Defence minister A K Antony last week expressed the hope that the indigenousTejas light combat aircraft would finally get the final operational clearance (FOC) next year. But a hard-nosed “internal assessment” shows Antony’s dream will be shattered.
The single-engine Tejas, already 30 years in the making, will not become fully combat-worthy anytime before end-2015. “The reality is that the around dozen Tejas prototypes are barely flying a couple of sorties a day. The initial operational clearance ( IOC)-II has again already been pushed to November this year from the earlier June-July deadline. It will take at least 18 months from IOC-II to FOC,” said a source.
In fact, the foremost challenge before the new DRDO chief-cum-scientific advisor to the defence minister, missile scientist Avinash Chander, is to ensure the long-running, meandering Tejas project firmly heads towards completion because it’s absolutely critical for India to have its own home-grown fighter.
The Tejas LCA project was first sanctioned in 1983 at a cost of Rs 560 crore to replace the ageing MiG-21s. The overall programme will now cost upwards of Rs 25,000 crore if the naval variant, trainer and the failed Kaveri engine are also taken into account.
It was in January 2011 that Tejas got IOC-I, which was initially heralded as the “full and final IOC” by the combine of DRDO, Aeronautical Development Agency and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd till better sense prevailed. The fighter can be certified as fully airworthy only after it passes the IOC-II stage.
But there are still “several basic problems” — leave alone complex issues — that continue to dog the fighter despite it having clocked over 2,000 flights. “Tejas still cannot taxi back after a sortie since its brakes have to be first cooled with compressed air. It has major fuel gauge inaccuracies. Moreover, its radome (radar cover) is defective with large electromagnetic signal losses,” said another source.
The light-weight Tejas will be ready to go to war only after the FOC, which will include integration of all weapons and other systems to ensure it can fire guns, rockets, laser-guided bombs and BVR (beyond visual range) missiles as well as undergo air-to-air refuelling.
IAF has earmarked the Sulur airbase in Tamil Nadu, near the Bengaluru HAL facilities where the fighter is being built, to house the initial Tejas squadron inducted in the IOC-II configuration to resolve “the expected teething problems”.
The force has so far ordered 20 Tejas in IOC-II configuration, with the American GE-404 engines, and another 20 in FOC. As per current plans, IAF will order six Tejas Mark-II squadrons (16 to 18 jets each), with the more powerful GE F-414 engines, once the fighter is combat-ready.