Bangalore: India’s light combat aircraft Tejas will fly over the deserts of Rajasthan later this month for hot weather trials.
The trials, in which the airplane and its systems will be tested in the summer heat, begin a crucial phase for the fighter before the Indian Air Force (IAF) inducts it into its fleet. “Because we are doing it for the first time, we are very very careful,” says P. S. Subramanyam, head of the Tejas programme at Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) the aircraft development arm of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).
The designers of Tejas have till 2010—four years behind schedule—to achieve initial operational clearance, a milestone it has to cross before meeting IAF standards. These two years will be the toughest because the aircraft will be stretched to the limits of its performance, and any mistake could endanger the project.
ADA has appointed Boeing Co., which makes the F-18 fighter, as a consultant to help in flight trials till the certification.
When compared with the US or Russia, India’s fighter development programme is still taking baby steps despite its air force being a large buyer of military aircraft.
IAF is buying 126 fighters in a global tender valued at more than Rs42,000 crore to replace the ageing Russian-built MiG fighters in its fleet.
The Tejas project is India’s second fighter development programme. In the 1960s, the country tried to build a fighter aircraft—the HF-24 Marut—that failed to take off after failing to meet the air force’s expectations.
Testing times: A file photo of a Tejas technology demonstrator on a test flight in Bangalore.
Tejas was conceived in the 1980s. It is a single-engine supersonic, fly-by-wire fighter that has delta wings and no tail. Fly-by-wire technology enables a pilot to control the plane electronically through computers.
Although the project officially kicked off in 1989, ADA says the inital fund of Rs2,188 crore to develop technology demonstrators arrived only in 1993. After its first flight in January 2001, the govermnent sanctioned an additional Rs3301.78 crore to build five prototype aircraft, including trainers, and equip them with weapons. These were scheduled to enter service by 2006.
The Tejas fleet of six aircraft, including two technology demonstrators, powered by US-made General Electric 404 engines, have flown 865 sorties so far.
In 2006, IAF ordered 20 Tejas aircraft to be manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, or HAL, in addition to 8 limited series production planes.
The Tejas project did not meet its deadline, prompting IAF to appoint Air Vice Marshal B.C. Nanjappa to hasten its development and draw a plan for delivery.
IAF’s suggestions included design expectations that are yet to be proved in simulation or wind tunnel tests. Nanjappa declined to comment on the matter.
“That is why (we ) should be careful, because it could lead to unrecoverable situations if it (the aircraft) is not controlled properly,” says T. Tamilmani, chief executive of Centre for Military Airworthiness and Certification, an independent regulating agency under the DRDO.
There have been several instances of mishap in aircraft development globally. In India, a prototype airborne early warning and control system developed by the Centre for Airborne Systems, a Bangalore lab of DRDO, crashed in 1999.
Tamilmani says he does not see a challenge in certifiying the Tejas for safety standards. “The challenge is in complying with the air staff requirements set by the IAF.”
Air Marshal (retd) P. Rajkumar, a former head of the fighter project, says he can understand why DRDO has been careful in pushing the limits of the aircraft. “I would rather have an aircraft that meets all safety requirements a few years late, than an unreliable one tomorrow.” Rajkumar has written a book—The Tejas Story—on the light combat aircraft programme.
Analysts say going slow due to a learning curve is only to be expected, but the delays in getting the radar, weaponisation and finally, a homegrown Kaveri engine for the fighter, are worrying signs.
“It is not just being cautious. They also have to reach the technical specifications within the time frame,” says A.K. Saxena, a former managing director of HAL, the manufacturer of Tejas. “That is not happening”.