India's defence R&D establishment will have to fire on all cylinders to fast-track the meandering Tejas light combat aircraft, which is still not fully operational or combat ready, if it does not want the Narendra Modi government to critically re-examine the entire project.
The Tejas project, in fact, may even get some competition in the light-weight fighter category. Defence minister Manohar Parrikar said "some other single-engine, lighter fighter" other than the home-grown Tejas could also be considered for a "Make in India" project to replace the obsolete MiG-21s.
Restricting the acquisition of expensive twin-engine French Rafale fighters to just 36 for now, instead of the original plan for 126 MMRCA (medium multi-role combat aircraft), Parrikar stressed he was trying to plug operational gaps in airpower by improving serviceability of "heavy-weight" Sukhoi-30MKIs as well as "pushing" the DRDO-HAL combine to deliver Tejas faster.
"Don't compare Rafale, a top-end fighter, to MiG-21s, which we will phase out in about six to 10 years. The replacement for MiG-21s will be Tejas or some other single-engine, lighter aircraft. Tejas ki maar bhi kaafi hai (Tejas packs a punch) and it's much better than a MiG-21, but has certain limitations," said Parrikar.
Though some interpreted this to mean impending doom for the Tejas project, a top official dismissed it by clarifying the government was "just keeping all options open" to make "numbers" with IAF down to just 34 fighter squadrons when 44 are needed. "There could be scope for a single-engine fighter, which would be much cheaper than Rafale, somewhere between the capabilities of Rafale and Tejas," he said.
Incidentally, the original plan was that six squadrons each of MMRCA and Tejas would replace the existing 10 Mig-21 and four MiG-27 squadrons. Parrikar, on his part, said, "In the next four to five years, we can add about six LCA squadrons if we push HAL, which I am doing."
DRDO-HAL will certainly need to be pushed on the Tejas project since it's critical for self-reliance in defence production. The first Tejas was handed over to IAF on January 17 but it was in "initial operational configuration", which signifies its airworthy but not combat-ready. The pilot training and maintenance manuals are also still not ready, delaying its actual induction into IAF.
The fighter's final operational clearance (FOC), with integration of all weapons like guns, laser-guided bombs and BVR (beyond visual range) missiles as well mid-air refuelling capability, is likely to be delayed beyond the re-revised deadline of December 2015.
The Tejas Mark-II version which the IAF actually wants — with more powerful engines, airframe changes, weight and drag reduction — will begin to come in only by 2021 or so. So, Parrikar will need to do a lot of pushing if he wants swifter deliveries of the multi-role fighters.