LCA Tejas: High time we move on

Saurabh Joshi
Saurabh JoshiSep 24, 2014 | 16:01

LCA Tejas: High time we move on

Sukhoi 30 MKI

It’s easy to subject the Indian Air Force to criticism and abuse every time an aging MiG crashes, killing its pilot. What should actually be the focus of outrage is not the IAF’s continued use of the aircraft, but reason why it is compelled to continue operating them.

The IAF operates a number of fighter aircraft which include the MiG-27, Jaguar, Mirage-2000, MiG-29 and Sukhoi-30MKI. But it is the MiG-21 which has been subjected to the worst criticism because of its crash record, and is often referred to as a “flying coffin”. The IAF currently operates three types of the aircraft: Three squadrons of the oldest MiG-21M (Type 96), one squadron of the MiG-21 bis and six squadrons of the latest variant, the MiG-21 Bison.


The IAF planned to replace the aircraft with the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), development of which began in 1983. On the basis of the understanding with the DRDO’s Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) that the LCA would be ready for induction in 1998, the IAF decided to upgrade only 125 of its MiG-21s to the Bison standard.

Much has happened since then.

The IAF’s incidence of crashes has gone up so that it has been losing the equivalent of one fighter squadron every two years. The IAF has moved a tender for 126 Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) for which negotiations with the French Dassault’s Rafale are currently underway. The IAF has also committed to procuring the under-development Russian Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) besides having ordered a total of 272 Sukhoi-30MKI aircraft, deliveries of which are underway.

In the interim, the IAF has ordered the upgrade of the MiG-29, the Mirage-2000 and the Jaguar at a cost of USD 3.66 billion. Finally, the IAF also allowed itself to be persuaded to place an order for two squadrons of Tejas, or 40 LCA.

What has not happened since then, includes the development of an adequately powered LCA; one which inspires enough confidence that could allow it to be flown without being tethered by telemetry to a ground monitoring system.


What has also not happened is the setting up of an assembly line for series production of the LCA four years after the IAF order. Furthermore, the proposed, more powerful LCA Mk II remains on paper today and conservative estimates suggest the aircraft wouldn’t be able to see any service before 2022.

But if the IAF is planning to acquire so many other aircraft, there should be no trouble replacing the MiG-21, right?


What needs to be understood is that while the Rafale, Sukhoi-30MKI and the FGFA could be considered multi-role aircraft, they are no replacement for the MiG-21. This is because a replacement fleet for the IAF’s MiG-21 aircraft will need to be higher in numbers and much lower on cost of acquisition and operation, in comparison to these three aircraft.

Even if and when the FGFA, Rafale and Sukhoi-30MKI are fully inducted into the IAF, it will still need an aircraft to carry out the role of the MiG-21.

As things stand, the MiG-21 is expected to be in service until at least 2022, even with the induction of the two squadrons of the LCA.

What first needs to be acknowledged is that it is the blind acceptance and uncritical reliance on the LCA programme that has led to a situation where there is no replacement for the MiG-21 and where the IAF faces a future with the shortfall expected to rise to around 450 fighter aircraft.


The next step is for the defence ministry to conduct a technical audit of the LCA programme, establish what developmental benefits could be salvaged from it, and finally, make a determination on whether the LCA programme is worth pursuing anymore and if it should be closed.

If it is not, it is imperative for the defence ministry to conduct a review of the IAF’s current planning for force structure requirements and decide if it needs a revision of numbers and types of fighter aircraft being planned for acquisition, keeping in mind, numbers, costs and delays, in addition to figuring out an all-important alternate light fighter.

Unless this determination is made, pilots will continue to assume the risks associated with the ageing MiG-21s and the IAF will end up with a much smaller and more difficult to sustain fleet of fighter aircraft in around 15 years.

Last updated: June 27, 2016 | 12:48
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