(Tejas LCAs lined up on tarmac)
A planned vilification campaign is now underway against the indigenous Tejas Light Combat Aircraft programme. It has been initiated in newspapers and internet sites. Next one can see television — with TV channel reporters always ready for a joy ride in the Swedish Saab Gripen E (not NG) or the American Lockheed Martin F-16, talking down Tejas as they have done in the past. (See, for example, http://www.defencenews.in/article/Tejas-far-behind-competitors,-not-enough-to-protect-Indian-skies-IAF-444423 and, in today’s Times of India — https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/armed-forces-say-no-to-advanced-versions-of-tejas-arjun/articleshow/61620740.cms
This campaign is framed around a briefing by IAF and demanded by the NSA Ajit Doval who, supposedly, wanted some clarity on the single-engine aircraft the service is pushing for to, in quick time, enlarge a fieldable force of fighter squadrons.
Some of the comparisons of the 4.5 generation Tejas with Gripen and F-16 are laughable but swallowed whole by the Press and electronic media that don’t know any better. The IAF is dead set against the antique F-16. And unless the Modi government succumbing to Trumpian pressure (already evident in Mattis’ and Tillerson’s visits) compels IAF to buy this wretched old aircraft — and set back the indigenous defence industry by another 60 years, as last happened when the Indira Gandhi govt and IAF bought the Jaguar and killed off the Marut Mk-II in the ’70s), there’s no way, the F-16 will sport the IAF roundels. So the fight really is between the home-grown and HOME-DESIGNED Tejas and foreign Swedish maal.
On the notional basis of the performance so far of the LCA operational ‘Flying Daggers’ 45 Squadron at Sulur Air Force Station, Tamil Nadu, these are the issues and figures given out which will be dealt with here ad seriatim. Mind you, so far there are 4 aircraft in the Squadron that have logged some 400 hours plus in the air. On this basis the Complaints are that:
Tejas logs 20 hours of maintenance per 100 hrs of flight per aircraft (Vs 3.5 hrs for F-16 and 6 hrs for Gripen.
Truth is right now the maintenance time is 14 hrs per 100 hrs of flight. But this is an entirely new aircraft with built-in diagnostic systems that are experience-driven. Meaning, the more the maintenance crews become conversant with the aircraft the less is the time they spend on upkeeping it. Moreover, the maintenance hours put in on aircraft is also a function of the confidence of the pilots in the fighter plane. An entirely new genus of aircraft necessarily results naturally in greater wariness of the pilots and their requirement that even the minutest doubts they may have be addressed. In other words, with more Tejas entering squadron service and more pilots becoming familiar with it on the basis of the sharing of piloting experience and technical solutions, the less will be the demand for the kind of thorough maintenance the LCA presently is subjected to, and the maintenance protocol will be adjusted over time to trim the upkeep timeline. This is ABSOLUTELY NORMAL.
In contrast, F-16 is a 50-year old aircraft whose basic planform/architecture hasn’t changed a whit even as bells and whistles have been added periodically to “upgrade” the aircraft. It is as comfortable as your old pyjamas. And by which reckoning, perhaps, the IAF can call back the old Hunter aircraft — which was a wonderfully easy aircraft to fly and maintain. The Gripen E Saab is trying to sell to IAF has barely undergone speed taxi trials (meaning has never taken to the air). But because our military are institutionally inclined to accept anything foreign on faith — the Swedish item apparently evinces no worries.
Even more farcical is the IAF’s griping about “Endurance” — 1 hour for the Tejas Vs 3 hrs for Gripen and 6 hrs for F-16. Here, IAF is borrowing from the Indian Navy’s rejection of the naval LCA.
But the Tejas wing area (storing fuel) is larger [earlier typo, sorry] at 38.4 sq metres compared to 30 sq metres for Gripen. So how to explain the touted figures? Easy — compare apples and oranges! What is quoted for Gripen is its ferry range, for Tejas the fully mission-loaded operational range at 0.7 Mach speeds. Is this fair? Further, if aerial refuelers are used the LCA range can be increased manifold (just as Gripen’s can be and F-16’s). This was proven when the Tejas flew to Bahrain for the 2016 Air Show with ONE refueling stop.
Even more ridiculous are the purported concerns about the Tejas’ lifespan– 20 yrs Vs 40 yrs for the Gripen/F-16.
The fact is the normal life of planes is 25-30 years, or 3,000 flying hours. The Tejas has been designed for FOUR TIMES this span at 12,000 hours! At 3,000 opl hrs is when the airframe of the LCA will have to undergo strenuous tests to ensure there is no metal fatigue. BUT IN THIRTY YEARS MANNED COMBAT AIRCRAFT WILL BE FULLY EXTINCT. THEY ACTUALLY ALREADY ARE AS I HAVE REPEATEDLY POINTED OUT. So whether the Tejas lasts 12,000 hrs is hardly relevant. No more in any case than whether the F-16 will be mission ready in its 100th year with that mighty repository of advanced technology — the Indian Air Force!!
One fervently hopes the Modi regime has enough sense to not buy the F-16 museum piece, and Doval to see that the Tejas is not being sidelined just so the purchase of the Gripen goes through. If IAF wants more combat aircraft quickly — farm out the production of the Tejas to the private sector that I have been suggesting for many years now. With two aircraft production lines at HAL and two, three or even four more lines with one each for Tata, L&T, Mahindra, and Reliance Aerospace (throw in the Adanis — if Modi is determined on it) — each rolling out 18 LCAs per year the IAF will have a large force of constantly improved and upgraded Tejas LCAs in less time than it will take to get the game up with Gripen/F-16. It will also once and for all shut down all excuses for looking abroad for “single engine” fighters.
And the comparable cost, clean configuration (i.e., w/o weapons, etc) : Tejas for $25 million, Gripen $50 million and the rocking chair-ready F-16 at $100 million.
WHERE’S THE COMPETITION to LCA?
But the military services have realized that they can meet their craving for imported hardware by simply riding on Modi’s ill-thought out ‘Make in India’ policy. This is how the military is making nonsense of the PM’s basic idea by exploiting the slack in it. But PM Modi — advised by Doval?? — is acting innocent of this ruse. Time to ask that such procurement nonsense be stopped, Madam Defence Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman. And as first order of business instruct Vayu Bhavan to immediately cease THE VILIFICATION CAMPAIGN AGAINST THE TEJAS. And Messrs Modi and Doval better take note, unless they want history to remember them as dolts if not outright saps and suckers.
[Reproduced in The Quint on November 13, 2017, https://www.thequint.com/voices/opinion/tejas-iaf-vilification-campaign-f16