The aircraft gets initial clearance for joining IAF, 30 years after the project was sanctioned

In its indigenous Light Combat Aircraft, Tejas, India has found an ideal replacement for the MiGs which have for decades been the mainstay of the country’s air defence, Defence Minister A.K. Antony said after handing over the Release to Service Certificate of the country’s own LCA to the Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne at a function in Bangalore.

The event marked the fruition of three decades of efforts to make a fighter aircraft of international standards. The Initial Operational Clearance-II of Tejas, the LCA has come barely a week after the flying of the iconic Mig 21 FL fighter into IAF’s history.

Speaking to the media at the grant of Initial Operational Clearance-II to the LCA MK-I, that has been designed and produced by Aeronautical Development Agency along with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, Defence Minister A.K. Antony said “this aircraft meets the staff requirement of the Indian Air Force and so they have accepted it.”

During the last three years, he said, the capabilities of the aircraft have been improved significantly and the Indian Air Force has thus decided to grant it the higher IOC for induction into service. “The improvements to the aircraft have enhanced the flight envelope of the aircraft and also its weapon delivery capability.”

Mr. Antony, who also witnessed a flight and operation capability display by three LCA MK I aircraft, said with the grant of the IOC-II, the aircraft has entered the production phase. “The LCA MK-I would go into immediate production and two squadrons comprising 40 aircraft would be raised by the Indian Air Force by 2015 and 2017 respectively and they would be based in Sulur in Tamil Nadu.”

After this the production of MK-II variant would be undertaken and IAF would raise four squadrons. In all about 200 aircraft would be inducted into the force. On why more aircraft would not be inducted, Air Chief Marshal Browne said it was so because the operational requirement for a particular type of aircraft were limited. “We require a balanced force which also has medium and heavy aircraft. The LCA seeks to replace the MiGs, whereas the medium range comprises aircraft like Mirage and the heavy like Sukhoi.”

About 250 MiGs still remain in the IAF which at the peak of their use had about 600 of them. The IAF had started decommissioning Mig 21 Type FL 77 category earlier this month.

Mr. Antony said with the IOC-2, the LCA project will become a reality now and IAF pilots will start flying the aircraft from “tomorrow”. He termed this development the “semi final” before the Final Operational Clearance due in December next year. In the coming year, mid-air refuelling capability would be added to the aircraft and beyond visual range (BVR) missiles would be installed before it goes for Final Operational Clearance in December 2014.

The Minister, however, urged the scientists working on the project not to get complacent as the next phase was critical.

As for the future, Mr. Antony said some of the projects on the anvil include the MK II variants for Navy and Air Force, the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft, Unmanned Air Systems, Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft and the Medium Transport Aircraft.

On the delays that plagued the project, Mr. Antony said lessons have been learnt and “we have reached a stage where we can say that we can make it”. He admitted that the production of the aircraft engine -- which is of General Electric 404 make as the indigenously developed Kaveri engine could not live up to the expectation – remains a challenge. “But we are still working on it and have not given up. The MK-II variant will have the GE 414 engine.”

Air Chief Marshal Browne said till now the flying was on telemetry by test pilots but now the service document has given full envelope and profile of aircraft. “With the integration of new BVR missiles, integral guns and air-to-air refuelling capability, the LCA will acquire increased potency and enhanced operational efficiency as envisaged at the FOC level.”

He said the final goal remained the LCA MK II which would be the “final version in its projected force structure”. This would have the critical GE 414 engine integration for enhanced thrust along with a better intake design and improved maintainability of the platform.

Stating that IAF has been closely monitoring this project through monthly review meetings in 2007, the Air chief said he was fully satisfied with the design changes that have been undertaken.

The Air Chief also spoke about how in the absence of training aircraft in the LCA series, the IAF was initially only deploying its experienced pilots. “The trainer aircraft will take some more time but will ultimately join the squadrons.”

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