India Strategic - - LASTLY -

AF­TER 33 long years in the mak­ing – from con­cep­tu­al­i­sa­tion to re­al­i­sa­tion – it was still a mat­ter of pride for the en­tire coun­try to wit­ness the for­ma­tion of the first Tejas squadron when two HAL-built Tejas LCAs (Light Com­bat Air­craft) were in­ducted into No. 45 Squadron ( Flying Daggers) at a cer­e­mony held at Ban­ga­lore, July 1, 2016. It didn’t mat­ter that the air­craft was op­er­a­tionally half-baked as it was still at the IOC (II) stage with FOC (Full Op­er­a­tional Clear­ance) hav­ing been pushed down again to end 2016 and be­yond; that, the air­craft had over 50 ma­jor and mi­nor de­fi­cien­cies and; that, the en­gi­neer­ing de­sign pre­sented a night­mar­ish sce­nario for the tech­ni­cal of­fi­cers and men re­spon­si­ble for its main­te­nance.

The IAF – along with other two ser­vices – has been of­ten ac­cused by some ‘ em­i­nent’ sec­tions of In­dia’s de­fence cir­cles for its ab­hor­rence to use ‘desi’ (in­dige­nous) de­fence equip­ment in favour of a blind pref­er­ence for im­ported weapon sys­tems. Sim­i­lar in­sin­u­a­tions have been levied against IAF in the LCA case too. Noth­ing how­ever, could be far­ther from truth. It is noteworthy that within four years of the first flight of LCA, that took place in 2001, and even though the pro­gramme was mov­ing at a snail’s pace, IAF sup­ported it by plac­ing an or­der for 20 LCA Mk I air­craft in 2005. Not only that, in another ges­ture of gen­uine sol­i­dar­ity with the pro­gramme, it or­dered an ad­di­tional batch of 20 LCA Mk Is in 2010 know­ing fully that it was only the then un­der con­sid­er­a­tion LCA Mk II – a much im­proved ver­sion of Mk I – that would even­tu­ally be able to meet IAF’s op­er­a­tional QRs (Qual­i­ta­tive Re­quire­ments). But, six years later, while IAF con­tin­ues to lose its older MiG-21 squadrons due to old age re­tire­ment, HAL is still left strug­gling to achieve FOC even on the Mk I ver­sion of the LCA.

Now, with Mk II nowhere in sight, IAF has given fur­ther con­ces­sions on the LCA pro­gramme by agree­ing to HAL’s sug­ges­tion of ac­cept­ing Mk IA ver­sion with bet­ter op­er­a­tional ca­pa­bil­i­ties, al­beit with the same (un­der­pow­ered - <90 kN) Gen­eral Elec­tric F404-IN20 engine. Ma­jor im­prove­ments in the Mk I ver­sion promised by HAL are: an AESA radar, mid-air re­fu­elling ca­pa­bil­ity, more ca­pa­ble EW suites and ad­vanced weapons with bet­ter BVR ca­pa­bil­ity. HAL has also pledged to tweak the air­craft to make it main­te­nance- friendly and ready for in­duc­tion into the IAF by 2019.

What­ever the pos­si­bil­ity of it ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing in the promised time frames, IAF has once again shown its se­ri­ous­ness by or­der­ing 83 LCA MK IAs, tak­ing the to­tal to 123 air­craft, which would en­able it to raise six (2 Mk I and 4 Mk IA) squadrons.

Hope­fully, this would help silent the crit­ics who keep rais­ing their voices pe­ri­od­i­cally against the IAF for its per­ceived ob­ses­sion for every­thing ‘phoren’ (for­eign). In­ci­den­tally, this writer had the priv­i­lege of not only flying but also com­mand­ing In­dia’s first in­dige­nous jet fighter HF24 Marut and en­joyed it im­mensely. Un­for­tu­nately, ow­ing to HAL’s in­abil­ity to ad­dress its prob­lems ad­e­quately like hot gas leaks and ‘sweaty wings’ etc, and cer­tain main­te­nance is­sues, the air­craft had to be with­drawn pre­ma­turely i.e., af­ter only 15 years of its ser­vice in the IAF.

Rev­ert­ing to the LCA, the ground re­al­ity is that even 10 months af­ter No. 45 Squadron’s re-equip­ping it­self with Tejas, there has been hardly any mea­sur­able ac­cre­tion to its air­craft hold­ings. For ex­am­ple, only three air­craft were seen par­tic­i­pat­ing dur­ing the Fe­bru­ary Aero In­dia 2017 show at Ye­la­hanka.

In Fe­bru­ary 2016, De­fence Min­is­ter Manohar Par­rikar had said in Par­lia­ment (Lok Sabha) that, “IAF will ac­cept three to four Tejas this year and stand up to a to­tal of eight squadrons in eight years.” He also said, “We are in the process of ap­prov­ing the sec­ond line of man­u­fac­tur­ing to the HAL so that they can pro­duce 16 air­craft per year.

One year later, he re­it­er­ated the same thing dur­ing the Aero In­dia 2017, but noth­ing con­crete has come up on the ground. There are re­ports that the Ki­ran hangar at Ban­ga­lore’s Air­craft Divi­sion has been con­verted to ac­com­mo­date Tejas sec­ond as­sem­bly line but this site will not be able to pro­duce more than three air­craft per year.

Clearly, there is a dire need for HAL to get its act to­gether if it is to de­liver on its prom­ises on the Tejas pro­gramme. First, it must ramp up its Tejas pro­duc­tion to at least 16 air­craft per an­num, as soon as pos­si­ble. Two, with the Navy hav­ing re­jected the Tejas (in any form) for car­rier op­er­a­tions, it must con­cen­trate fully on the MK IA ver­sion and make it avail­able to the IAF within its self-stip­u­lated time frames. In the mean­time Tejas Mk II should be given a quiet burial for it to be meta­mor­phosed into HAL’s AMCA project – which it­self needs to be a col­lab­o­ra­tive fusion of the PAK-FA/FGFA pro­grammes for it to have a chance to suc­ceed.

HAL must know that any fail­ure on its part now would only be at the peril of na­tional se­cu­rity.

HAL must ramp-up Tejas pro­duc­tion to 16 air­craft per an­num

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