It was India’s proud moment, as its aerospace tech-marvel ‘LCA Tejas’ put up a perfectly orchestrated aerobatic ballet at Aero India 2019 in Bengaluru. Shining vibrantly and gliding across the sky, Tejas put up a stellar performance drawing applause from the crowd.

The 19th edition of the trade show also marked a significant step forward in the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) program, when Tejas was awarded the Final Operational Clearance (FOC), paving the way for the aircraft to formally be part of the Air Force’s strike fleet.

The FOC for Tejas, the variant designed and built specifically to meet the requirements of the Air Force, was long overdue. Secretary Defence R&D and Chairman DRDO Dr G Satheesh Reddy handed over the FOC certificate and Release to Service Document (RSD) to the Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa, in the presence of Defence Secretary Shri Sanjay Mitra and CMD of HAL Shri R Madhavan.

As part of the FOC campaign the aircraft has received a host of upgraded technologies compared to the IOC variant. The aircraft now has proven Beyond Visual Range (BVR) and Air-to-Ground missile firing capabilities. One of the most demanding requirements of the Air Force was to enable Air-to-Air refuelling capabilities aboard the aircraft. This, according to teams at ADA was an extremely daunting challenge. The teams, however, on September 10, 2018 utilising the LSP – 8 platform successfully demonstrated this demanding technology by conducting multiple wet Air-to-Air refuelling missions with IL-78 refueller platform.

The FOC variant of Tejas will be capable of firing the Derby and Python air-to-air missiles. The aircraft has also been equipped with a GSh-23 revolving canon to counter any close-range threats. With the addition of BVR missile firing capabilities, the aircraft is now a potent and true swing role fighter, capable of neutralising both aerial and surface targets simultaneously in a single mission.

Besides HAL has been handed over the FOC standard Aircraft drawings, enabling it to being production of the next batch of 20 Tejas aircraft in the FOC configuration. Tejas is a product of the LCA program, was drafted in the late 80s to equip the Indian Air Force with its maiden indigenously built fighter aircraft.

The ADA developed ‘LCA Tejas’. Credits – Deb Rana.

HAL has committed to delivering all of the 16 IOC configuration aircraft to the IAF’s 45th Squadron, the maiden squadron to be equipped with Tejas, by the end of the current fiscal year (FY). Of the 16 aircraft on order, HAL has already delivered 12 of the fighters, which have between them flown more than 1,500 successful sorties with the squadron. Of the remaining four aircraft with HAL, SP (Serial Production)-13 and SP-14 aircraft have completed their maiden flights and are going tests with HAL, the aircraft are to be delivered in March, 2019. SP-15 and SP-16 are also at various stages of production, while SP-16 is expected to have its maiden flight early in March, SP – 15, being manufactured in the newer second production line, is expected to be available only towards the FY-end.

As part of its plans to increase the production rate of Tejas, which has been a key concern for the Air Force, the MoD had pumped in more than INR 1381.04 crore for establishing a second production line in Bengaluru. With second line in operation, HAL plans to produce at least 16 fighter/annum.

Dr Ajay Kumar Singh, Secretary, Department of Defence Production, detailing the Ministry’s efforts said that HAL would overtime be made an integrator of the technology, while the expertise of the country’s private sector would be tapped for manufacturing critical aero structures and systems for Tejas.

As part of the program, HAL has already outsourced almost all actives relating to manufacturing of aero structures. While front fuselage for the aircraft is being manufactured by Dynamatic Technology Limited, the centre fuselage is being manufactured by Vem technologies. The rear fuselage is being provided by Alpha-Tocol engineering solutions, NAL and TASL are manufacturing the Fin and Rudder assembly. The wings are already being sources from Larsen and Toubro. This program, with HAL as an integrator, is expected to substantially reduce the manufacturing timeframe.

The air force which should have been operating at least 42 squadrons has only 30 squadrons of fighter aircraft. As the air force’s need increases, it becomes imperative that the local agencies stick to the timeline.

LCA Tejas flies armed to the teeth; Credits – Deb Rana.

Tejas Mk-1A to take flight three years after contract

In September 2015, HAL, ADA and the IAF had agreed up on the terms of ‘Standard of Preparation – 2018 (SoP – 18)’, under which the developmental agencies are designing a more capable variant of Tejas aircraft.

The Mk-1A aircraft will have more than 100 developments over the Mk-1 version. The air force has demanded that the developers equip it with several cutting edge technologies, predominantly AESA radar, EW and self-protection jammer systems and mid-air refuelling probes.

Progress on Mk-1A program has been steady and the lead developmental agencies such as ADA and HAL have begun multiple independent development projects. Besides, the agencies have also floated several tenders for acquiring prerequisite technologies. Developmental agencies have already completed two of the four key requirements giving a boost to the upgrade program.

In Dec 2015, HAL floated a multi-billion dollar tender for procurement of AESA radars. The tender floated by the Aviation Research and Design Centre (ARDC) had been forwarded to Elta of Israel, Raytheon & Northrop Grumman of USA, Saab AB of Sweden, Thales of France and Rosoborronexport of Russia. Elta has now been down selected to offer its EL/M-2052 AESA radars.

These AESA radars are highly automated and feature no mechanically moving parts and this enables them to simultaneously track targets at multiple frequencies using electronic modules at a much faster pace than conventional radars.

HAL seeks to acquire at least 100 AESA radars to equip the 83 contracted Mk- 1A aircraft. While 24 of these systems are to be acquired in fully built configuration, the rest are to be acquired in a kit form and then be manufactured here by a local partner. This will not only help address the need for the Mk-1A aircraft but will also help the country’s under-development ‘Uttam AESA radar’ program.

The Tejas Mk-1A aircraft will also feature advanced Electronic Warfare (EW) suite. This equipment is a major boost when involved in multi-role missions. DRDO’s Defence Avionics Research Establishment (DARE) has been charged with the development of jammer systems. These systems have been tested aboard the PV-1 Tejas aircraft.

Tejas aircraft with the newly integrated bolt on refueling probe. Source - Deb Rana.
Tejas aircraft with the newly integrated bolt on refueling probe. Source – Deb Rana.

R Madhavan speaking about the Mk-1A said that the first flight would be three years after the contract for the aircraft are concluded by the Air Force. The IAF has already issued RFP for at least 83 of these aircraft. A formal conclusion of the contract is expected to happen in the next two-three months. Mk-1A is expected to have its maiden flight in 2022.

Design Realisation of Mk-II Underway

Following the issuance of initial staff requirement by the Air HQ for Tejas Mk-II, ADA is now believed to be in deliberation with senior Air Staff officer for the realisation of the initial airframe and technical requirements. After final modalities are worked out between ADA, HAL and Air HQ, the aircraft is expected to hit the design tables later this year.

The Mk-II variant of the aircraft is expected to be an altogether newer platform. The airframe itself will be redesigned around the newer GE F-414 GE engine. The introduction of a more powerful aero engine will mean that aircraft can carry heavier payloads.

LCA Tejas – The flagship aircraft of HAL and ADA. Source – Deb Rana.

The airframe will also be stretched out to enable the platform to carry greater amount of fuel. This will mean that the aircraft will receive a quantum leap in its combat radius. This is also expected to drastically boost the limited combat range of the aircraft. Adding canards to the aircraft, ADA has now cherished the Mk-2 version of Tejas as Medium Weight Fighter, meaning the aircraft will no longer operate as an LCA fighter.

Over the years, India’s LCA development agencies have gone through some of the most turbulent weathers. But, Tejas has stood the test of time and has moved closest to fruition in 2018.