Back in the early 1980’s, the IAF started to look around for a replacement for early marks of the Mig-21 fleet, which would become due for replacement in the next 15 years. After discussions with the IAF, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), the Government of India (GOI) decided to build an indigenous fighter as a replacement, rather than import one.
This was a very sensible decision as no country could hope to achieve any sort of strategic independence in foreign policy affairs without a strong capability to manufacture weapons required for its armed forces within the country.
After the Marut programme in the 1960’s no indigenous fighter development programme was attempted in India, mainly due to paucity of funds. Meanwhile, aeronautical technology galloped ahead in advanced countries like the USA, the erstwhile Soviet Union and Europe. Fly by wire technology, in which there is no physical link between the control column in the cockpit and
the control surfaces on the aircraft, digital avionics in a ‘glass cockpit’ in which round dial instruments were replaced by multi-function screens and the use of composite materials rather than metal in the airframe were the key technologies which India lacked. In order to bridge the gap, it was decided to incorporate these technologies in the proposed fighter. As the new fighter was to replace Mig-21s in operational squadrons, the IAF wanted the new aircraft to be available for induction into squadrons by the late 1990s.
This was a very tight time frame and HAL expressed its inability to meet it. The DRDO set up the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) as a programme management office and said it would harness national capabilities in the public, private and academic sectors to meet timelines. HAL was to be the principal partner in this endeavour. A provision was also made to obtain consultancy from foreign aircraft companies in crucial areas like fly by wire technology. The IAF was sceptical about the ability of Indian industry to absorb all these new technologies and produce a ‘ready to go to war’ fighter, within the required time frame. A wise decision was taken to go for a technology demonstration programme by building three prototypes, two flying and one structural test specimen, and conducting a limited flight test programme of 200-220 sorties to prove the new technologies.
The Technology Demonstration Programme
The technology demonstration programme was beset with difficulties from the word go. There was a woeful lack of infrastructure to build a modern fighter in the country. It had to be created from scratch. Skilled manpower was scarce. Computational facilities were rudimentary. A main frame computer had to be imported from the USA. Expertise was also lacking and Dassault of France was chosen to help out with the Project Definition Phase (PDP). The PDP was completed by the end of 1988 but a decision to go ahead with the project was held up for want of funds. By the end of 1990, India was almost broke and the LCA programme was put on the back burner. It was only after the Narasimha Rao government assumed office in mid 1991 and set the economy back on the rails that the project was revived. A big bang budgetary sanction of Rs 2,188 crore was obtained in June 1993 and metal cutting started at HAL, Bangalore. Consultancy contracts with foreign aerospace majors were inked and good progress was being made when the 1998 Pokhran nuclear tests resulted in crippling technology sanctions.
Undaunted, Team LCA forged ahead and the first technology demonstrator aircraft piloted by Wg Cdr Rajiv Kothiyal, took to the air on 04 Jan 2001. In spite of the risks involved in incorporating so many new technologies in a single aircraft, the technology demonstration programme of 200+ flights on two aircraft was completed without incident by 31 Mar 2004.
The Present Status
Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee witnessed a flying demonstration of the aircraft at HAL, Bangalore on 04 May 2003 and named the aircraft Tejas, which is the Sanskrit word for radiance. 2925 test flights have been completed in perfect safety so far. Initial operational clearance was achieved in December 2013 and the then Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne received the documents from Chairman, HAL. The aircraft has been tested in its full altitude and speed envelope and has exhibited satisfactory handling characteristics. Test pilots are very pleased with its handling qualities which is the ease with which the aircraft can be flown and the mission performed. The glass cockpit and helmet mounted sighting system gives the pilot excellent situational awareness and visual combat capability. As the R-73 Russian all aspect close combat missile (CCM) has been integrated, the aircraft will be a lethal opponent in within visual range encounters. A laser target designation pod has been integrated and laser guided bombs have been dropped with very good accuracy. In short, the aircraft can perform an useful operational role as of now.
Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missile integration, ironing out some minor glitches in radar performance, integral gun firing in the air, air to air refuelling tests and small expansion of the manoeuvre envelope, are the remaining tasks to be completed to achieve final operational clearance. Integral gun firing tests have been completed on the ground. As of now, the stand alone testing of the indigenous electronic warfare suite is in progress on one of the prototypes. On satisfactory completion of tests, the suite has to be installed in a pod and further airborne tests carried out. It is a work in progress but the end is in sight.
The big unknowns as of now are the maintainability of the aircraft and product support availability in the field. Unfortunately, this data can only be obtained after the first squadron is formed and the aircraft is flown daily for 200-300 hours every month for some time.This is because the low intensity of flying during the flight test programme at the manufacturer’s facility where expertise and spares are readily available does not give the correct picture. There is no option but to attack these problems as they emerge in the field. This writer has witnessed at first hand the induction of several new types of aircraft into service and on every occasion, problems have occurred. So there is no reason for despair. In fact, the IAF should give the same leeway it gives to foreign suppliers to Indian agencies. The natural tendency is to be extra demanding of our own people.
The IAF has ordered 20 aircraft with option for 20 more. The first production version was flown last year and HAL has set up exclusive production facilities for the Tejas. The rate of production has to be increased to meet IAF squadron reequipment goals.
