At a time when the US is fast-developing hypersonic bombers capable of flying at 20 times the speed of sound, India's largely home-grown Tejas light combat aircraft will "not be ready to go to war" anytime before 2015.
The latest assessment of Tejas, which has now clocked close to 2,000 flights in its almost three-decade-long developmental saga, holds the light-weight fighter will be capable of firing guns, rockets and BVR (beyond visual range) missiles as well as air-to-air refuelling only by 2015 at the earliest, say defence ministry sources.
That is when the single-engine Tejas will become fully combat-ready after getting the final operational clearance (FOC). The review suggests that the fighter is again headed to miss a deadline in its convoluted tale that began in 1983 as an endeavour to replace the ageing MiG-21s.
So far, Tejas has achieved only initial operational clearance-I (IOC-I) to certify it's airworthiness. "The IOC-II for the fighter, which also includes integration of some weapons like laser-guided bombs, was pushed back to December 2012. But now, it will only be possible by July, 2013, or so after over 200 more sorties. FOC will come only two years after that," said a source.
India will eventually spend over Rs 25,000 crore in the entire Tejas programme, including the naval variant and trainer as well as the failed Kaveri engine, as earlier reported by TOI. But more than the cost, it's the time taken to develop a fully-tested, weapons-ready fighter that underlines how critical defence projects should not be run.
While it is true that developing a supersonic fly-by-wire fighter from scratch was never going to be easy, the entire project could have been managed much better. IAF, on its part, is supporting the fighter programme since it knows the country's need to have indigenous weapon systems is strategically critical.
Plans are underway to upgrade the Sulur airbase in Tamil Nadu, which will house the initial Tejas squadrons inducted in the IOC-II configuration, at a cost of Rs 524 crore. While the first 20 Tejas will be powered by the American GE-404 engines, the next six Mark-II squadrons (16-18 jets in each) will have the more powerful GE F-414 engines. The $822-million deal for 99 GE F-414 engines is likely to be inked soon, with additional engines being ordered at a later stage.
The number of fighter squadrons in IAF will further dip to 31 over the next three to four years with phasing out of the aging MiG variants, further impacting IAF's combat capabilities, before it slowly begins to pick up with new inductions. Projections show IAF will have the required 45 squadrons only by 2032.