The Bold Voice of J&K

Large numbers matter

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Anantha Krishnan M

The critics of home-grown Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas might be struggling to chart a new flight path for their future assault. With the euphoria over the induction of the first Tejas Squadron continuing, some of the fieriest critics have already switched sides. After all, success breeds success.
After waiting in the wing for over 15 years since its first flight, the Indian Air Force (IAF) finally inducted two Tejas fighters on 1st July, signalling the beginning of a new era in country’s military aviation. The No. 45 Squadron of the IAF (Flying Daggers) would be based in Bengaluru for the next two years, fine-tuning all aspects of flying, ground-handling and repair of a new fighter plane.
Having chased Tejas for nearly a quarter of century as a defence writer, it was a great moment of pride to see Group Captain Rangachari taking the bird for the first official sortie in IAF colours. The long wait has finally ended and Tejas has flown into IAF hangars. The onus now completely shifts to Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) to produce it in large numbers and Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) to fasten the Final Operational Clearance (FOC) process. Those who saw ADA-HAL relationship from close quarters would agree that both should now look at Tejas through the eyes of IAF. This shift in focus and thought process would propel the project ahead.
For the project from here on, it’s all about numbers. As per the current plan, the next 18 production variants should be delivered to IAF by 2018 to form the full squadron. Many firmly believe that unless HAL gets more firm orders, the private sector wouldn’t join hands. The HAL says that by ramping up its infrastructure, production rate would increase and they would deliver 120 aircraft by 2025.
But IAF’s worries are far from over. They do not want to brand Tejas Squadron as a two-plane unit. They are keen to have the follow-on planes at the earliest. They want two more planes by Air Force Day celebrations at Hindon this year. HAL says they have brought down the equipping cycle from 32 months to eight months, a pointer to its commitment to the national programme.
Next six months are crucial for ADA as they prepare Tejas for a series of missions to fulfill the full operational capability (FOC) parameters. The pending milestones include: air-to-air refueling capability; integration of GSH 23 mm gun, a tandem pylon to enhance bomb carriage capability; integration of BVRAAM (Beyond Visual Range Air to Air Missile) and finally expansion of aircraft envelope for higher Angles of Attack-cum-improved manoeuvring.
While the work is in progress at different stages to undertake these missions, it’s not sure whether HAL-ADA-NFTC (National Flight Test Centre) combine would complete these in six months. If not, the FOC would get extended by another three months. However, while the FOC may be in the early part of 2017, the structural build standard of the aircraft would be frozen by end of this year. This is critical for HAL to plan the build of the second 20 aircraft.
The FOC-variants would join IAF after the first 20 is delivered in the Initial Operational Clearance format. But IAF would now test the ability of HAL-ADA to quickly incorporate their feedback on to new Tejas production variants. Before the Squadron moves to its permanent base in Sulur by 2018, the IAF ground crew would work in close liaison with HAL fine-tuning their skills based on pilot feedback. Product support becomes a key factor for Tejas’ Squadron operations now.
So what have we learnt from the Tejas story so far? The biggest one could be the self belief in developing a whole range of enabling technologies for a fighter. We developed technologies that were denied. Lessons from Sanctions came as a big boost to scientists and engineers, as they challenged themselves. It opened new window of opportunities.
Locally developed technologies
The fly-by-wire flight Control Laws (CLAW) developed jointly by ADA and National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) for Tejas is an ideal example to cite. The Digital Flight Control Computer (DFCC) from Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) is another critical system we developed. Hardware and software of the complete avionics suite of Tejas was locally developed. Taking the challenges head on was the key.
There has been earlier a lament that the user changed the requirements thus delaying the programme. However, as brought out by the current head of ADA, the aircraft is ‘future ready’ and changes in weapons and sensors would be incorporated with minimal effort.
This is considered a big plus in the aircraft and systems capability. The IAF must now aggressively brand Tejas at global platforms, like other Air Forces do. Similar to what India did at Bahrain this year, Tejas and its capabilities should be showcased to the world more often, signalling our military might.

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