Bengaluru: The long-awaited contract for 83 Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) was inked Wednesday, the first day of the Aero India air show in Bengaluru. However, now, the key question is whether manufacturer Hindustan Aeronautics Limited will be able to meet the timelines set for it, given the 38-year-long history of delays in the Tejas programme.
The other big focus for the IAF is the Mark 2 version of the Tejas, which is meant as a replacement for the Mirage 2000s and the MiG-29, as well as the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), a 5th generation fighter aircraft.
The deal that has been inked is for 73 Tejas Mk 1A aircraft with advanced features, and 10 trainer aircraft. It marks a rare high point for a programme that began way back in 1983 to build a new light combat aircraft as a replacement for Russian MiG-21s, which continue to fly despite being obsolete.
“I am very happy that HAL has got the orders for development of 83 new indigenous Tejas Mk1A from the Indian Air Force, valued at more than Rs 48,000 crore. It is probably the biggest ‘Make in India’ defence contract till date,” Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said while inaugurating Aero India, the world’s first ‘hybrid’ air show.
The new order will take the total number of Tejas variants in the IAF inventory to 123. The government has already ordered 40 Tejas variants in the ‘initial’ and ‘final operational clearance’ configuration, which are in process.
HAL’s ambitious timelines
Now, all eyes are on whether HAL will deliver the fighters on schedule — according to the contract, the first Tejas Mk 1A is to be delivered within three years of signing the deal, by 3 February 2024. All the deliveries are to be completed in nine years.
To help with this, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh Tuesday inaugurated a second assembly line for the Tejas, which will increase the production capacity to 16 aircraft per year from the present eight.
“The few MiG-21 Bison squadrons will be phased out completely by 2025. And hence, it is important that the HAL delivers on schedule,” a senior IAF officer told ThePrint.
The officer said the force is looking at the Tejas Mk 2 and the AMCA, for which HAL has set up very attractive timelines.
According to HAL, the prototype of the Tejas MK 2 will be out next year, and the first flight will be undertaken in 2023.
However, a second source added: “Timelines can be announced anytime. The big question is whether those timelines will be met.”
HAL chief R. Madhavan had recently said the structural package and other work on the Tejas Mk 2 is progressing well and its production is likely to start somewhere around 2025.
He said the upgraded version will have a bigger fuselage, longer range, better maintainability, greater load-carrying capability, much more engine power and superior net-centric warfare systems.
On the AMCA, which will be a twin-engine 5th generation aircraft, the HAL chairman said the prototype is likely to be ready by 2026 and its production could start by 2030.
Former IAF officer Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (Retd), now the additional director general of the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), a leading think-tank on defence affairs, said it is important that HAL delivers because the future of the IAF’s squadron strength depends on it.
“These are ambitious timelines and HAL has to really turn a new leaf with respect with respect to work culture and ethos to meet the timeline. It is vital that this happens because the building up of IAF squadron strength is dependent on HAL’s performance,” he said.
Reason for scepticism
The scepticism on HAL timelines is because of how the Tejas programme has progressed over nearly four decades.
When the LCA programme was initiated in 1983, the plan was to release the first aircraft by 1994. However, the first prototype of LCA flew only in 2001 — 18 years after the project started.
In December 2013, Tejas got initial operational clearance and in 2019, the IAF was given the first aircraft with final operational clearance.
There were no plans to have a Mk 1A version, but that was a compromise reached with the IAF in 2015 when Manohar Parrikar was the defence minister. The original plan for the Tejas Mk 2 would have meant structural changes to the aircraft, which would have been a time-consuming affair. Instead, the IAF decided to go in for Mk 1A with four major improvements.