The Indian Air Force (IAF), which has long opposed the large-scale induction of the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), could soon be given charge of manufacturing the Tejas in the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) complex in Bengaluru.
And Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who has not so far toured the facilities of HAL, which remains India’s only aircraft manufacturer, is poised to accept the IAF’s bid for control. The defence ministry, the IAF and HAL have all declined to comment on this development. However, authoritative ministry sources say an announcement can be expected soon.
Officials in HAL and Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) – the nodal agencies responsible for the manufacture and development respectively of the Tejas – argue that handing over Tejas manufacture to the IAF at this point would effectively seal its fate, given the air force’s well-known preference for costly, imported fighters like the Rafale.
“The IAF has no tradition of manufacturing. There is a major cultural gap between flying fighters and building them,” admits one ministry official.
However, ADA’s development delays and HAL’s failure to ramp up production quickly and cheaply has weakened their influence with the ministry, which is inclined to believe that the IAF can resolve the difficulties.
ADA, which falls under the Defence R&D Organisation, is still struggling to obtain final operational certification (FOC) for the Tejas Mark 1, almost five years after obtaining initial operational certification (IOC) in December 2013.
Business Standard learns that about 1,100 test points still remain to be cleared before the Tejas is granted FOC. This would normally require about 200 test flights, given that a well-organised flight test programme clears 5-6 test points in each test flight.However, lack of coordination between ADA designers and the National Flight Test Centre (NFTC), which is headed by a senior IAF pilot, means this seldom happens. That has slowed the progress towards FOC.
“We will be lucky to obtain FOC by end-2019,” says an officer close to the Tejas project.
There is also the issue of the Tejas’ rising cost. On Monday, the defence ministry told parliament that the initial order for 20 Mark 1 Tejas, which HAL had contracted in 2006 for Rs 2702 crore (and subsequently revised to Rs 2,813 crore) is now being sought to be retrospectively revised to Rs 5,362 crore – or Rs 268 crore per aircraft.
The ministry said this was on account of“changes in build standards for integration entailing procurement of additional Line Replaceable Units (LRUs), raw materials, composite materials, bought out items and consumables, tooling etc.”
The ministry also told parliament that a second contract for 20 Tejas Mark 1 fighters in the FOC standard, was concluded in 2010 for Rs 5,989 crore, or just short of Rs 300 crore per LCA.
Besides these 40 aircraft, the ministry said it had accorded in-principle clearance for buying 83 Tejas Mark 1A fighters with enhanced capabilities, including “Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) Radar, Beyond Visual Range (BVR) Missile, Self-Protection Jammer (SPJ) and Air-to-Air Refuelling (AAR) for which quotation has been submitted by HAL.”
Business Standard understands that HAL has priced the Tejas Mark 1A at more than Rs 400 crore per aircraft – only marginally less than the Sukhoi-30MKI fighters it builds at Nashik.
This cost could rise further, given that the air force is raising its capability demands from the Tejas Mark 1A. It is learnt the IAF has now demanded that the fighter be equipped with a sophisticated “software defined radio”, which does not equip a single IAF fighter so far.
To ramp up the Tejas production rate from 8 fighters per year to 16, HAL is building a second integration line in its Bengaluru complex, at a cost of Rs 1,231 crore.Last November, Singapore’s visiting defence minister flew in the Tejas fighter. He was followed in February by the US Air Force chief, General David Goldfein. Both had praise for the aircraft. But the IAF’s endorsement continues to be conditional because of development and manufacturing delays.