The first two to three full-rate production LCA Tejas Mk.1 fighters for the Indian Air Force will roll out HAL's production facility in Bangalore in December, marking a major milestone in the trouble's programme's final leg. The aircraft will be the first of an order of 40 placed by the IAF of the Mk.1 variant slated to enter squadron service by the end of next year.
In an exclusive interview to Livefist, the DRDO's new chief Dr Avinash Chander, said, "I feel very confident that LCA is within a visible range for production start. The target is that production should start this year. We should see two-three aircraft rolling out this year itself."
After taking over as the DRDO's new chief last month following years at the Advanced Systems Laboratory (ASL), where he found renown as the spearhead of the Agni strategic missile programme, one of the first things that Dr Chander did in his new capacity was fly down to Bangalore and chair a series of meetings with officials from the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), CEMILAC, National Fight Test Centre, HAL and the handful of other agencies involved in the development and certification of the LCA Tejas. His message was simple, yet clear: the air force, and indeed the country, would not wait any longer than the end of next year for the Mk.1. He told them, in no uncertain terms, that the next 18 months needed to be the fight of their lives. No excuses. Tejas needed to leave the DRDO stable, he impressed, because there were bigger, more challenging aircraft to build for the IAF. The DRDO, he told them, simply couldn't be stalled with the programme any longer.
With over 2,200 test sorties on the board, the Tejas has 140 hours of test flying left before it achieves the second phase of its initial operational clearance (IOC-2), indicates Dr Chander, a special set of test points deferred from the first in January 2011. "The residual tasks are quite minimal. Some weapon release trials we have to do, some modifications we have done need to be tested. The radar has to be tested for operations. A total of 140 hours are planned in the next few months for IOC-2. With that the aircraft will be cleared for production."
Final operational clearance (FOC)), the final step before induction into an IAF squadron, is set for November-December 2014. "We will complete the FOC by 2014 end. There are some issues when you touch the boundaries of performance, which have been identified and come out only during flight test. Those will be rectified. For FOC, there will be a variety of weapons, all weather clearance."
Right about the time that the Tejas Mk.1 achieves IOC-2, two more naval prototypes will roll out, followed by a first flight before the end of the year. "The test facility is getting ready. I am confident that the LCA Navy will be on schedule," says Dr Chander. The first prototype, which took off in April last year, hasn't flown for nearly a year now, with the platform's undercarriage undergoing a major re-design with the help of EADS as a technological consultant.
"The safety record of the Tejas during testing has been absolutely superb. No other aircraft has this record," Dr Chander says with pride.
The new DRDO chief has asked for an update every alternate day on the LCA programme, and will be briefed by his special team entrusted with keeping things on track over the next 18 months.