HomeIndian Air ForceHow indigenous LCA Tejas promises a more ‘Indian’ Air Force in the...

How indigenous LCA Tejas promises a more ‘Indian’ Air Force in the future

The IAF is out to significantly boost operational capabilities with additional TEJASs, new transport planes and revival of the mid-air refuelling jet program

The Indian Air Force (IAF) is on full throttle to significantly boost operational capabilities. The trigger is China. The IAF has played a key role in beefing up India’s defences since the Chinese incursions in eastern Ladakh in the summer of 2020. IAF transport aircraft had, then, swiftly ferried over 68,000 additional troops, along with nearly 90 tanks and over 300 infantry combat vehicles, to the Himalayan heights even as its frontline fighters carried out combat sorties to counter the Chinese military.

Now, the IAF is pushing for acquisition of an additional 90-100 indigenous LCA (Light Combat Aircraft) TEJAS MK-1A jets, besides ramping up the transport fleet and enhancing capabilities to land at and take off from the newly-built advanced landing grounds along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China. In addition, the world’s fourth-largest air force—both in terms of personnel and aircraft—is eyeing mid-air refuelling jets to gain strategic heft by allowing its fighter jets to stay longer in the sky.

Struggling with a depleting combat fleet, which is down to 31 squadrons (against the 42 sanctioned), the IAF does not have any fighter jet program in the pipeline. Beyond the 36 Rafale jets from France and 83 TEJAS MK-1A, which will start being delivered from next February, the IAF has not been able to find any solution for its depleting fleet. Its long-pending requirement of 114 multirole fighter aircraft (MRFA) is also in limbo.

In 2018, the IAF had floated a request for information (RFI) for MRFA to procure 114 foreign fighter jets (nearly six squadrons) worth an estimated $20 billion (Rs 1.65 lakh crore). But a deal is yet to materialise. In September 2018, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) approved Rs 6,500 crore in additional funds to fast-track the development of an upgraded version of the TEJAS—the MK-2. These are supposed to replace 16 IAF squadrons—three of the Mirage 2000, five of MiG-29, six of Jaguar and the two remaining MiG-21 Bison squadrons. This will allow the IAF to scale up to about 40 fighter squadrons by 2040.

However, since the TEJAS MK-2 is in design stage, the IAF has moved a statement of case before the ministry of defence (MoD) to procure 90-100 TEJAS MK-1A jets from the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) to replace the existing MiG-21s. “Since the TEJAS MK-1A is a multirole jet, the IAF moved a proposal to have an additional 90-100 of them from HAL, which is already manufacturing 83 TEJAS MK-1A for the air force. With this, the TEJAS will comprise the biggest fleet of the IAF,“ said a senior IAF officer in know of the developments.

Over the next 15 years, then, the IAF will have 40 TEJAS, over 180 TEJAS MK-1A and at least 120 TEJAS MK-2. The last order for TEJAS MK-1A (which is an advanced version of the TEJAS) was for 83 aircraft, placed in February 2021, for Rs 48,000 crore.

Efforts are also on to ramp up the IAF transport fleet. Of the 56 C-295 medium-weight transport aircraft ordered by the IAF, 16 will be delivered in flyaway condition and the remaining 40 manufactured in India through a joint venture between Airbus and Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL). The total cost of the project is Rs 21,935 crore. While the 16 aircraft in flyaway condition will be delivered between September 2023 and August 2025, the first Made in India C-295 will roll out of TASL’s Vadodara facility in September 2026. The remaining aircraft will be delivered by August 2031.

The C-295 will replace the Avro fleet. The IAF is also seeking an alternative to its ageing AN-32 planes. Last December, an RFI was issued for an aircraft with a load-carrying capacity of 18-27 tonnes. So far, US, South American and European firms have responded. “Three companies have expressed their interest in the program. The IAF will shortly seek an ‘acceptance of necessity’ from MoD before floating a global tender,” said the IAF officer.

In addition, IAF is looking to revive its mid-air refuelling jet project. It has made multiple unsuccessful attempts since 2007, with the cost of acquisition always being a hurdle. A couple of years ago, the IAF had planned wet lease of Airbus A330 MRTT (multi-role tanker transport) aircraft, but such contracts allow the planes to be used for training and not actual operations. The IAF has been thrilled with the performance of Airbus mid-air refuelling planes. A330 MRTTs of the air forces of the UAE and France have allowed the Rafales purchased by the IAF to fly non-stop (almost 7,000 km) from France to India.

“While the wet lease option is still under consideration, the IAF is reviving its program. An RFI to procure six mid-air refuelling aircraft will be floated soon,” said another IAF officer. At present, the IAF operates a fleet of six Russian IIyushin-78 refuelling tankers, but these are facing service issues. Mid-air refuelers are seen as a sort of alternative to the depleting combat strength of the air force as they allow the existing fleet to remain in operation for a longer duration.

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