THE TEJAS AND TEJAS MK1A: HAL HAS TO DELIVER
Geopolitics|March 2021
The Tejas project is a litmus test of the ability of Indian designers and production agencies to produce a viable combat aircraft, argues SANJAY BADRI-MAHARAJ
SANJAY-BADRI MAHARAJ

On the opening day of Aero India-2021, the Indian government and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) finally signed the long-awaited contract for 83 Tejas Mk1A aircraft, an upgraded variant of the Tejas Mk1. Ten of these aircraft will be trainers while 73, equating to some four squadrons will be single-seaters. However, it should be noted that HAL has not completed delivery of its original order of 32 Tejas Mk.1 aircraft and eight trainers. This despite the first squadron of the type being formed nearly five years ago.

The Mk.1 saga

On July 1, 2016, No. 45 Squadron of the Indian Air Force (IAF) inducted the first two Serial Production models of the Tejas Mk.1 Light Combat Aircraft. More than a year has since elapsed since these first aircraft were inducted and they have now been joined by three more with a sixth scheduled to join shortly. Built to IOC (Initial Operational Clearance) standards, these aircraft are the first of 20 destined for No. 45 squadron while an additional 20 will be built to FOC (Final Operation Clearance) standard. Steady but somewhat slow progress is was made towards achieving FOC with the Tejas Mk.1 crossing a major milestone on May 12, 2017 when aircraft LSP-4 successfully fired a fully-guided Derby Beyond Visual Range (BVR) air-to-air missile with gun trials being repeatedly delayed. However, the first FOC aircraft were delivered in 2019-2020

Yet, despite assurances, from Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) slow progress has been made in establishing adequate production facilities. HAL has not yet been able to meet the target of 8 aircraft per year, much less an enhanced production target of 16 aircraft per year, although the establishment of a second production line using HAL’s BAE Hawk production facility will help in this regard. Furthermore, despite the prospect of 83 additional aircraft to an enhanced Mk.1A standard, HAL has not acted with the requisite alacrity to take control of this project and bring it to fruition in the shortest possible time.

HAL’s stymied opportunities

When the history of the Tejas is written, there will always be questions as to why HAL was not entrusted with the design of the aircraft and the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) not formed as part of HAL (rather than as a separate agency). Indeed, up until the late 1970s, HAL had a reasonable degree of success in aircraft design and was poised to achieve further levels of competence when its design efforts were abruptly, and, in the case of the HF-24, prematurely, ended.

In 1948 HAL began work on a basic piston-engine trainer to supplement and then supplant the Tiger Moths and Percival Prentice aircraft then in service. The result was the Hindustan HT-2 which served with distinction from 1953 until its retirement in 1990. Over 170 were built, with a dozen being used to form the Ghanaian Air Force in 1959. Its successor, the HPT-32 was less successful, with a high accident rate, though with an otherwise respectable service record. HAL now pins its hopes on the HTT-40.

In 1959, HAL received permission to proceed with the development of a basic jet trainer to replace the Vampire T.55s and the T-6 Harvard. The resultant aircraft– the HJT-16 Kiran– first flew in 1964 and in a modified version continues to this day and the IAF’s basic trainer. The Kiran did have a somewhat protracted development period before entering service and its Mk.2 variant was late in coming, but the Kiran was a success. It entered bulk production and serves the IAF competently.

Simultaneously, HAL had laid the foundations for fighter production with a license agreement for the Folland Gnat being signed in 1956, production peaking at 4 aircraft per month. This light fighter formed a considerable part of the IAF’s frontline strength until the late 1970s.

The HAL Ajeet, while intended to improve on the Gnat’s performance, was only marginally successful as by 1975, the desired performance could only be achieved with more powerful engines and advanced avionics. While 4 squadrons of Ajeets served between 1975 and 1991, the type never achieved its potential. An attempt to turn the Ajeet into an Advanced Jet Trainer (AJT) failed thanks to a lack of support, a lack of reference to the Gnat T.1, coupled with the loss of a prototype.

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