The IAF has said that the Mark 1 version currently flying does not meet its operational requirements. An improved version with a more powerful engine, the US made General Electric F-414 engine has been asked for. This engine is a little wider than the GE F- 404 IN20 engine in use now. To fit the new engine, the rear fuselage of the Tejas has to be redesigned with the introduction of a half metre plug to lengthen the fuselage and the air intakes made slightly bigger to cater for increased mass flow requirements. Weight increase will take place and the higher thrust engine may not be able to deliver the improved performance required. One has to wait and watch this space.
An alternative approach could be to improve the Tejas Mk1 itself by lengthening the fuselage by half a metre, redistributing the layout of equipment to get rid of the ballast and rebalancing the aircraft. Servicing requirements, suggested by the IAF project monitoring team, could be taken care of and the additional internal volume could be used for an electronic warfare suite and/or more fuel. This is within the capability of ADA/HAL designers to achieve in a short period of time. The improved fineness ratio (an important aerodynamic parameter related to supersonic performance) due to the increased length may well improve supersonic performance. In this writer’s opinion it is a quicker and far better option than trying to fit the F-414 engine.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Make in India’ initiative is a much needed shot in the arm for the Tejas programme. A flying fourth generation fighter made in the country is available and crying out for further development. The dynamic Defence Minister Shri Parrikar has strongly supported the Prime Minister’s initiative. It is hoped that right decisions will be taken and the Tejas programme’s growth potential will be fully exploited. India never did that with the Marut programme and fell behind by three decades.
Gains of the Project
The foremost gain of the project has, undoubtedly, been closure of the three decade long aeronautical technology gap in several critical areas. First, the ability to design a Control Law (CLAW) for a fly-by-wire flight control system (FCS) is a major gain. It would have been a commendable achievement even for an aerodynamically stable aircraft but to develop and flight test it for an unstable compound delta wing aircraft is truly remarkable. The design
THE PRIME MINISTER’S THRUST ON “MAKE IN INDIA” HAS ADDED A FURTHER FILLIP AND FOREIGN OEMS AND OTHER MANUFACTURERS ARE LOOKING FOR JVS AND OFFSET PARTNERS, BUOYED BY THE ECONOMIC STABILITY PREVAILING AT THE MOMENT. INDIA MUST BE READY TO CREATE THE CONFIDENCE, WITHOUT ANY SCAMS DISCOLOURING THE WATERS AND BE READY TO ABSORB THE HUGE AMOUNTS OF TECHNOLOGY BEING OFFERED FOR TRANSFER.
and development of a quadruplex digital computer system for the FCS was also done indigenously. The intelligence in the computer in the form of the CLAW and house keeping software was developed, tested and integrated on the flight control computer at the Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) at Bangalore. The building of an ‘Iron Bird’ at HAL’s design bureau to test the FCS on the ground and then conducting an exhaustive test programme on it to validate FCS software was an entirely new experience for the ADE/CLAW/ADA/HAL engineers. As a result, the country now has the capability to design, test and integrate a complex fly by wire FCS for a modern fighter aircraft. There is, however, no gainsaying the fact that foreign consultancy provided by US and British firms played an important role in achieving this capability. The credit to the Indian engineers lies in the fact that they were able to absorb this technology in a short time and were able to proceed on their own when post Pokhran 1998 technology sanctions were imposed. It is worth remembering that technology sanctions with zero availability of foreign consultancy were in place for 31 months before first flight on 04 Jan 2001.
The mission computer and glass cockpit software is entirely indigenous. It is worth stating that although the Tejas is powered by US engines and the back end of the airborne radar is Israeli and some other sub systems are also imported, the design of the aircraft is Indian overall and at the systems level. The million lines of code have been written in India by Indians and gives the country the ability to do upgrades of the aircraft at a later date.
The Naval LCA
The Indian Navy(IN) has strongly supported the naval LCA programme. It is far easier to design an airframe stressed for carrier deck operations and then adapt it for land use than the other way around. Unfortunately, we in India adopted the ‘other way’ and designed the land version first. In spite of this more difficult approach, the naval version first flew in 2013 and completed the first ski jump take off from the Shore Based Test Facility (SBTF) at Dabolim airfield in Goa in 2014. Arrested landings on the deck require a tail hook and work is in progress to install the hook on the first two naval prototypes. Though the naval version under test is unlikely to meet IN operational requirements (ORs) the learning curve in the naval LCA programme has been very steep and is a necessary step to achieve full indigenous capability to manufacture state of the art fixed wing naval fighters. A twin engined heavier fighter can be planned a decade from now to fully comply with naval ORs.
All major players in the Tejas programme like the IAF, IN, DRDO, HAL and CSIR have realised that managing a complex aeronautical project is not easily done. It is time consuming and requires a long term commitment of human and financial resources.Continuity of personnel working in the programme has to be ensured. Specifications should not be changed unless absolutely necessary. Early intervention is better then late intervention. The service entry of the Tejas in the IAF will be a defining moment for the Indian aeronautical industry which is poised to scale great heights in the coming three decades. The Tejas programme will always be remembered as the catalyst that made it all possible.
Commissioned in the flying branch of the Indian Air Force in 1962, Air Marshal Philip Rajkumar, PVSM, AVSM, VM, is an alumnus of the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington and the Royal College of Defence Studies, UK. A veteran of the1965 Indo Pak war, he underwent the Experimental Test Pilots course at the Ecole du Personnel Navigant d’essais et de Reception (EPNER) in France in 1971, and thereafter, spent the next three decades participating in numerous indigenous aeronautical development programmes both as a test pilot and programme manager. He retired in 2003 as the Director, Aeronautical Development Agency.