HAL must be modernised, if Tejas is to be saved

If the recent induction of the indigenous Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) has received a muted welcome from the IAF, there are very good reasons for it. While the nation and the defence-industrial complex may celebrate a milestone in military indigenisation, the service, charged with the defence of our skies, has much more to worry about.

With obsolescence eroding its aircraft strength and the Rafale deal in limbo, there seems to be no inductions from abroad; other than a few more Sukhoi SU-30s to attain the target strength of 272 heavy fighters. The IAF, while still seeking a medium fighter, may have to make do with the Tejas in terms of numbers as well as capability – till something else turns up.

Since much of the IAF’s combat fleet is assembled, overhauled and supported in-country, this would make the service totally dependent on India’s monolithic aerospace giant: Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL). This is a thought that would strike dread in the heart of any air warrior. Having flown many HAL products and been associated with its aircraft and helicopter projects, I can put my fingers on (at least) four good reasons for the IAF’s leadership to be apprehensive in this regard. Most of them are attributable to HAL’s public-sector work-ethos, nurtured by a protective Department of Defence Production.

Firstly, the lackadaisical approach of HAL’s unionised employees that engenders low productivity. Secondly, poor production-engineering standards that create maintenance and inter-changeability problems on aircraft. Thirdly, the high failure rate of HAL manufactured components and systems with attendant safety implications. Lastly, sub-optimal product-support that frequently leaves HAL customers high and dry — without any options.

Given the acceptance of Tejas, whether voluntarily or under duress, this aircraft assumes a key role in national security matrix. It must, therefore, not only be inducted in sufficient numbers in a compressed time-frame but also be accorded Final Operational Clearance at the earliest.

Concurrently, improvements, upgrades and modifications have to be wrought in the Tejas to enhance its capabilities. Given low production rates, all this is unlikely to happen unless the Ministry of Defence thinks out of the box.

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