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A bird in the hand

July 23, 2013 11:30 IST

The ministry of defence has unwisely decided to build just two squadrons of the already developed aircraft -- Tejas Mark I -- and to start developing an even more capable Tejas Mark II. This is an enormous blunder, says Ajai Shukla

After two decades of development and the expenditure of some Rs 8,000 crore, the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft is nearing operational service in the Indian Air Force. With Final Operational Clearance targeted for end-2014, an Indian light fighter would be flying combat missions in any conflict from 2015 onwards. Given that this is India’s first modern combat fighter, the Aeronautical Development Agency -- the Defence R&D Organisation body that oversees the Tejas project -- has developed its debut fighter quickly and cheaply.

It is time to induct the Tejas into the IAF in large numbers, not just to phase out the MiG-21, but also to let line pilots develop confidence in the fighter and allow their feedback to inform further development. But the ministry of defence has unwisely decided to build just two squadrons of the already developed aircraft -- called Tejas Mark I -- and to start developing an even more capable Tejas Mark II. This is an enormous blunder for at least three reasons.

Firstly, as testified by the IAF test pilots who have flown the Tejas through more than a thousand hours of flight-testing, the current version of the fighter, i.e. the Tejas Mark I, is already a world-class fighter that has achieved most performance landmarks that the IAF had demanded. It flies at Mach 1.6 (about 2,000 kmph), a speed that the IAF is satisfied with. Its state-of-the-art quadruplex digital flight control system makes it a manoeuvrable and easy-to-fly fighter, unlike the unforgiving MiG-21 that it is slated to replace. The Tejas has not had a single accident so far, testifying to the stability of its design.

Another key measure of a fighter’s capability is the Angle of Attack it can achieve. The higher the AoA, the more lift that is generated, allowing a fighter to get airborne at slower speeds from short airstrips, e.g. aircraft carriers. The IAF had demanded an AoA of 26 degrees for the Tejas. The Tejas has already been tested to 24 degrees, and is on course to achieve that target.

Says Air Commodore (Retd) Parvez Khokhar, who was for years the chief test pilot of the Tejas programme: “The Tejas Mark I is far superior to the MiG-21 fleet that the IAF would have to operate to the end of this decade. In key respects, it is a better fighter than even the Mirage 2000. The Tejas Mark I should enter the IAF's combat fleet in larger numbers and the Tejas Mark II scaled down. This would allow the air force to retire the MiG-21 fleet sooner.”

For this, the MoD must review its current plan to build just forty Tejas Mark I fighters, and embark upon another risky adventure to develop a more powerful, capable fighter. Since this would take at least four years of development work, the IAF would not start receiving the Tejas Mark II until 2018.

Furthermore, developing an ambitiously-framed Tejas Mark II would be dogged by uncertainty. To give the Mark II additional power, ADA plans to replace the Mark I’s General Electric F-404 engine, which develops barely 80 KiloNewtons of thrust, with a more recent General Electric F-414 engine that will provide 90-96 KiloNewtons. But an internal ADA study has found that there may eventually be no benefit from this upgrade, since the Tejas’ fuselage would have to be significantly redesigned to accommodate the bulkier, heavier F-414.

All this added weight, the study concludes, would neutralise the new engine’s added power. Furthermore, there is a longstanding design flaw in the Tejas air intake, which allows barely enough air to be sucked in for the current F-404 engine. Fitting the more powerful F-414 would require the air intakes to be enlarged as well. And the rearrangement of so many major aerostructures would shift the Mark II's centre of gravity, necessitating the shifting around of other components to get the balance right.

Instead of this major redesign, loaded with the likelihood of further delays, it would be far more prudent to order more Tejas Mark I, while restricting the scope of the Mark II upgrade. This is where the third major benefit would come in -- through the early activation of a mass production line on which Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd could build fighters quickly. Currently, the tiny volume of orders (20 Mark I ordered, 20 more in the pipeline) prevents HAL from ramping up its supply chains and investing in an assembly line that can churn out at least ten fighters a year. So slow is the current process that HAL will deliver the first Tejas Mark I in mid-2014; the second in late-2014; and just three Tejas in 2015.

Given the need to replace the MiG-21 quickly, as also the need to indigenise our arsenal, this is appallingly slow. Defence Minister A K Antony, at the annual Tejas Review Meeting on June 24, promised HAL Rs 1,500 crore for setting up the Tejas assembly line. But that is missing the wood for the trees; what use is an assembly line in the absence of orders?

What is needed then is an immediate IAF order for at least three squadrons of Tejas Mark I, which would galvanise HAL and the supply chains into activity. While releasing Rs 1,500 crore to HAL, instructions must be issued that the production line must deliver six Tejas Mark I fighters in 2014, and hit its production target of ten fighters per year in 2015.

Meanwhile the Tejas Mark II must be fully developed by 2016. This would require it to be less ambitious, restricting itself to modernising avionics; fitting an Active Electronically Scanned Array radar; mounting more advanced air-to-air missiles; developing an onboard oxygen-generating system; and equipping the fighter with a mid-air refuelling system to increase its range. 

Ajai Shukla
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