HAL has aimed a serious blow at the Tejas Mark II Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), with a letter telling the Indian Air Force (IAF) that it does not have the manpower to work on developing an improved version of the current Tejas Mark I.
The Bengaluru-based public sector aviation monolith says its engineers are already stretched with existing projects, including the Tejas production line, design and prototype manufacture of a basic trainer aircraft, the Hindustan Turbo Trainer - 40 (HTT-40); and the testing and production of the Sitara Intermediate Jet Trainer (IJT).
HAL has suggested that, instead of waiting for the Tejas Mark II the IAF should buy 80 Tejas Mark I-A, an interim fighter that would be more capable then the Mark I, but less than the Mark II will be.
Business Standard has learned of a heated debate under way between the user of the Tejas, the IAF; its designer, the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA); and its manufacturer, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL).
The IAF has already committed to buying 40 Tejas Mark I. In addition, the air force has indicated it will buy four-to-five squadrons (80-100 fighters) of the Tejas Mark II when it is ready.
HAL worries about the future of its production line after it delivers 40 Mark I fighters by end-2019. It plans to build four Tejas Mark I by March 2016; another eight by March 2017; and crank up production to 16 fighters annually by March 2018. After 2019, the production line would idle till the Tejas Mark II enters production.
Senior HAL and ADA officials agree the Tejas Mark II is unlikely to enter production till 2023-24. Developing the Mark II involves fitting in a more powerful engine --- the General Electric F-414INS6 replacing the current F-404IN --- and upgrading avionics and weaponry. With prototype development likely to take till 2019, another three to four years would go in flight-testing the Tejas Mark II and preparing production drawings.
HAL, therefore, wants the IAF to buy 80 Tejas Mark I-A to keep the production line occupied from 2020 to 2023-24.
The Mark 1-A would be faster and more agile than the current Mark I. Developing it would involve shaving off 800 kilogrammes from the current fighter, especially from systems like the landing gear, which are currently "over-engineered", or built heavy, for safety. HAL also proposes to remove 300 kg of dead weight distributed across the Mark I to balance it evenly.
HAL argues that the Mark I's GE F-404IN engine, which generates 84 kiloNewtons (kN) of peak thrust, would meet the IAF's performance requirements, if one tonne is shaved off the Tejas Mark I's empty weight of 6,500 kg. In that case, the GE F-414INS6 engine's 98 kN of thrust would be needed only for the naval Tejas, which must take off from the short runway of an aircraft carrier deck.
The IAF and ADA are taken aback by HAL's reluctance to participate in developing the Mark II. Even though the Tejas project is managed by ADA --- a branch of the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) --- HAL has developed important components. Besides many smaller systems, HAL designed the Tejas structure, its undercarriage and electrical supply system. It would have to upgrade these for the Mark II.
"We have completed the preliminary design of the Tejas Mark II, but now the detailed design will be done. HAL would have to refine and upgrade the systems it developed for the Tejas", points out a senior ADA official.
HAL's withdrawal stems from its deep-rooted concern over the Tejas assembly line, which was established at a cost of Rs 1,556 crore, with HAL paying half and the remaining shared between the IAF and navy. Keeping the line running is essential, so that skilled manpower does not have to be redistributed; and a steady flow of orders can be placed on sub-vendors.
HAL sees a four-year gap between the last Tejas Mark I and the first Tejas Mark II as seriously disruptive. Building 80 Tejas Mark I-A is a way of bridging that gap.
However, the IAF and ADA point to HAL's poor record of adhering to manufacturing schedules. They say HAL, which is more than a year late in building the Tejas Mark I, is unlikely to build and deliver 40 Tejas Mark I by 2019. So far, the Tejas line has built just one fighter.
"We can assure HAL that, if it accelerates the delivery of fighters to the point where it seems likely to deliver 40 Tejas Mark I before the Mark II is ready, we will certainly place orders for more Mark I fighters. The assembly line will not be kept idle. That is our assurance," says a senior IAF officer.
To overcome HAL's difficulties with building and assembling the Tejas Mark I, ADA proposes to adopt a new production model for the Mark II. The DRDO's aerospace chief, K Tamilmani, tells Business Standard that seven private sector companies will be chosen to manufacture the fighter's modules (systems and sub-systems). HAL will be responsible for integrating them and testing and delivering them to the IAF.
"If we have to accelerate production and build the Tejas Mark II to the requisite quality and quantity, HAL cannot be saddled with responsibility for everything. Instead, private companies will build modules, while HAL will be lead integrator," says Tamilmani.