Already facing a huge delay, the ambitious indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA)–Tejas project came up for review at a high-level meeting which was chaired by Union Defence Minister A.K. Antony recently in the Capital.
Mr. Antony stressed upon the necessity to adhere to schedule and asked all stake holders for avoiding further slippage on the programme. He also directed the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to make the LCA as its number one thrust area.
It was decided at the review meeting that the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) would ramp up the production capacity of LCA to 16 aircraft a year. The meeting decided that efforts should be made to attain Initial Operational Clearance-II by November this year and Final Operational Clearance (FOC) by December 2014.
The meeting was attended, among others, by National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon, Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne, Chief of Naval Staff Admiral D.K. Joshi, Defence Secretary R.K. Mathur, DRDO chief Avinash Chander and HAL chief R.K. Tyagi.
Tejas, already three decades in the making, is not likely to become fully combat worthy even in 2015, sources in the defence industry say. Around a dozen Tejas prototypes have taken to flying but with IOC–II being pushed to November this year, it could take even longer for FOC to come around. The IOC-II is compulsory to certify the fighter jet as fully airworthy.
In fact, the new DRDO chief Avinash Chander, who took over from V.K. Saraswat on May 30 and is himself a missile expert, will have his task cut out — to ensure that the LCA project does not suffer any more delays as it is crucial for India to get its own fighter jet in time.
The Tejas LCA project was first sanctioned in 1983 at a cost of Rs. 560 crore to replace the ageing MiG-21s. With the delay, the cost of the overall programme has escalated to huge proportions. It is estimated to cost more than Rs. 25,000 crore if the Naval variant and the unsuccessful Kaveri engine are also included.
The Indian Air Force (IAF) has placed order for 20 Tejas in IOC-II configuration, with the American GE-404 engines, and another 20 in FOC. As per current plans, IAF will order six Tejas Mark-II squadrons (16 to 18 jets each), with the more powerful GE F-414 engines, once the fighter is combat-ready.
India’s LCA programme is meant to boost its capabilities even as the IAF continues to operate the now modernised version of MiG-21 Bison. The IAF hopes to maintain an adequate force until the multi-billion dollar MMRCA (medium, multi-role combat aircraft) order of 126 fighter Rafale fighter jets from France fructifies. And it is the reason, why India’s own LCA Tejas project is crucial to the IAF’s future prospects.