The LCA Tejas Needs To See Squadron Service NOW

The LCA Tejas needs to see squadron service now. Goalposts, mission objectives, time-lines, costs and specifications have, over 32 years, melded into an amorphous, self-defeating paradox. One that has served no national interest, certainly not that of the Indian Air Force.

Let's be clear. This cannot be about forcing the Indian Air Force to accept a fighter plane. A Reuters report that's been reproduced across media today describes the LCA as obsolete and a potential burden on a reluctant IAF. Several others quote anonymous sources or retired officers as banging their fists on their tables and saying the Tejas is one big chunky albatross the air force needs least. One that will forever stall its planning and acquisition impetus. 

Arguments, including several here on Livefist, over the years have now also melded together into one big exasperation. Nose cones. Radar efficiency. The ability to deploy smart weapons. Sustained turn rate. Hot and high operations after a cold soak. Manoeuverability at low altitude. Sea-level operations. Demonstration of air combat weapons. The lack of a mature primary sensor. The maintenance nightmare. The fact that crew will need a chisel and many hours to open any panel of the platform to find out what's wrong. Low power. You've heard it all.

The truth is, there have been too many lines in the sand. And not one of those has been respected. Not by the makers of the aircraft. And not by the Indian Air Force. A chronic lack of mutual trust between the IAF and the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) on the one hand, and a laughably hostile status quo between the IAF and Hindustan Aeronautics on the other has bedeviled even basic convergence on delivery timelines, specifications and targets. Hostilities and egos, fuelled by the pulls and pressures of an overbearing acquisition impulse pegged on the arithmetics of sanctioned strength and squadron numbers. Hostilities that have allowed a most unfortunate regime of charges and counter-charges that have achieved only two things: (a) compelled an already troubled program to flounder further, and (b) kept the makers and customer from acknowledging genuine steps of progress towards a ready and usable project. This trust deficit and sneering incredulity needs to be a case study in indigenous project management going forward, for it has never been more manifest than in Project Tejas.

As I said, the exasperations around the LCA have tossed and turned for so long in a cauldron of innumerable pressures, that they appear practically ambiguous now. Few arguments both for and against the LCA Tejas arrive with any of the muscle they did earlier. Circumstances have changed. The IAF is a much more dynamic service in crucial ways. India's military industrial complex is itself in a period of flux that will hopefully see monopolistic development and production swept away to make way for competitive technology advances that involve the private sector. The possibilities are enormous.

Since no prescription on defence really involves a prescription, I'll end with a real one: set one final date for the induction of the LCA Tejas. Induct the Tejas on that date, no matter what has or hasn't been achieved by that date as stipulated in the last discussions on record. Roll out squadron service. Continue testing alongside squadron service (not uncommon for new platforms), as had been the original plan before goalposts were shifted once again. Get the Tejas to stretch its legs regularly at exercises. Send it out to the island bases on detachment to see if it's the workhorse it was built to be. Retrofit all new developments and additions, including IFR capabilities.

What about the air force? Is a sub-optimal platform being foisted on it? Truthfully, only squadron service will ever really tell. Is a reluctant air force being forced to accept an obsolete platform? Not really. The IAF has accounted for the LCA Tejas in its orbat, and has now expanded that requirement based on a matrix of pressures that includes, significantly, the lack of an alternative, seeing sense in moving forward on a platform the IAF is undeniably invested in and, finally, the realisation that the Tejas could conceivably be a platform far superior than its trodden-on image.

That's the key. Get it out into air force stations. That isn't the kind of fatalistic/idealistic prescription it sounds like. Several aircraft that have been mired in development hell have blossomed upon breathing squadron air.

Former IAF chief Srinvasapuram Krishnaswamy once said to me in an interview days before he retired, "I feel we should simply induct the Tejas. Once it is in service, a sense of ownership will come. And we can progressively improve it jointly along with the developers. The aircraft needs to get out of test and into squadrons. That is the only solution."

That was 11 years ago.

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