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IAF Pushed Into Accepting 120 Below Par LCA Mk-1, Mk-2 Delayed To 2023

By Arming India Correspondent

NEW DELHI, OCT.3, 2015: The Indian Air Force (IAF) has been pushed into accepting 120 under-powered, less capable Tejas Mk-1 Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) due to delay and uncertainty in the development of the Mk-2 version, which is meant to overcome significant performance shortfalls in Mk-1. The delivery of the Mk-2 version of this indigenous aircraft – the world's lightest supersonic fighter - has been delayed till at least 2023.

"The IAF will stand by an order for 120 Tejas fighters. We will induct and upgrade later. We want Tejas, not Mk-1 or Mk-2," shrugged Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha at a press conference today ahead of Air Force Day.

This marks a change of plan, which involved induction of 40 Mk-1 variants to form the first two LCA squadrons of the IAF, and thereafter, of 80 Mk-2 variants to populate four more squadrons. The Mk-2 was meant to be the significantly more capable variant powered by the GE-414 engine for greater thrust to enable a higher weapons payload, and better maneuverability and angle of attack. The Mk-1 is powered by the GE-404, which has a thrust of about 80 kN as compared to 90-98 kN from the GE-414. Integration of the heavier and bigger GE-414 involves structural modifications to the LCA air frame.

"The LCA may not be able to meet all our requirements," the IAF chief confessed ominously. Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar himself has admitted that the Mk-1 is below par. "The following shortcomings have been reported in Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas Mk-1: Absence of Internal Jammer affecting survivability, aircraft performance shortfalls, maintainability issues," he told Parliament as recently as Aug.4, 2015.

IAF Taking LCA To Keep Assembly Line Alive

Sources disclosed that the IAF has been hustled into accepting a proposal by the LCA manufacturer Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), which is meant to ensure that the assembly line for this fighter is kept alive till at least 2025. If the IAF commitment to Mk-1 was restricted to just 40 aircraft, the HAL assembly line would have been idle after 2019-20. The LCA development agency is the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) of the Defense Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).

It has been reported by Business Standard that the LCA Mk-1 variant to be made to its Final Operational Clearance (FOC) specifications will now be christened LCA Mk-1A. According to the earlier program, the first 20 Tejas fighters were to be made to Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) specifications, and the next lot of 20 to the marginally better Final Operational Clearance (FOC) standards. The IOC was accorded in December 2013, and the FOC target is December 2015.

The absence of a critically-required on-board electronic jammer in the IOC Mk-1 to evade detection by enemy radars will be compensated in Mk-1A with suspending this system from an external pylon due to lack of space on board. There are also reports in IHS Jane's 360 that it will be equipped with the ELTA Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar and mid-air refueling probes. Efforts are also underway to ensure that the 6,500-kg Mk-1A is lighter by about 1,000-kg than the Mk-1 by removing the balancing ballast in the nose and reducing the weight of the landing gear.

IAF chief Raha asked HAL to hurry up with delivery. "Production is behind schedule. The production rate needs to be ramped up," he reminded HAL, seeking delivery of the first squadron of 20 IOC standard aircraft by 2017-18, as promised. The first series production LCA was handed over to the IAF in January 2015, about 32 years after this program kicked off. Thereafter, there's been no delivery, with HAL demanding a bigger order to set up a bigger and more prolific assembly line. This demand has now been conceded.

First LCA Mk-1 Yet To Be Delivered To IAF

Raha had told Arming India in an exclusive interview ahead of this press conference that the HAL had only handed over the documents for the first series production LCA Mk-1 to IAF on Jan.17, 2015. "However, the aircraft is yet to be delivered to IAF," he had said.

"We will be in a position to form the first LCA squadron after receipt of the first four LCAs, which is now expected in 2016. The LCA Mk-2 was envisaged to overcome certain shortfalls related to performance, self-protection suite and maintainability aspects of LCA Mk-1. The LCA Mk-2 is at the D&D (Design and Development) stage and delivery timelines cannot be estimated at this stage," he had said.

Development of the Mk-2 was sanctioned in November 2009 at a cost of Rs.2,431.55 crore (about $500 million), with December 2018 as the probable date of completion. But now, it doesn't seem that the maiden flight of the first Mk-2 prototype can take place before 2019. The revised deadline for operational clearance is December 2022. More delays can be expected.

Development of the Mk-1 has already cost Rs.7,965.56 crore (about $1.5 billion). This covers the cost of full scale engineering development in two phases, development of two technology demonstrators, three prototype vehicles, establishment of an assembly line at HAL for producing eight aircraft per year and manufacture of eight limited series production aircraft. The IAF wants HAL to ramp up its rate of LCA production to at least 12 a year.

Under pressure to support a "national effort", the IAF chief tried putting up a brave face. But he's already looking beyond the LCA and its Mk-2, and rooting for the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), which is now in the concept stage. "AMCA is India's Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA). We're looking forward to AMCA with help from other agencies in terms of consultancy. We have 15 years to build AMCA," the Air Chief Marshal said.

The operative part was his exhortation that the Indian defense establishment should not shy away from seeking international help to develop its fighter aircraft.

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