India’s government won’t expand its order of fighter jets from France, but will instead focus on a ‘made-in-India’ plane already criticised for its obsolete technology and safety issues.
The decision by India’s prime minister Narendra Modi is meant to encourage India’s domestic industry, but has raised eyebrows in the military circles as the home-grown Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA) is considered largely inferior to Dassault Aviation’s Rafale fighter jets.
"It is a very short-range aircraft which has no relevance in today's war-fighting scenarios,” said retired air marshal M. Matheswaran, a former deputy chief of the integrated defence staff. “If you are trying to justify this as a replacement for follow-on Rafales, you are comparing apples with oranges."
India has been negotiating the deal to buy fighter jets from France for years. It originally planned to buy 120 jets to upgrade its aging military fighter jet fleets, but eventually opted to purchase only 36 aircraft and manufacture additional planes itself.
The Tejas LCA, which prime minister Modi foresees as the future flagship aircraft of the country’s air force, has been 32 years in the making and still hasn’t passed final flight testing.
Since 1983, when the programme was approved by India’s government, only one plane has been produced.
Engineers at the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) were tasked with developing a cutting-edge aircraft from scratch, including the engine.
Originally scheduled for induction in 1994, the programme suffered years of delays, with the original plan for a domestic engine being eventually abandoned in favour of a GE Aviation engine.
"In January this year, they had given one LCA... which had not completed its flight testing,” an unnamed air force officer told Reuters.
“They handed over the papers to us. We do not make a squadron with one aeroplane. That is where we are."
Earlier this year, investigation by the comptroller and auditor general found 53 shortfalls in the plane, including sub-par fuel capacity and speed. It also stated there were concerns about safety and said the plane was at best a technology demonstrator on which Indian engineers could build the next series of aircraft, not something the air force could win a war with.
However, India’s defence minister Manohar Parrikar defended the decision stating that the current LCA iteration, the Tejas-Mark 1A, is the best option India has on the table.
"The IAF (air force) needs to have a minimum number of aircraft at all times. The LCA is our best option at this stage, given our resource constraints," he said.
"The Rafale is our most expensive acquisition. The LCA is our cheapest in the combat category."
DRDO’s aerospace chief K. Tamilmani said in the current version of the plane the engineers have solved most of the issues, including electronic warfare systems, flight computer, radar and maintenance problems.
"Almost all the problems get solved with the 1A. There will always be scope for improvement, but there are no flight safety issues," he said.
State-run Hindustan Aeronautics would be able to ramp up production to 16 planes a year by 2017 to meet the air force's demands, he said.
India’s air force desperately needs to upgrade its aging fleets. With some of its Soviet-era MIG 21s nearing the end of their life, India may lose 10 of its currently active 35 fighter squadrons by 2022.
The air force has thus been calling for the government to clear an additional purchase of 44 Rafale medium multirole aircraft on top of the 36 that Modi announced during a visit to Paris this year.
India's air force says it requires 45 fighter squadrons to counter a ‘two-front collusive threat’ from Pakistan and China.
Modi’s push for domestic technology is bad news not only for Dassault Aviation but also for other western manufacturers including Sweden’s Saab, who hoped to sell its Gripens to India. India has been the world’s number one defence technology importer, with its defence and aerospace market worth billions of dollars.