The first squadron of the Indian Air Force’s light combat aircraft (LCA) took flight on Friday morning. However, getting the two Tejas fighters in the air was a long, three decade journey plagued with multiple problems.
The project was sanctioned in 1983 as a replacement for the Soviet-origin MiG-21 fleet. However, the Indian Air Force (IAF)’s plan to get the indigenous warplanes airborne in 1994 missed several deadlines due to various factors.
The failure to build an engine indigenously was one of them, leading to a domino effect of delays.
Over a third of the components used in Tejas, including the current American-built engines, are imported. Sanctions imposed by the US after India conducted nuclear tests in May 1998 nearly brought the project to a grinding halt for it cut off access to certain imported technologies.
In an interview in 2013, VK Saraswat, then director general of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), said the sanctions pushed the project development back by over two decades.
“All suppliers cancelled their agreements and European firms also stopped cooperation. When such a situation occurred, we had to do everything ourselves. This was a major setback,” Saraswat, said.
“This situation continued from 1980 till 2000 when the first aircraft was rolled out. Time was taken to also overcome the blocks created by Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).”
India became a member of the MTCR only this week.
The sanctions led to key design changes and a further delay in setting up production facilities which, according to the DRDO, had to create components “from scratch”.
The deadline stretched further with the Air headquarters involving itself in the project only in 2006, five years after the LCA’s first test flight.
The longer it took, the more expensive the project became. Initially green-lit at a cost of Rs 560 crore, the development cost of the fighter stood at Rs 13,390 crore last year.
A 2015 report by the Comptroller and Auditor General revealed that the delay, aside from the time, set the IAF back by more than Rs 20,000 crore as it had to spend on temporary measures such as upgrading its existing warplanes.
Further, the report revealed that Tejas was riddled with 53 “significant shortfalls” that could compromise its survival in combat. Fixing deficiencies in the limited series meant more time.
“The delay has upset our calculations but the raising of the LCA squadron is significant for the IAF. We do not have adequate number of fighter squadrons and Tejas will help address that to some degree,” said an IAF officer.
With this week’s induction, the IAF’s 45 Squadron, also known as Flying Daggers, has been resurrected. Previously consisting of MiG-21 Bis jets, it is credited with shooting down a Pakistani Atlantique naval patrol plane in 1999 for violating Indian airspace.
Manufactured by Bengaluru-based Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, Tejas is in its initial operational clearance (IOC) configuration and comes with limited capabilities. In fact, around 18-19 shortcomings related to maintainability are yet to be sorted out.
Future versions – the final operational clearance (FOC) model and Tejas Mk1A – are expected to pack the powerful punch the air force needs.
The IAF eventually plans to induct a total of 120 Tejas jets – 20 each of the IOC and FOC configuration and 80 Mk1A models. The original requirement, projected in October 1985, was for 220 light-weight planes.