By Prakhar Gupta:
India’s, indigenously built, Light Combat Aircraft, Tejas, was inducted into the Indian Air Force on Friday, three decades after its development officially began in accordance with the ‘Long Term Re-Equipment Plan‘ (LTREP) of 1981. Delayed by over twenty years, the aircraft was scheduled for induction into the Indian Air Force in 1995 to reduce dependence on foreign suppliers and boost India’s domestic aerospace industry.
In the early 1980s, as India’s frontline, indispensable MiG-21s approached the end of their service life and the Indian Air Force required an affordable and reliable aircraft that could replace the ageing fleet. As Pakistan acquired F-16s from the United States, the need to develop a fourth generation fighter aircraft was felt in New Delhi. The Indian government established the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) for designing an indigenous fighter aircraft that could replace the third-generation, multi-role Soviet aircraft serving in the Indian Air Force.
IAF’s Project Definition Phase, which was scheduled for competition in 1985, was completed in 1988 with assistance from Dassault Aviation. Following appraisals and review in the late 1980’s, the designs for a multi-role, delta-wing fighter aircraft were finalised in 1990. The first stage of the two-phase Light Combat Aircraft Program began in 1993, eight years behind original schedule. The second stage, which commenced in 2002, resulted in the production of several prototype vehicles and establishment of manufacturing infrastructure for the production of eight aircrafts per year.
While testing of technology demonstrators began in 2001, full-fledged testing of prototype vehicles began in 2003. Weapons testing commenced in 2007 when a Tejas Prototype Vehicle, called as PV-1, fired an R-73 (CCM) missile for the first time. By the end of 2009, over 1000 test flights were conducted to test radars and supporting equipment of the fighter under different conditions. The Initial Operating Clearance (IOC) was granted on 10th January 2011 by then-Defence Minister, A. K. Antony, to the then-Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal P. V. Naik.
Running 20 years behind schedule, the Light Combat Aircraft Program missed almost all deadlines established to mark the designing, testing and production stages. The first deadline was missed when the Indian Air Force failed to provide staff requirements until October 1985. The development and testing phase bogged as a result of IAF’s failure to provide requirements within the stipulated time frame. Flight testing phase which was initially scheduled for 1990 could only begin on January 4, 2001, almost ten years behind schedule.
The US sanctions and arms embargo imposed on India, in response to a full-fledged nuclear gamble in May 1998, further delayed the program. Sophisticated equipment, originally planned to be imported from partners outside India (such as Martin-Baker ejection seat), could not make its way through and was developed indigenously in India. While this helped in the development of defence infrastructure and expertise in the country, it further delayed the production of a reliable alternative to the Soviet-era MiG-21.
While external factors that delayed the project were not in India’s control, the poor work culture in DRDO and other defence industry installations in India, which significantly contributed the delayed delivery of aircraft to the Indian Air Force, can be improved. The economic crisis of 1991-92, development of a sophisticated fly-by-wire system, production of Multi-Mode Radar and the failure of the Kaveri Engine also contributed to the delay.
As the Light Combat Aircraft program missed all its deadlines for over twenty years, IFA’s operational specifications kept changing. The Air Marshal Anil Chopra, who retired as an air officer in charge of personnel, said: “In all fairness, the SQRs (staff qualitative requirements) for an aircraft to be delivered in 1995 cannot remain frozen for an aircraft to be delivered in 2015.”
As reported by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India in May 2015, the Tejas Mark-I has over 53 shortfalls that reduce its operational capability. Tejas failed to meet operational requirements in various areas including the power to weight ratio, sustained turning rate, maximum speeds at low altitudes, AoA range, and weapon delivery profiles. “LCA Mark-I does not meet the ASR. The deficiencies are now expected to be met in LCA Mark-II by December 2018,” the CAG said.
These shortfalls can significantly reduce its performance by limiting its ability to provide close air support to the ground forces. Reduced internal fuel capacity and non-compliance of fuel system protection can also reduce its effectiveness in combat by decreasing its operational range and safety. Limited 80-85 kN thrust, which restricts its angle of attack and weapon-carrying capabilities, is also a cause of IAF’s concerns.
As India’s M-MRCA deal with Dassault Aviation failed to materialise, the IAF now stands at the lowest squadron strength in over a decade. The Indian Air Force, which should ideally have over 42 squadrons to face a two-front war, currently has just around 32 squadrons. With upgraded versions of MiG-21 and MiG-27 set to retire from 2016-17, the IAF will face a further degradation of operational capabilities. While the Tejas can’t reduce the requirement for a medium multi-role combat aircraft, it can certainly supplement IAF’s operational capabilities.