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Half-strength squadrons

Tejas fighters are taking too long to arrive

Business Standard Editorial Comment  |  New Delhi 

On Saturday, Ltd (HAL) handed over to the (IAF) the first Mark I fighter built on its new production line in Bengaluru. Fifteen prototypes earlier produced were each hand-built to different specifications as the evolved. Now, however, HAL's production line will build to a controlled standard using modern manufacturing methods. The first fighter had flown in September, but the had refused to accept it until could hand over eight fighters together, half the complement of the first squadron. Eventually, the defence ministry ordered the to accept each fighter as it was built, like every air force does.

This illustrates the continuing problems with the Tejas, and why it has taken so long to enter service. With diverse organisations contributing to its development since 1983 - including and the - the programme has been overseen by the (ADA), established by the (DRDO). From the start, the had convinced itself that building a modern fighter was an extravagant aim. Unlike the navy, which took ownership and control of warship-building programmes, an uninterested highlighted flaws and demanded the purchase of expensive fighters from the international market - currently, the Rafale.

Every country that builds contemporary fighters has been through a tortuous learning process - a century for the United States, Germany, Italy, Britain, France and Russia. India has leapfrogged in technology by building what the accepts is a fighter far better than the light MiGs it was intended to replace. The IAF's strength is down to 35 squadrons (each with 16 operational fighters), and with 10 more MiG-21 and MiG-27 squadrons retiring by 2018. But, even so, the has made its preference for foreign fighters like the Rafale over the clear.

The has not achieved final operational clearance. Some capabilities remain to be validated before it can be fielded in combat. On the other hand, the test programme has, however, completed 2,800 flights, with only a few hundred more required. The problem is the delays. needs to build the faster, so that 10 squadrons can fill the gap created by the retiring MiGs. But just two fighters will be built this year; another six in 2015-16; eight more the year after that; and only in 2017-18 would hit a production rate of 16 planes a year. Clearly, this is too slow. If the is to help set up a domestic high-tech sector, then the defence ministry needs to be swifter, and needs to indigenise further, developing Indian small-scale vendors to build systems and components currently being imported.

First Published: Thu, January 22 2015. 21:38 IST