Ravi Sharma

Data indicates that the LCA will not be able to meet Air Staff Requirements

Bangalore: With empirical data indicating that indigenous Light Combat Aircraft Tejas, in its present form, will not be able to meet the Air Staff Requirements (ASRs), the Indian Air Force (IAF) has raised serious questions over the future of the aircraft’s long term induction into the squadron service.

Not willing to be presented with a fait accompli at a later date, the IAF’s clear message is that as the end user it must be given what it wants and “what was repeatedly promised to it”; and an underpowered Tejas, which has also seen an increase in its basic all up weight, would not meet their requirements.

The IAF has communicated that the Tejas’ performance, both in terms of thrust and its airframe qualities, was still a long way from what was desirable. While the IAF had placed a firm order for 20 of the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) designed and developed Tejas, it has been assumed that the IAF would eventually buy over 200 of the aircraft.

Designed to have capabilities that fit it into the lower end of the combat aircraft spectrum, the Tejas was developed with the intention of replacing the MiG-21s, the ageing warhorse of the IAF which were inducted over 40 years ago and are of a design technology that has long been surpassed.

The Tejas, as per the IAF drawn up ASR, had to be “much, much better” than the MiG-21s. Though the fly-by-wire Tejas has its plus points, data, including from the aircraft’s recent low altitude tests at INS Rajali in Arakonam, showed that this might not be possible with the present configuration.

An Air Force officer said: “We have been given a mandate by the government and with this in mind drawn up an ASR. It has to be met. There is no point in the ADA pressuring us to accept a lower ASR at this stage. For years, at every meeting, the ADA has been saying that the Tejas will comply with the ASR.”

The Tejas, which has so far completed almost 800 test flights, is now powered by the General Electric manufactured GE F404 engine, which will eventually be replaced by the long-delayed Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE) designed and developed Kaveri.

Having been unable to come up with an engine even after 17 years, the GTRE since 2005 been in talks with the Russians and the French, attempting to decide who among the two engine houses will help them bring out an engine. A co-developed engine will optimistically take four years to fructify.

Issues over thrust

But sources say that that neither the GE F404 nor the Kaveri will be able to provide the kind of thrust that can power the Tejas to ASR standards. Foreseeing this, the IAF had suggested that the Tejas could be powered by the more powerful GE F414 engine.

The ADA set up an internal committee to study the possibility, but since using the heavier and larger F414 would need modifications on the Tejas’ air intakes and the fuselage, further delaying the delayed project, the suggestion was ignored.

Official sources said that besides lack of installed thrust there were also niggles with the Tejas airframe, which would come up when the ADA expanded the Tejas’ flight test programme and went in for high angle of attack/ high alpha testing, very low speed trails, carefree manoeuvres and other combat related flying. “The Tejas requires aerodynamic fixes.” But this could further increase its all up weight.

Equal partners

Even as the IAF is unhappy with the Tejas’ performance, it is insisting that they are equal partners in the over Rs. 5,500 crore programme. “The ADA can work on a derivative of the Tejas. This is what aircraft design and development is all about. You can’t just thrust the first product down the customer’s throat.”