On December 20, the Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA) obtained Initial Operational Clearance (IOC), entering the Indian Air Force (IAF) fleet where regular air force pilots will fly it. After 28 years of development, the Tejas is on course to obtain its Final Operational Clearance (FOC) by end-2014, clearing it for full combat. Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) is building forty Tejas fighters for two IAF squadrons.
Questions are rightly raised about what combat role the Tejas could play, given that its specifications were framed decades ago. Sceptics argue that a fighter so light, with such a short operating range, would have little role in an aerial battlefield where bigger, heavily armed fighters call the shots.
An evaluation of the Tejas' combat capability must consider its flying performance, its avionics and the weapon load it carries. At IOC, it already flies at Mach 1.6 (2,000 kmph); operates up to 15,000 metres (50,000 feet); and carries 3,500 kg of mission payload, including weapons and sensors. Its combat radius is 300-350 km, which would be extended next year through in-flight refuelling. By FOC next year, this performance would be enhanced.
The Tejas has been designed as a multi-role fighter. It can engage enemy aircraft with the R-73 short-range air-to-air missile (SRAAM); by FOC next year, more potent air-to-air missiles, probably the Israeli Derby and Python, would be integrated. Against ground targets, the Tejas carries conventional and laser-guided bombs. Next year, it will have an integral 23 millimetre Gasha cannon.
The Tejas' avionics - radar, laser and inertial navigation system - enhances the accuracy of these weapons. Its highly rated Elta EL/M-2032 multi-mode radar provides multi-role capability, allowing the pilot to fire air-to-air missiles at enemy aircraft; and also bomb ground targets with a highly accurate navigation-attack system. The pilot operates his weapons through a head-up display (HUD), or through a helmet-mounted sighting system (HMSS) by merely looking at a target. Experienced fighter pilots say the Tejas is the IAF's most "pilot friendly" fighter.
Although it is one of the world's lightest fighters, the Tejas' weapons load of 3,500 kg compares well with most IAF fighters, including the Mirage-2000, Jaguar, upgraded MiG-27 and the MiG-21. Depending on the mission - strike, photoreconnaissance, or air defence - its eight hard points can carry missiles, bombs, fuel drop tanks or a targeting pod. It can bomb targets and fire missiles as accurately as the Sukhoi-30MKI. The latter scores mainly in its longer range and bigger weapons load, both stemming from its much larger size.
The Tejas' capability is best known to the air force and navy test pilots in the National Flight Test Centre, who have tested it in 2,400 flights. They claim it may be more versatile than the MiG-29 (primarily built for air-to-air combat); the MiG-27 and the Jaguar (both oriented to ground strike); and all variants of the MiG-21, including the multi-role BISON.
The Tejas' likely adversary, the Pakistan Air Force's F-16 fighter, has a slightly larger flight envelope, but the Tejas' superior avionics give it a combat edge over the PAF's older F-16A/Bs (currently being upgraded in Turkey); and superior to their new JF-17 Thunder light fighter, co-developed with China. Only the PAF's 18 new F-16C/D Block 52 fighters, flying since 2010-11 from Jacobabad, may be a match for the Tejas.
The IAF's operational plans earlier had strike aircraft like Jaguars or MiG-27s attacking ground targets, while air defence fighters like the MiG-29 covered them from enemy aircraft. Now mission-specific aircraft are giving way to multi-role fighters, which can do both jobs. This doctrinal shift stemmed from the Mirage-2000, the IAF's first multi-role fighter, which was inducted in the mid-1980s. The Mirage-2000 inspired the Tejas in both role and design.
Today, the IAF controls the aerial battle from airborne early warning and command (AEW&C) aircraft like the Phalcon, a giant radar mounted on a transport aircraft. Flying over the battle space and scanning 400 kilometres on all sides, the AEW&C identifies enemy aircraft and, over a secure datalink, allocates fighters from nearby bases to tackle the intruders. The AEW&C also orders up fighters to strike ground targets in the land battle.
"Tejas light fighters, located at forward airbases like Pathankot, Ambala, Sirsa or Jodhpur are ideal for missions in the vicinity of the border. They are close at hand and react quickly. Being far cheaper, they can be bought and used in larger numbers, saturating the enemy's radar picture and complicating his decision-making," says a senior former IAF planner.
"With an AEW&C guiding the Tejas directly to the target, it does not need a long operating range; and its combination of Elta-2032 radar and air-to-air missiles, are lethal against most contemporary fighters."
Employing the Tejas for the tactical battle would allow the IAF's heavy, multi-role fighters like the Su-30MKI and Rafale to be focused on targets deep inside enemy territory, which are beyond the range of the Tejas - such as major air bases, military headquarters and strategic infrastructure. These fighters, which carry far more fuel and weapons, can take off from bases deep inside India, bomb targets deep inside enemy territory, and also shoot down enemy fighters.
Yet, heavy fighters have their downsides. Maintenance is complex, with half the Su-30MKI fleet usually unavailable for operations. Enemy radar picks up the heavy fighters more easily; the Tejas is smaller, and also stealthier, being largely fabricated from composite materials. Moreover, the loss of a Sukhoi-30 is a Rs 400 crore blow; a Tejas will probably costs one-third of that.
Many IAF planners advocate a balanced air force, with a mix of light and heavy fighters. Light fighters like the Tejas would respond to the tactical battle, while heavier fighters, with their longer range and greater strike power, could tackle more strategic targets.
The light fighter has a long tradition in the IAF. On December 17, Defence Minister A K Antony told parliament that 254 MiG-21s - or 12 squadrons worth -still remain in service. The Tejas provides an effective replacement for those obsolescent machines. HAL's new assembly line in HAL Bangalore plans to build 8 Tejas Mark I fighters annually, stepping up capacity to 16 fighters per year. If the IAF absorbs HAL's entire production capacity, it would have 3-4 squadrons of Mark I fighters; after which the Mark II would start rolling off the line. Creating 12 Tejas squadrons to replace the MiG-21 would retain a balanced air force, and also galvanise the aerospace production eco-system needed for developing the IAF's future fighters.
Tejas' record-breaking performance
On December 27, the Tejas flew its 500th test-flight this year, a record-breaking performance. Flying from seven IAF bases spread around the country, the testing included shutting off and restarting the Tejas' engine mid-flight, firing missiles, dropping bombs and validating emergency procedures. The flight-test programme will continue until the Tejas gets its Final Operational Clearance (FOC), which is targeted for end-2014.