If time frame and quality criteria are not achievable by Indian aerospace industry then reliance on indigenous products will continue to remain a distant dream
On March 17, 2020, the first Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas, designed by the Aeronautical Development Agency and built by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) that has been awarded final operational clearance and designated as Series Production (SP) 21, flew a sortie of 40 minutes. Coming five years after induction of the first Tejas LCA Mk I into the Indian Air Force (IAF) without initial operational clearance, this latest mission has paved the way for the raising of the second squadron equipped with the Tejas LCA Mk I. The first squadron called the Flying Daggers equipped with LCA Tejas Mk I, is already operational at IAF Station Sulur. The successful flight by SP 21 is a landmark event that certainly has reignited hopes for the combat fleet of the IAF that has dwindled to the lowest ever strength of 29 squadrons as against 42 as authorised by the Government. The second squadron, numbered as 18, was operationalised by the Chief of the Air Staff on May 27, 2020.
The Indian aerospace industry has been successful in projecting a positive image of the LCA Tejas both in India and abroad. The aircraft has been showcased at international airshows where it has been successful in making a mark against the Chinese JF-17 being manufactured in Pakistan in collaboration with China. The JF-17 is being inducted in large numbers into the Pakistan Air Force and will be a significant contender for the IAF especially as its F-16 fleet is on the wane with Pakistan having lost support from the US during the tenure of President Donald Trump. Domestically, the LCA Tejas has been hailed by Ng Eng Hen, Minister of Defence, Singapore as “an excellent combat platform and extremely capable”. He flew a 30-minute sortie on the aircraft in July 2018 taking off from HAL airport and was the first foreign dignitary to do so. In September last year, Rajnath Singh, the Minister of Defence, flew a sortie in the LCA Tejas becoming the first Indian Defence Minister to fly in an indigenously built combat platform.
As on date, the combat fleet of the IAF is deficient of around 275 aircraft and with the retirement from service of the older fleets over the next few years, this figure will only increase. As of now, the IAF has indicated plans to buy 324 LCA Tejas to make up for the rapidly depleting strength of combat squadrons. This order for 324 aircraft which will help the IAF equip 18 combat squadrons, will be the largest order for the Indian aerospace industry under the ‘Make in India’ scheme of the Government. What is also of relevance is that this programme will involve a large number of companies from the private sector of the Indian aerospace industry providing this segment with the much needed boost for growth. The order for 324 indigenously built combat platforms will be a mix of LCA Tejas Mk I, IA and over 200 of the Mk II version which will have much better avionics and radar, enhanced fuel and weapons carrying capacity and more powerful engines. However, the LCA Tejas Mk II is nowhere close to being a reality as it is still on the drawing board.
So far, the IAF has placed firm orders for 40 LCA Tejas Mk I of which a little over 50 per cent have already been delivered by HAL. And now, procurement of 83 of the LCA Tejas Mk IA version has been cleared on March 17 this year by the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) headed by the Minister of Defence. The LCA Tejas Mk 1A has 43 improvements over the Mk I as per requirements projected by the IAF which include better weapon systems, such as long-range beyond visual range (BVR) missiles, advanced electronic warfare assets to jam enemy radars and missiles, in-flight refuelling capability and Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar.
Negotiations with HAL for 83 of the LCA Tejas Mk IA version for 38,000 crore, as against 56,000 crore quoted earlier, had been completed in February this year. This case has now been placed for clearance before the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) headed by the Prime Minister. After due clearance by the CCS, the IAF can hope that delivery by HAL against this order for 83 platforms, will commence in 2023. But the more important question is the date by which the delivery of 83 aircraft will be completed. Currently, HAL has the capability for produce eight aircraft per year. However, as per official pronouncements by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), this capability is to be doubled to 16 aircraft. If HAL is able to achieve the new rate of production as stated by the MoD, the IAF should have all five squadrons of LCA Tejas Mk IA by 2028.
The programme enunciated by the Indian aerospace industry and duly supported by the MoD, is indeed inspiring for the IAF. However, unless the Indian aerospace industry is able deliver in terms of both time frame and quality, reliance on indigenous products will continue to remain a distant dream for the IAF.