In a historic decision, the Cabinet Committee on Security on January 13 approved the country’s largest-ever indigenous defence deal when it cleared the procurement of 83 Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas Mk 1-A — ten of which are to be trainers — for the Indian armed forces from Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd at an approximate cost of Rs 47,000 crore, closing the circle that began with the commissioning of the LCA project in the 1980s.
The first rollout is expected in 2023-24, and then on 16 aircraft are to be manufactured every year on present reckoning. To start with, the indigenous content is to be 50 per cent, to be stepped up to 60 per cent within a short timeframe. HAL would be outsourcing the job to more than 550 domestic vendors.
This gives us an idea of the technological and economic spinoffs of the LCA programme for the Indian economy as a whole, going beyond the military aspect of acquiring a fighter jet at home which is billed as the workhorse of the future for the Indian Air Force, filling the gap left by the hoary MiG-21s of Soviet manufacture, which have been phased out.
If high-level efficiency is ensured in the production of the Tejas Mk 1-A by HAL, the country will make valuable savings of foreign exchange spent on importing costly fighter jets from Western sources. What’s more, in time, the Tejas will be ready for export too. Some countries are said to have evinced an interest. The realisation of sale will, of course, depend on a host of political, strategic and economic considerations, and the prospect of readying the fighter for export will potentially add to India’s strategic muscle and offer a certain latitude in dealing with the world.
The Tejas Mk1-A — a fourth-generation fighter — is a single-engine, lightweight, highly agile, all-weather, multi-role fighter aircraft capable of air-to-air refuelling. It has Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missile capability, and updated avionics and flight control software. The good news is that the LCA Mk-2 version with a bigger engine is in its design stage and is expected to be ready for trials next year. As of 2019, the IAF is committed to procuring 324 Tejas MK1-A fighters of different variants. That signifies the workhorse role visualised for this sophisticated fighter.
The domestic manufacture of the Tejas Mk 1-A is a signpost of enormous value, although it has been more than three decades in the making, starting from the conception stage when the Aircraft Development Agency (ADA) was set up in 1984. The ADA designed Tejas in collaboration with Aircraft Research and Design Centre (ARDC) of HAL.
To find true liberation from imports in the strategic sphere of fighter aircraft manufacture, it is now crucial to look at the propulsion aspect for upgrade. India’s LCA is fitted with the GEF-404 engine. In the wake of the 1998 nuclear test, the United States had held up the supply of these engines. It is therefore important to return special focus to the development of the indigenous Kaveri engine, which has been in the works for decades.
To achieve cent per cent indigenous content, radars and avionics will also need to be manufactured domestically. Only a country that can grow its own food and has the ability to defend itself can ultimately avoid being at anyone’s beck and call.