New Delhi: Dressed in a green flight suit, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh waved to the cameras as he boarded the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas. Flanked by Air Vice Marshal N Tiwari, who is also the Project Director, National Flight Test Centre, ADA (Aeronautical Development Agency) in Bengaluru, Singh took flight in the aircraft which is expected to power India’s indigenous defence capabilities.
On September 13, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) achieved a major milestone. The naval variant of its indigenously developed Tejas made an “arrested landing” at a test facility in Goa. This means that the LCA Tejas – the naval variant of the India-made aircraft – is now one step closer to landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier. This puts India among an elite group of defence manufacturers who have managed to produce such an aircraft. Experts believe the Tejas Mark II may be able to achieve that elusive feat.
While much of public discourse was centred on the French-made Rafale jets, HAL had been diligently working on both variants of the Tejas. A total of Rs. 14,047 crore was earmarked for the Tejas project, of which Rs. 3,650 crore was set aside for the naval variant of the Tejas. A multi-role single-engine combat aircraft, the Tejas can hit supersonic speeds.
HAL boasts of the Tejas being the smallest and lightest multi-role aircraft of its kind. It has a wing span of 8.2 meters, length of 13.2 meters, and a height of 4.4 meters and when empty, it weighs 6560 kg. By 2005, the second phase of testing was conducted. The “success” of the Tejas prompted the Indian Navy to charge the ADA with designing a naval variant as well. Once ready, it will be deployed on INS Vikramaditya – Indian Navy’s flagship and sole aircraft carrier.
Initially, the IAF had placed an order with HAL for 40 Tejas aircraft. Last year, the IAF issued the request for proposal (RFP) to HAL for the procurement of another batch of 83 Tejas at a cost of over Rs 50,000 crore.
Air Chief BS Dhanoa’s assessment that India plans to have a 42-squadron Air Force by 2032 seems tough to achieve given the current pace of procurement by the Indian government. According to figures tabled by the Ministry of Defence in the Lok Sabha during the Winter Session of Parliament last year, India will have less squadrons by 2025 than it currently possesses.
The IAF will have 32 Fighter Squadrons and 39 Helicopter Units by 2020. Ten Squadrons of Indian Air Force (IAF) equipped with MiG-21 and MiG-27 aircraft are scheduled to retire by 2024 on completion of their Total Technical Life.
Two squadrons of the Jaguar are also set to retire during this period. So while India will see 12 squadrons retire by 2024, the country will have added only 10 to offset those losses by 2025. So boosting India’s indigenous may help plugging that gap.
But the case for Tejas goes beyond just defence needs. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh had promised India would be a “$10 trillion economy” by 2030 and that the defence sector would play a key role in achieving that.
With the policy of ‘Make In India’ in defence drawing flak and an economic slowdown hitting key sectors of the economy, HAL may emerge as a key employer if the Tejas projects takes off in full steam.