This month, two foreign air chiefs flew in the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas at Jodhpur (Rajasthan) air force station. This assumes significance as in the past, Indian Air Force (IAF) officials have often criticised the aircraft makers (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and DRDO) for not meeting the service requirements.
The showcasing of the aircraft before visiting of foreign dignitaries started a couple of months ago. The first foreign dignitary to co-pilot the Bengaluru developed aircraft was Singapore Defence Minister, Ng Eng Hen, at the IAF base in Kalakunda in November last year.
Now, on February 3, General David L Goldfein, Chief of Staff of the US Air Force during an official visit to India, flew the aircraft at Jodhpur.
Next was the turn of the Chief of the Staff of French Air Force, General André Lanata, to go on a sortie on February 7.
‘Tejas’ is a single-seat, single-jet engine multi-role aircraft designed by the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and Hindustan Aeronautical Limited (HAL). The trainer aircraft has two seats.
By showcasing the aircraft to foreign dignitaries, the government wants to send a message that all is well with the aircraft and also the country’s capability in producing a world class aircraft. The government has already planned to export the LCA Tejas to other countries. At present, HAL has facilities for manufacturing and delivery of 8 LCAs per annum. There is a plan to ramp up the production rate from 8 to 16 aircraft per annum progressively by 2019-20.
According to the plan, first IAF will get 123 aircrafts and then other countries. The LCA project is one of the most delayed indigenous projects, with the Ministry of Defence initiating the project in the 1980s to replace the ageing MiG-21s. However, it has been delayed for several years and only in July 2016, Tejas was inducted in the IAF. It is yet to get Final Operational Clearance (FOC) which is slated to take place in 2018. The FOC aircraft would incorporate Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missiles, improved and better stand-off weapons.
IAF and Navy (which will also get Tejas variant) pilots though appreciate the effort in building the aircraft but they believe that single engine aircraft is always fraught with dangers. “What if the single engine fails when you are flying from Chennai to Andaman Nicobar? questioned a Navy pilot.
However, HAL and DRDO officials maintain that Tejas is best at its price in the whole world. “ We developed the aircraft in 20 years which is the standard time taken world over to design and develop such fighter aircraft. When it was conceptualised, we didn’t have expertise, trained manpower or aviation industry. Therefore, there was a delay. Now, we are developing an advanced version of Tejas which will have additional features. Some countries have shown interest in the aircraft and sorties by foreign air chiefs will send a good message about the aircraft across the globe,” a senior DRDO official told Sakal Times.