BANGALORE: It's a lean, mean but not yet fully ready to fight machine. The home-grown Tejas light combat aircraft is now fully airworthy but it will take at least another 18 months for the fighter to become capable of firing long-range missiles and integral guns as well as undergo mid-air refuelling to double its strike range.
The lightweight multi-role Tejas finally got its initial operational clearance (IOC) on Friday, after being in the making for the last 30 years. But it will be ready to go war only after attaining the final operational clearance (FOC) with full integration of all its weapons and refuelling probe by mid-2015 or so.
The supersonic fighter can currently fire only short-range R-73 missiles and drop some laser-guided 500-kg bombs. IAF will now begin inducting 20 of these fighters, with the first two coming next year, in their IOC configuration. Another 20 will follow in the FOC one.
But the Tejas IAF really wants is the Mark-II version, with a more powerful engine for greater thrust and improved maintainability. In effect, while the first Tejas squadron (IOC) of 20 jets will be up and running at the Sulur airbase in Tamil Nadu by 2016-2017, the second one of FOC will come thereafter.
The four Tejas Mark-II (80 jets) squadrons, in turn, will only start to come in from 2021-2022 onwards at the earliest.
The IOC certification after a long, meandering journey however does mark a new high in the country's quest for building a strong defence-industrial base.
"There was a lot of criticism about delays, and we learnt lessons from them. But Tejas has become a reality now. It's a major milestone in our indigenisation drive, a great day for the entire nation'' said defence minister A K Antony.
The minister, however, told DRDO, Hindustan Aeronautics and Aeronautical Development Agency that they had reached only the semi-final'' stage now. The "critical" final stage will be in the shape of the FOC as well as the Tejas Mark-II, he said.
Tejas is a truly modern fighter despite being the smallest and lightest in its class. With integration of new BVR (beyond visual range) missiles, integral guns and air-to-air refuelling capability, Tejas will acquire increased potency and enhanced operational efficiency at the FOC level.
"The final goal is the Tejas Mark-II, a lot of work is left for it,'' said IAF chief Air Chief Marshal N A K Browne.
Antony, in fact, said the government may well order 200 Tejas, up from the existing 120 fighters for IAF and 40 for Navy, apart from exporting the fighter to friendly countries.
As was first reported by TOI, India will spend well upwards of Rs 50,000 crore on the Tejas project, which includes Rs 17,269 crore on the entire project developmental cost as well as induction of the original 160 fighters (each costing another Rs 220-250 crore).
But defence scientists claim it will still be the cheapest such fighter in the world. Though comparisons are strictly not valid with heavier fighters, take the ongoing negotiations for the MMRCA (medium multi-role combat aircraft) project to acquire 126 French Rafale fighters for instance. The MMRCA project is pegged at around $20 billion or around Rs 1,24,000 crores. Even the 272 heavyweight Russian-origin Sukhoi-30MKIs being progressively inducted by IAF cost around Rs 320-420 crore each.
Indigenous Content: 65% (Engines and ejection seats from US, canopy sheath from Canda, etc)
Weight: 12 tonnes (fully-loaded)
Length: 13.2 metre
Wing Span: 8.2 metre
Service Ceiling: 15 km
Speed: 1350 kmph
Radius of Action: Over 400 km (without refuelling)
Developmental Cost: Rs 17,269 crore (includes variants, trainers and the failed Kaveri engine)
Unit Cost: Rs 220-250 crore
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