NEW DELHI --- The Indian Air Force (IAF) has fixed July 1 as the tentative date for a home-coming it has long awaited. A squadron of the indigenously designed and built Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas will be commissioned and thereafter join the ranks of frontline jets like Sukhoi 30MKI, Jaguar, Mirage 2000 among others in securing the Indian airspace. The event, which will be held in Bengaluru, however, is far from receiving the kind of attention it should.
To begin with, a typical IAF fighter squadron will consist of 16-17 jets and one or two trainers of the same aircraft. In the present case, the IAF has merely two aircraft from the series production which are ready and available. There is a third one nearing completion but it may not make it by the given date.
India Today has learnt that there are uncertainties in validating the production set up of the LCA. While the IAF would like to have 16 aircraft a year, the infrastructure to deliver even eight is untested.
T Suvarna Raju, Chairman and Managing Director, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), the manufacturer of the aircraft, said, "We have established manufacturing infrastructure in Bengaluru for production of eight LCA per annum. The rated capacity would be achieved once the Standard Of Preparation (SOP) is frozen by ADA (Aeronautical Development Agency)."
SOP in simpler terms is the configuration, design and a host of other technical specifications which, unless frozen, the maker cannot start serial production. He added, "HAL has submitted a proposal to the Defence Ministry to ramp up the rate of production from eight aircraft to 16 per annum. HAL is planning to establish the facilities within three years from the date of approval."
When asked, the IAF and ADA denied that SOP was an issue any longer.
CD Balaji, Director ADA said, "Updates will keep taking place as the aircraft is flown more often. To say that the design isn't frozen and that it is delaying everything is not correct."
A source closely linked to the project explained, "IAF has achieved what can be called as interim satisfaction. We won't send the LCA to the front if there is a war tomorrow. But we have to start flying it and getting involved with it. May be in a year or two, we would have fine-tuned the plane." He also shared that in the subsequent versions the IAF is looking at acquiring Air to Air refueling capability, firing of advanced weapons, utilizing a lighter LCA with a more powerful engine from the present F404-GE-IN20 among other things. "Maintenance is still a major issue with Tejas," he revealed. Â
The first lot of 20 LCA Tejas, to which the two available aircraft belong, is being built in what is called as Initial Operational Clearance configuration. It is a stage that the development programme achieved in December 20, 2013. It was to have later achieved the Final Operational Clearance (FOC) but it hasn't. It is likely to achieve the same by the March 2017.
With that done, 20 more LCA will be built in that configuration. From there on production of LCA Tejas Mark 1 will cease and 80 aircraft of Mark 1A configuration, the aircraft the IAF is really eyeing, will have to be made and proven. Few can or are willing to speak about timelines, quite naturally.
Defence Ministry's statement to Parliament last year put the figure incurred on the LCA programme at Rs 7399.69 crore. The total outlay including the naval variant is estimated at Rs 14033.2 crore.
Calls for parallel certification and production for the future LCA are growing. So is the clamour for a robust and export-oriented production line for the aircraft.
Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (Retd), "What is happening may look odd in terms of squadron strength but in the long run it will all be worth it if we learn from our mistakes of which we have made many."