Thursday, June 13, 2024

The Tejas: Making Our Skies Safer

By Bikram Vohra

Bikram Vohra, Consulting Editor

In old times, valour knights would joust against one another, each on horseback, lances at the ready. A similar confrontation took place at the November airshow in Dubai. The Indian Tejas took on the Chinese-Pakistan combine of the J 17 in a competitive act of aerial prowess in the skies above the Emirates. It must be said the Tejas LCA was a lot more agile and impressive in its performance envelope and this comparison has been supported by several countries looking to import hardware for their forces. The Tejas is seen as a more capable, manoeuvrable, and enduring option in the light combat aircraft category and its power plant in the GE 404 is far more dependable than the WS13 that powers the JF-17 Thunder combat aircraft. It has what one might call a complicated multiple midwifery and is a bit of a muddle as it is jointly developed by the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex and China’s Chengdu Aircraft Industry Corp. Consequently, it has a Chinese airframe, Western avionics, and a Russian engine.

The Tejas has been long in the making and often been seen as a victim of neglect in terms of being a viable project. It was only after 2014 that it was placed on track and given the importance it deserved and has persevered to climb to a new high. Before that it was a series of stops and starts. The Tejas project was initiated in the 1980s with the aim of replacing the aging fleet of MiG-21 fighters in the Indian Air Force (IAF). The development process, however, faced numerous challenges, including technological bottlenecks, funding issues, and delays, which extended the timeline.

PM Modi’s maiden sortie on Tejas

A quick look at its rocky history.
The Tejas was launched in 1983 as a programme to develop a multi-role aircraft that would become the mainstay of the fighter spearhead. The Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) was established in 1984 to manage the development of the Tejas. The design and development phase involved collaboration with various Indian and international partners, including Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), DRDO, and several foreign agencies. The Tejas program faced numerous technological challenges and delays during its development, including issues related to engine development, composite materials, and avionics. The first technology demonstrator aircraft, TD-1, made its maiden flight on January 4, 2001. This marked a significant milestone in the program but confidence in mass production was still lamentable and the programme limped along.

Limited series production of the Tejas however began, and the initial operational clearance (IOC) for the Tejas was granted by the Indian Air Force in December 2013.

Tejas replica presented to PM Modi by Air Chief Marshal Chaudhari

From then on it began to gather speed and with specific initiatives aimed at self-reliance discovered real and valid positioning.
The Tejas Mk I was formally inducted into the IAF in July 2016, and the IAF has gradually increased its orders for the Tejas since then. Additionally, the naval variant of the Tejas, known as the LCA Navy, has been developed for the Indian Navy.

The Tejas achieved its final operational clearance (FOC) in February 2019, indicating that the aircraft was fully equipped for operational deployment.

All too often outdated technology called for a return to the drawing board. In terms of that technology, the Tejas today is way ahead of the game. It incorporates a glass cockpit with multifunction displays, hands-on throttle and stick controls, and a modernized avionics suite, empowering the pilot with superior situational awareness and mission management capabilities. Officially it is stated the glass cockpit is compatible with night vision goggles and is outfitted with a locally created head-up display (HUD), three multi-function displays, and two Smart Standby Displays from the Central Scientific Instruments Organisation (CSIO). To reduce the pilot’s workload, the Tejas incorporates a hands-on throttle and stick (HOTAS) system. The pilot interacts with onboard systems using a multifunctional keyboard and multiple selection panels, while the displays provide essential information necessary for operation. The aircraft’s fly-by-wire system, along with its advanced radar and sensor package, enables it to operate effectively in diverse operational environments, including high-threat scenarios.

PM Modi received by Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari along with Tejas team

Two Squadrons, the 18th and 45th are now on full Tejas strength. An order worth Rs 36,468 Crore for delivery of 83 LCA Mk 1A aircraft has been placed with HAL and delivery is scheduled to begin by February 2024 into 2028. The feeling of achievement in HAL and the DRDO is tangible and well deserved. The proof truly lies in the pudding and this pudding is sweet. Naysayers have not only been silenced but if you were fortunate enough to be witnessing the Dubai performance it would have sparked great pride.
In combat terms the Tejas has more firing points and a 30 minutes endurance advantage over the J17 since it carries more wet stations for fuel.
The Indian Ministry of Defence recently announced the successful firing of Astra, a Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air missile developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). Besides Astra, DRDO is developing Rudram1 anti-radiation missiles, anti-ship missiles, precision-guided ammunition, and glide bombs for the LCA programme.

The import potential for the Tejas has been reflected in over six nations evicting interest but it may be made secondary to fulfilling the IAF’s shopping list, like replacing the MiG 21 fleet and manufacturing 324 possible frontline delta winged units would take us to 2030. Ramp up to twenty-four aircraft annually on two assembly lines of HAL at Nasik and Bengaluru.

The MK 2 version will be stronger and the GE F414 engine to power it is likely to be made in India too. Against the odds the ugly duckling has turned into a swan and into the future the mainstay of the Indian fighter force.
What the Tejas has done is give make in India a major boost as a viable 4.5 generation frontline delivery system. Its final avatar does fulfil its Sanskrit meaning which is ‘radiant.’ The LCA had defied many deaths in the 40 years of its ‘existence’ finally emerging out of its crusty chrysalis of doubt and flying high. As if to endorse its effectiveness and safety even more dramatically Prime Minister Narender Modi opted for a sortie and indicated through this high-profile demonstration that if it is good enough for him it is good enough for the air force and the country.

On landing after the 30-minute sortie commanded by Group Captain Debanga Mandal, Modi said, ‘Successfully completed a sortie on the Tejas. The experience was incredibly enriching, significantly bolstering my confidence in our country’s indigenous capabilities, and leaving me with a renewed sense of pride and optimism about our national potential.”

While many might see this sort of exercise as unnecessary the fact is the visuals do boost morale and confidence in an indigenous production of high quality. When it occurs in the same period as a high velocity live demo in a professional airshow and stuns a knowledgeable audience with its capabilities then the message which goes out is strong, especially when interpreted by the enemy. Not only does it indicate India’s self-sustainability and reliance but also underscores doubts in the adversaries over their product. In a psychological fashion it unseats the Knight from his steed.

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