suffer from. The ADA-HAL combination is an immensely complex organisation and the impediments to the progress of the LCA Tejas project are also infinitely complex. It would be unreasonable expect an Air Marshal of the IAF, a rank outsider, to be able to set everything right in the ADA-HAL complex and get the LCA Tejas project moving at a faster pace to fulfil the requirement of the IAF. The Indian aerospace industry, being a civilian organisation, is accustomed to functioning under civilian labour laws, strongly influenced by the culture of unionism and lack of accountability. A new leadership from a military background used to non-unionised and highly disciplined functioning, is unlikely to be accepted easily by the rank and file of the Indian aerospace industry and hence in all probability, is unlikely to get the level of support necessary to remove the malaise the organisation suffers from and actually be able to produce the desired results. Any significant improvement in the LCA Tejas project under the proposed leadership is therefore, highly unlikely. The only thing that may happen is that the responsibility for non-performance will shift to the IAF.