JODHPUR: The Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas is in news again as the United States' Air Force chief General David L Goldfein flew a sortie from Jodhpur Air Force base on Saturday. Goldfein's French counterpart General Andre Lanata would do the same soon. But it is the LCA, from Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), that has been keeping the IAF hanging in balance since 1983 on its order of 83 such aircraft. Out of the 83 aircraft ordered by the IAF, it has just received six so far. The delay has been conveyed to the ministry of defence by the IAF and both the previous air chiefs had expressed concerns over the same. More so, the mere six Tejas—yet to be declared 'combat ready'—are part of the initial contract for 40 aircraft given by IAF in 2005. For inducting the entire fleet of 83 aircraft, IAF has to wait for one more decade.
This at a time when the IAF has already been pleading before the government that the number of its fighter squadrons will fall to 31 by March-end compared to its sanctioned strength of 42 required in case of simultaneous aggression from Pakistan and China.
But as the IAF struggles to replace its dwindling fighter squadrons and obsolete fighter fleet, it is not just the issue of delivery of these aircraft but also their performance that are bothering the air force.
Speaking about the design pitfalls, a senior IAF official closely associated with the testing of Tejas prototypes said that the aircraft fell well short of its design performance goals set in 1982.
"A cursory glance of capabilities shows that Tejas is extremely handicapped when it comes to the crucial criterion of the 'ability to turn', or change direction rapidly so as to throw off an attacker or turn to face him. On this feature, Tejas is only as capable as a MiG 21 of 1957 vintage. Even the IAF's Mirage 2000 is better than this," the official said.
"Further, the agility of Tejas, i.e. the time taken to achieve a given rate of turn or pitch, is also limited by its 'fly by wire' control laws which are yet to prove departure protection. No amount of pilot skills will be able to overcome the LCA's limitations including those on spin tests," said the official, adding that Tejas might have to run for its own survival when engaged in a combat with PAF's F-16 and People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF)'s J-10, J-11, J-16 and J-20. HAL officials could not be contacted for comments.
Officials closely associated with assessing Tejas said that the LCA's ability to strike targets afar was also a matter of concern when compared to other contemporary single-engine fighters. And to worsen matters, Tejas comes with a high maintenance cost. IAF has already conveyed it to the MoD that Tejas can be just one component in a healthy mix of LCA and other high-performance fighters in IAF.
Amidst these questionable and depressing achievements, eyeing foreign markets for export of the aircraft also becomes problematic.