It has been 30 years in the making, has cost Rs.172.69 billion, and will easily take another year if not more to clear the last lap. Tejas, the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd-manufactured Light Combat Aircraft that received its second “initial operational clearance” — it got the first IOC in January 2011 — and was inducted into the Indian Air Force last month, is meant to replace the ageing fleet of MiG21s and MiG27s. But that goal is still some years away. First, the aircraft needs to get its Final Operational Clearance. The IOC certifies that the aircraft can fly, the FOC that it can fight. In order to be certified as an operational fighter, the LCA, developed by the Aeronautical Development Agency, must undergo intensive trials of its weapons systems; the Air Force also wants it to be fitted with air-to-air refuelling capability. Going by the track record of the LCA project, all this could take the deadline for the FOC from December 2014 to mid-2015. Then too, the payload and agility of the Tejas will not match the IAF’s expectations. The supersonic LCA’s General Electric F404 engine — an indigenously developed engine did not quite cut it — will allow only short-range missiles and laser-guided 500-kg bombs, less weaponry than was originally budgeted for. The limited thrust of the engine will also curtail its agility. The IAF will have two squadrons of the LCA, that is, 40 planes including eight trainer craft. HAL hopes to roll them out fast enough for the first squadron to be in place by 2016. But what the IAF is waiting for is Tejas Mark II, which is to be equipped with the more powerful GE 414 engine. For that, however, the aircraft may need to be re-engineered, and the process could well take another 10 years or more.
Defence Minister A.K. Antony has said that India could eventually have 200 Tejas aircraft, mostly for the Air Force and some for the Navy. At nine tons, it is said to be the lightest in its category of fighter planes. The ADA says the Tejas Mark 1 is better than its contemporaries, such as the French Mirage 2000, the U.S. F-16 and the Swedish Gripen. Moreover, it has not met with a single accident during trials. But perhaps its greatest advantage is that at Rs.180 crore apiece, its cost is just one third that of similar aircraft even though more than a third of its parts, including the engine, are imported. Its operational costs too will be lower. Tejas is also a brave effort to break the monopoly of a select few in making fighter jets. It travels at least part of the way towards the goal of indigenisation of military hardware, and has provided India with valuable experience, that can be put to good use for the development of the planned fifth generation fighter aircraft and the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft.