State-owned aerospace major Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has completed production of the 16th Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), Tejas, as per the target till March 31, 2019. HAL has orders for 40 LCA Tejas of which 16 are in the Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) configuration, 16 more in the Final Operational Clearance (FOC) configuration and eight in trainer versions. The aircraft was inducted into no. 45 Squadron of the Indian Air Force, called ‘Flying Daggers’, on July 1, 2016. The production of the LCAs had commenced in 2014 with a current production capacity of eight aircraft per annum. A second production line was established at the Aircraft Division Bangalore Complex. This division is currently undertaking structural and assembly.
The LCA Tejas is a supersonic, single-engine, single-seat, multirole, light-weight combat aircraft developed by the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) in collaboration with HAL. The project to develop this indigenous platform was initiated in 1983; but the first series production aircraft was handed over by the Minister of Defence Manohar Parrikar to the IAF at a ceremony at HAL in mid-January 2015. Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, the then Chief of the Air Staff received the documents of the aircraft in the presence of Dr R.K. Tyagi, Chairman HAL. However, the first LCA Tejas was inducted into squadron service with the IAF in July 2016, good 33 years after the launch of the project to develop this platform.
Incidentally, this does not compare favourably with the performance of HAL in the past as the Indian aerospace major had embarked on the development of an indigenous supersonic aircraft for the IAF in 1956 under the guidance of Dr Kurt Tank, a renowned designer of fighter aircraft from Germany. The new platform christened as the Hindustan Fighter (HF) 24, Marut, entered service with the IAF in 1967, just 11 years after the launch of the project. Unfortunately, as the Marut that was equipped with the Orpheus engine instead of a far better engine as planned initially, it turned out to be badly underpowered and hence it failed to meet with the requirement of the IAF. The Marut fleet was retired from service a few years after the Indo-Pak war of 1971.
Since the handing over of the first LCA Tejas to the IAF in July 2016, with the capacity of producing eight aircraft per year, as of date, HAL has been able to manufacture enough platforms to equip just one squadron and that too without Final Operational Clearance. With the commissioning of the second production line, HAL hopes to double the rate or production from eight aircraft per year to 16. But the extremely low rate of production of the LCA Tejas so far has indeed been very disconcerting for the IAF which is facing a serious problem with its fleet of combat aircraft that is already down to 30 squadrons as against an authorised strength of 42. This is the minimum combat force level the IAF would need to cope with war on both the Western and Northern fronts simultaneously should such a situation arise. The problem of shortages in the combat fleet and the consequent erosion of operational edge has been further aggravated by the failure of efforts by the IAF to induct 126 Rafale medium multi-role combat aircraft through a project initiated in the year 2002. Even the emergency procurement of 36 Rafale jets has regrettably degenerated into an ugly political slugfest, casting an ominous shadow on the deal. Hopefully, this will come to an end with the announcement of the results of the national election on May 23 this year.
As of now, the combat fleet of the IAF is deficient of around 240 aircraft and with the retirement from service of some of the older fleets of Russian origin, the alarming rate at which fighter aircraft of the IAF have been falling out of the sky in the recent past and despite the induction of 36 Rafale jets, 18 additional Su-30 MKI from HAL and the offer of 21 MiG-29 fighters from Russia, by 2025, the strength of the combat fleet in the IAF will still be hovering around 27 squadrons. By the year 2025, the deficiency in the combat fleet is thus set to increase to 300 aircraft which will have a crippling effect on operational capability of the IAF. As the process of acquisition of aircraft from foreign sources is becoming an increasingly complex and frustrating exercise as evident in the experience of the IAF over the last 15 years. Even in the most recent attempt to scout for a reputed foreign vendor to manufacture 114 single or twin-engine fighter aircraft locally under the ‘Make in India’ scheme, the response from vendors to the Request for Information was received in the first week of July last year. Nine months have passed, but the Request for Proposal or the tender is yet to be issued. As to when this will happen, is shrouded in uncertainty.
In the situation that has been prevailing over the last decade or so, it should be obvious that the easiest solution to the woes of the combat fleet of the IAF lies in the LCA Tejas. But for this, the IAF will have to freeze the design after a realistic assessment of the capability of HAL instead of adding on enhancements at random and frequently. The IAF will then be in a position to set the timelines in which the HAL would have to deliver.