New Delhi: For Air Marshal Philip Rajkumar (Retd), who turned 80 Sunday, flying the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas last February, was a remarkable experience he will always cherish.
Not because the retired IAF officer, then aged 78, was the oldest man to fly the Tejas. But because he had seen the aircraft mature into a full-fledged operational fighter from the days of the drawing board.
As a test pilot, he was in the Tejas hot seat for the fighter’s first 98 flights as the program director of the project.
“Tejas is a remarkable aircraft and has the best flying record ever in the world,” Air Marshal Rajkumar told ThePrint in an interview. “There have been over 5,000 developmental flights without a single accident whatsoever.”
Rajkumar, who was commissioned in 1962 and retired in 2001, is one of the most widely experienced test pilots of the IAF.
It was in September 1994, when he was the Additional Assistant Chief of Air Staff or ACAS (Ops) at Air HQ, that Rajkumar was sent to the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) — an autonomous agency under the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) created in 1984 — to oversee the flight testing of the LCA.
He was personally sought for the job by former President Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who was then the scientific adviser to the Prime Minister and director general of the ADA. Rajkumar went on to become ADA director and served in the role until after retirement.
“I served in the ADA from 1994-2003, during which I set up the National Flight Test Centre,” the retired officer said, referring to the ADA directorate tasked with Tejas testing.
Speaking to ThePrint, Rajkumar, who has also penned a book on the LCA — Radiance in Indian Sky – The Tejas Saga, co-authored with journalist B.R. Srikanth— said the fighter jet has been the target of a sustained vilification campaign.
Some of the world’s most celebrated fighters — including India’s latest acquisition, Rafale — followed similar development timelines, he said, adding that the criticism directed in Tejas’ direction was “unfortunate”.
‘Tejas delay a misconception’
It was in 1983 that the Government of India, then led by Indira Gandhi, rolled out a project to build a new LCA as a replacement for the Russian MiG-21s.
The plan was to carry out the first flight of the new aircraft by 1994. However, the first prototype of LCA flew only in 2001. It was at the time that the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee christened the LCA “Tejas”. In December 2013, the Tejas got Initial Operational Clearance and, in 2019, the IAF was given the first aircraft with Final Operational Clearance.
Earlier this year, the Cabinet Committee on Security cleared a Rs 48,000-crore deal for 83 Tejas, which included 73 Mark 1A versions, marking the first big order for the LCA with the state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).
While the ADA is the coordinator of the LCA programme, HAL is the production partner.
According to Rajkumar, the “unfortunate part of the entire Tejas programme was that it was the most criticised project in the world by the media and others”.
Contrary to allegations that the project has been a money-guzzler, he added, a total of Rs 14,293 crore was spent on the development of the Tejas between 1986 and 2020, when the Tejas’ naval version made its first landing on an aircraft carrier.
“It works out to be Rs 400 crore per year. And see what we have achieved with the Tejas programme. We now have a world-class single-engine fighter, and all future projects, including the fifth-generation one, the deck-based twin-engine fighter, and Tejas Mk II, will be based on what we have gained in this programme,” he said.
Asked about the criticism on account of the alleged delay in the development of the fighter, Rajkumar said this was a misconception. “Everybody calculates from 1983, when Indira Gandhi approved the plan to make an indigenous fighter. It was in 1986 that Rs 500 crore was given to carry out the project definition phase,” he said.
“French firm Dassault Aviation was roped in and they were paid a huge sum. They did the job. It was in 1991 when the plan was presented to the government and it was only in 1993 that money was allocated for a technology demonstrator. This was Rs 2,188 crore,” he said.
The date from which the programme’s duration is calculated, he added, should either be when the technology demonstrator flew or when the first payment for the same was made in 1993.
Seeking to compare the Tejas timeline with that of other fighters, Rajkumar said when the Eurofighter project was initiated by the UK in the 1980s, they had already tested a fly-by-wire system (which replaces conventional manual flight controls with an electronic interface) on the Jaguar.
“The Eurofighter (developed by four European nations) came into service in 2003. They also took nearly 30 years (the fly-by-wire system was tested in the 1970s) to develop the aircraft despite having prior experience and technology. Similarly for the Gripen (Swedish) and even the Rafale (French),” he said.
When India started the project, the Air Marshal noted, it did not have any technology or experience of making a modern fighter.
“We started from scratch. We engaged the Americans and the French also. I still remember during one of the project meetings in the mid-1990s, I told a visiting American official that none in the room was earning even $1,000 per month as salary, including me,” he added. “The American was shocked on hearing this.”
The sanctions imposed on India following the Pokhran nuclear tests were also an impairment as all help being extended from outside was withdrawn, including technological know-how, Rajkumar said.
India’s nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998 were followed by sanctions from western nations, including the US.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)