Understanding LCA Tejas MK1A order

Image source: India Today

On January 13, 2021 the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) led by Prime Minister Modi finally cleared the long pending LCA Tejas Mk1A deal for the Indian Air Force (IAF). This is a light weight fighter, hence called Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). In 2001 after its test flight, Prime Minister Vajpayee named the LCA as ‘Tejas’ it means radiance as a Sanskrit word.

This new deal approved by the CCS will address the shortfall of fighter aircrafts in terms of squadrons, which has been the focus of public debate. This deal consists of 83 LCAs that would be built by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). In terms of the squadrons this is a total number of four. Apart from that it will bring a big improvement in the form of the indigenous Aerospace ecosystem (Aatmanirbhar Bharat) that has been gradually built up in India since the time Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1983 approved the LCA in order to replace all MiG-21 aircrafts.

Inception of the LCA program

India faced gigantic challenges in its quest to develop indigenous technology needed for the LCA due to technology denial from the world. This primarily happened due to the sanctions placed on India when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi conducted a Nuclear Test (Peaceful Nuclear Explosion) in 1974. The program of LCA was started because it was not sustainable in any manner to keep importing fighter aircrafts in an endless fashion, as this was costly for a developing country like India. In 1983 the LCA project was started by the Government of India (GoI). In 1984 the GoI created the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) as a specialized agency to design this warplane.

Prime Minister Rajiv during his State visit to the United States ensured that the computer which was needed to design the LCA was brought to India. He did succeed in that. The Americans were sure that India’s resolve to test fly such a kind of warplane will be a failure. On January 4, 2001 the first flight took place under the visionary leadership of the Indian Aircraft Designer Dr. Kota Harinarayana. The flight was a big success and till today more than 3000 test flights have happened without any bad incident (like a technical failure). This is really a big achievement for the entire country.

Contemporary developments

Till 2013 there was some uncertainty on whether the LCA would enter squadron service. In 2015 the CAG found that the LCA was not suitable for IAF’s operational requirements. In November 2014, India got a Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar who was a visionary because it was his focused approach to sit down every week together with the IAF, HAL, and ADA that ensured the LCA enters the squadron service in IAF. This did happen in July 2016 and by middle of 2018 the aircraft had entered operational service. It was Parrikar who ensured in November 2016 this 83 Mk1A order during his Chairing of the Defense Acquisition Council.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Sangri La Dialogue, Singapore/ Image: LowyInstitute

Initially the IAF did not want anything except that of Tejas Mk2 (currently under development) but this was not possible and further waiting would have led to huge loss of time. That is why Mr. Parrikar had supported the HAL to construct a LCA between Mk1 and Mk2; this came out to be known as Mk1A. This was communicated by the HAL to IAF. In 2013 the Initial Operational Clearance was granted to the LCA. This led to the birth of the first squadron on July 1, 2016 called Squadron No. 45 that is ‘Flying Daggers’. In August 2020 this squadron was officially inducted for frontline deterrence vis-à-vis the Pakistanis.

In February 2019, the Final Operational Clearance (FOC) was granted to the LCA. This FOC squadron was officially erected in May 2020 with the Squadron No. 18 called ‘Flying Bullets’. Most critically this Mk1A includes the four big highlights and that is the AESA radar, air to air refueling, advanced electronics suit and a Beyond Visual Range missile. This contract of 83 aircrafts was signed between the HAL and the IAF during the Aero India this year. From the day this contract is signed, the first aircraft will be delivered to the IAF in three years.

LCA Mk1A vis-à-vis the Enemies and India’s future

The biggest advantage that LCA has is its structure comprising composite material. This enables  its Radar Cross Section (RCS) to remain small, it means the radar of an enemy ground station will find it difficult to catch it on their screen, as this material absorbs radar energy; as a result the possibility of LCA being shot down in a contested airspace reduces a lot. Today is the age of BVR warfare unlike the days of World War II when a lot of dog fight used to happen.

So the LCA Mk1A with its advanced electronics suit will detect the enemy warplane (like the JF-17) first and fire a BVR missile to shoot it down. The LCA has got a less capacity for internal fuel storage and that is why it needs to carry external mounted drop tanks. That is why in LCA Mk1A the air to air refueling mechanism which is present will be a big asset. So Mk1A can easily do the role of a ground attack aircraft. It means the Mk1A going in harm’s way by flying low altitude to avoid radar detection.

The LCA Mk1A is superior vis-à-vis the jointly built fighter jet JF-17 by China and Pakistan. For example on instantaneous turn rate (maneuver) the LCA Mk1A is better than the JF-17. The LCA Mk2 will take time in flight testing, so it would be much better if the decision is made by the IAF that they would order 114 LCA Mk1A. This will act as replacement for the 114 fighter planes also.

That is the Government of India has started the process for it, this will be a very expensive deal (even if it is signed quickly) and is expected to take years of time to finalize! This process of 114 warplanes started by the Government of India is unnecessary, so in order to save time and money it is best to scrap it and go forward with the order of 114 LCA Mk1A. This will ensure a continuum of HAL’s aircraft construction (that is faster delivery of warplanes to IAF) and it will allow the indigenous aerospace ecosystem to become bigger and more robust too. This ecosystem will be a big asset to help build a fifth generation AMCA indigenously.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Jay Desai

Jay Desai is a Security Analyst based in New Delhi. He has completed his Master's Degree in International Relations from Pandit Deendayal Energy University, Gandhinagar.

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