HAL NEEDS TO GET ITS ACT TOGETHER ON TEJAS
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