It was indeed a red letter day for India. With a stunning demonstration of its awesome fighting capabilities and killer punch on the sunny morning on December 20, India’s home grown fourth generation, Light Combat Aircraft (LCA)Tejas, described as the smallest and lightest, multi role supersonic fighter aircraft in its class, crossed an important milestone in its journey towards its entry into the Indian Air Force (IAF) service.
Marking the joyous culmination of three decades long painstaking efforts spearheaded by the Bangalore based Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), which forms a part of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), Tejas rightly hailed as the “nemesis of enemies” obtained its Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) with the Indian Defence Minister AK Antony handing over the Release to Service Certificate of this world class formidable combat aircraft to IAF Chief NAK Browne.
As rightly observed by Antony, who has been waging a relentless battle against the well-entrenched import lobby by vigorously espousing the need for the Indian defence self reliance, this fighter, featuring an amalgamation of contemporary technologies such as relaxed static stability, fly by wire flight control system, advanced glass cockpit, integrated digital avionics systems and advanced composite materials for the airframe, has catapulted India into ranks of a handful advanced countries capable of building a state of the fighter aircraft with cutting edge technologies.
“The attaining of IOC should mark an important milestone in the long journey towards indigenisation through self- reliance. Our public and private sector must work in tandem to develop and produce world class military systems of the highest quality,” said Antony. Significance of Tejas IOC lies in the fact that this single engine, air superiority fighter featuring an extensive use of advanced light weight composites, is now ready for being handled by the combat pilots of IAF.
RK Tyagi, Chairman of the state owned Indian aeronautical major Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), which has not only made a significant contribution to the realisation of Tejas but also has set up a most modern and well equipped assembly line for the rolling out of the Tejas summed up the mood of the audience at the IOC ceremony held at Bangalore with his observation, “As an Indian, I feel proud to stand here on the occasion of the IOC of Tejas’. He also revealed that the initial production target of eight fighters per year would soon be boosted upto 16 aircraft per year. The most striking achievement of Tejas project was that during the course of its qualification flights and development trials carried out in various parts of the country under varying climatic and environmental conditions, there has not been a single case of “mishap or accident”. This is indeed a tribute to the dedication of Tejas LCA team. According to ADA, LCA Tejas has completed around 2450 flights so far.
Yet another master stroke of LCA Tejas project was the development of the widely acclaimed complicated control laws for the fly by wire (FBW) system of the aircraft. Originally, it was planned to develop the control laws with the assistance of the US defence and aerospace major Lockheed Martin. But with the US sanctions coming into force, Lockheed Martin was forced to withdraw from the scene.
Taken up for development in 1980s with a view to replace the aging Mig-21 front- line fighters in service with IAF, LCA Tejas project had to fight against heavy odds and uncertainties with the import lobby and doubting Thomasses writing off the project as an exercise in “wasteful public expenditure”. Indeed, a slander campaign was in full swing to discredit Tejas LCA project and force its closure. What’s is more, as pointed out by PS Subramanyam, Director of ADA, many foreign aerospace companies were sceptical about the Indian capability to build an advanced fighter aircraft.
And with the US sanctions following the 1998 Pokhran nuclear blasts, India was prevented from importing some of the critical components required for the aircraft project. Of course, such an eventuality proved to be a blessing in disguise with the Indian industry successfully taking up the challenge of developing some of the critical hardware for Tejas. “There were setbacks, criticism, people said why waste money, people asked us to abandon it, but with all this we moved forward over thirty years. For the last seven years, I have had my share of criticism too,” noted Antony.
Perhaps the biggest masterstroke of LCA Tejas project is the solid foundation it has laid for the defence self-reliance at a highly affordable cost. In comparison to the Russian Sukhoi Su-30MKI and French Rafale which India is planning to acquire under the MMRCA (medium, multi role combat aircraft) Tejas, LCA comes with a ‘very low price tag.’ According to Avinash Chander, DRDO Director General, “The cost of LCA is a small fraction of what an F-15 costs”. The argument of Chander was that LCA Tejas will be able to compete very well in performance as well as on cost basis with an equivalent aircraft.
The most noteworthy importance of Tejas project lies in the fact that it would pave way for the development of more advanced fighters and in the process end India’s dependence of imported fighter aircraft whose acquisition not only makes for a huge outgo of valuable foreign exchange but also adds to the Indian dependence on the foreign vendors for the maintenance and upkeep of the imported machines. What’s more, defence self-reliance would also imply the end of occasional recurrence of shameful incidents involving “kickbacks and shady middlemen” in the import of defence equipment from overseas vendors. On the top of these, India can insulate itself from the possibility of technology denial regimes –as exemplified by US trade sanctions—rendering the imported fighting equipment unfit for use in the face of denial of spares and technological tools. More importantly, India could also enter the global defence and aerospace market as a major supplier. As such, the strategic significance of Tejas project hardly needs to be reiterated.
As envisaged now, it its planned to locate the first Tejas Squadron of 20 fighters at Sulur base of IAF in Tamli Nadu by 2016-17.Antony, who has been backing LCA Tejas with all his might, has noted that the Indian Defence Ministry may well order 200 Tejas fighters, up from the current level of 120 fighters for IAF and 40 for the Indian Navy. Antony also hinted at India exploring the export market for Tejas in the years ahead. For Antony was clear in his perception that from being an importer of defence hardware, India, in keeping with its status as an emerging technological powerhouse, should position itself as a leading defence and aerospace exporter.
Perhaps the most salutary fall out of the much criticised Tejas programme was that many of the small and medium Indian industrial units in private sector which contributed to the Tejas project have now become the preferred source of high quality, low cost components and hardware for many of the overseas defence firms. For the quality and skill level they acquired, while meeting the stringent requirements of Tejas project, has stood them in good stead in expanding their business beyond the Indian shores. This then is the legacy of Tejas that makes every Indian proud of what the country could achieve in the area of frontier technologies involved in the development of a state of the art combat aircraft.