WITH THE largest-ever deal for domestic defence manufacture signed on Wednesday – for 73 LCA Tejas Mk-1A and 10 LCA Mk-1 versions – it was the culmination of a project that kicked off in 1983. However, officials of the agency that designed and developed the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) say now that the core technology is ready, it will act as a catalyst for several other projects that are lined up.
Three new fighter jets will be flying by 2026, of which two will be for the Air Force and one for the Navy, Girish S Deodhare, chief of Aeronautical Development Agency of the Defence Ministry, which has designed the LCA, told The Indian Express.
He said the first to roll out by the end of 2023 will be a new LCA, the Mk-2 version. It consolidates the technologies which have matured in Mk-1 “into a bigger more capable platform”, said Deodhare.
He said the 123 Mk-1 and Mk1A aircraft procured by the Air Force are replacement for the MiG-21 class so their “design parameters were such that it was a light, small aircraft, very maneuverable and mainly for air defence, that is guarding our boundaries, so it has a certain capability of carrying weapons and fuel”. The Tejas, he said, can carry 3.5 tonnes of external payload.
The LCA Mk-2 though, Deodhare said, is a replacement for the Mirage 2000 class of aircraft, “which is much bigger, and it has got a bigger engine also” and can carry 6.5 tonnes of payload. “It’s a much more capable aircraft, but what is important is that the technology is already developed in LCA. That is why this is something targeted very fast,” he said.
The roll-out is planned for 2022 and first flight by 2023 and production of the Mk-2 version by 2026, he said.
This will be followed by the AMCA (Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft), which is fifth generation while the LCA is 4.5 generation, he said. “The design activity was started in 2010, and a lot of new developments had to be done,” he said.
It is a stealth aircraft so it is designed for stealth and unlike the LCA, which is designed for maneuverability, the AMCA has a unique shape to achieve low radar cross-section and has got internal carriage of weapons, he said. “When you remove the external weapons, this aircraft has enough fuel and weapons inside to do a very capable operational role in the stealth mode,” Deodhare said.
It will have a range from over 1,000 km up to 3,000 km in different modes, he said. “We will be reaching the forefront of technology.”
Deodhare said the AMCA’s design is complete and the Air Force has “frozen their requirements”. “We are starting into the manufacturing phase,” he said. The prototype will be ready by 2024, and the first flight, immediately after that.
While AMCA Mk-1 will have an imported engine, same as LCA Mk-2, the AMCA Mk-2 will have an indigenous engine. The LCA Mk-2 engine can be replaced with an indigenous one at a later stage.
“Two squadrons of the AMCA Mk-1 will have an imported engine. Subsequently in Mk-2, which Air Force wants in bigger numbers, will come with a more powerful indigenous engine,” he said. The aircraft will be made in a way so that the new indigenous engine will fit in with very minimal changes, he said.
The third new fighter jet, which is most challenging, is the Twin-Engine Deck-Based Fighter (TEDBF) for the Navy, which will be flying by 2026. “The TEDBF is a much bigger challenge,” Deodhare said, adding that it took time “maturing those technologies”.
Aircraft carriers, he said, are a “very high-value asset” and extra caution is required to prevent any damage to it. After successful on-shore tests in November 2019, they got permission for ship trials in 2020. “When we went to the ship, in five days we did 18 landings, and not a single miss… Now the Navy is clear that we can make the aircraft, because the Air Force technologies were all there, this was the key.” The Navy’s requirements were finalised in May 2020 after which “we started the concept design”.
He said the Navy is looking for its induction in 2031.
The AMCA, he said, will go towards sixth generation and “one of the technologies that is required for the AMCA Mk-2 is to be optionally manned”. The aircraft can be flown with or without a pilot, depending on the mission. “So that is a capability that is coming on AMCA Mk-2, and that is being proven on Naval prototypes. Even the TEDBF will have the capability, with automatic take-off and landing.”
What many people don’t know, he said, is that “the take-off is already automatic, it’s a hands-free take-off” in the Naval LCA prototypes.
Each Tejas Mk-1A costs Rs 309 crore
HAL CMD R Madhavan said that while the cost of the Tejas Mk-1A deal is around Rs 48,000 crore, of it around Rs 9000 crore are taxes and about Rs 11,000 crore are for spares, maintenance and other heads. He said the effective cost of one Tejas Mk-1A is around Rs 309 crore. He mentioned that some Southeast Asian and West Asian nations have shown interest in procuring Tejas fighter jets.