The Indian Air Force is committed to buying the indigenously developed and manufactured Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), but to maintain its operational effectiveness it will still need other foreign single-engine fighter jets to make up for the shortfall in numbers and bridge the capability deficit of LCA Tejas.
A top air force officer told The Indian Express that “the IAF is committed to the LCA project, contrary to some reports. The IAF has already ordered 40 LCA Tejas, and the contract for another 83 will be signed with HAL any time now. Out of 600-odd aircraft in the IAF, 123 will then be LCA Tejas.”
The contract to HAL for the 83 Tejas Mark-1A fighters, including infrastructure costs, is estimated to be around Rs 50,000 crore. This will be the third type of LCA Tejas, which has been developed and produced indigenously, to be ordered by the IAF.
“The LCA Tejas is needed by the IAF but more aircraft are needed too, because the LCA can only operate under the umbrella of other fighter aircraft. This is not a criticism of Tejas, just a question of design parameters and limitations. We need the other aircraft besides the Tejas,” said the senior IAF officer.
While the Tejas Mark-1A can carry an external load of 3 tonnes, the Gripen can carry 5.8 tonnes and F-16 6.7 tonnes.
In contrast to the escort range of 300 km for Tejas Mk-1A, the Gripen has a range of 520 km and F-16 of 645 km. Without any refueling, the Tejas can be in air for 59 minutes, while the comparable times for Gripen and F-16 are 2 hour 49 minutes and two hour 51 minutes, respectively. Similarly, the time required to prepare the aircraft for the next mission is 23 and 21 minutes, respectively, for the Gripen and F-16, while it is more than an hour for the Tejas.
In 2006, the IAF had paid in cash for 20 LCA Tejas aircraft in an IOC (initial operation clearance) configuration. Five of them have been supplied by HAL till date while the rest are expected to be inducted in the IAF by 2020.
The IAF had placed an order in 2016 for another 20 Tejas aircraft.
If the delivery for these aircraft starts in 2021, the IAF can expect to have 40 Tejas fighters by 2023.
Even if HAL ramps up its production capacity significantly, the balance 83 Tejas will not be in service with the IAF before 2028.
“In 2002, we had the full complement of 42 fighter squadrons authorised to us. By next year, we are down to 31. The number of squadrons are going to come down to 27 by 2032, and 19 by 2042, even if we get all the Tejas and the Rafales on time. That is one reason IAF has identified the need for a single-engine foreign fighter,” the senior IAF officer explained.
The IAF is in the process of issuing an RFI for 114 single-engine fighter aircraft, out of which 18 aircraft will come in a fly-away condition.