India on Saturday inducted the light combat aircraft (LCA) with defence minister Manohar Parrikar handing over the first home-built plane to the air force in Bangalore, 33 years after the project was conceived to replace ageing Russian MiG-21 fighters.
However, the first series production LCA, christened Tejas and build by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, is expected to get final operational clearance (FOC) only by the year-end. A warplane gets FOC after all weaponry and systems have been tested and it is fully ready for battle. “We still have some more way to go,” said a former IAF chief.
A senior HAL official said in the FOC-configuration the aircraft would have additional long-range weapons, an advanced electronic warfare suite and mid-air refuelling capability. The LCA was conceived as a project worth Rs 560 crore in 1982, but sanctioned only nine years later.
The HAL is likely to supply 40 LCA Mk-I planes to the IAF by 2020, with the project cost being pegged at more than Rs 25,000 crore. The HAL estimates that the IAF will ultimately field around 14 LCA squadrons to replace the 250-odd MiG-21s in its fleet.
The first 40 planes will come with underpowered American GE-404 engines that restrict the aircraft’s ability to carry optimal weapons payload. The subsequent Mk-II planes will be powered by General Electric’s F414 engines, which are heavier and more powerful.
The GE-404 engines generate a thrust of just around 80-85 kilo Newton, compared to F414’s 95-100 kilo Newton. Fitting the heavier engines will require design changes in the LCA airframe, the senior official said, adding that the HAL is also considering a proposal to upgrade the LCA Mk-I variant.
HAL chief RK Tyagi said the Mk-I aircraft represented an indigenous content of 60%.
Speaking at the induction ceremony, Parrikar asked the HAL to think “out of the box” to meet the time-line challenges by applying the right management tools. IAF chief Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha said the LCA was the need of the hour, factoring in the operational needs of air force. The HAL has produced 15 aircraft in the design and development stage and these have completed more than 2,800 flights.
While the Defence Research and Development Organisation was involved in the LCA project, its chief Avinash Chander, whose term was cut short by the government on January 13, was not present at the ceremony.