Some 18 years ago an IAF chief invited ridicule when, to impress the media, he flew a sortie in a MiG-21 to disprove the contention that the ageing fighter was a “flying coffin”. In much the same manner a senior officer’s recently flying the Tejas LCA is being projected as a “certificate” by its manufacturers Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. For what might otherwise have been logged as a routine solo mission, the public sector unit activated the “after-burner” of its media-relations machine to claim that a 30-minute solo flight by Air Marshal RKS Bhadauria was a “major boost” to the induction and operationalisation of the indigenous fighter that has evoked a none-too-enthusiastic response from the force.

The press release from HAL made a point of mentioning that its Chairman and Managing Director thanked the AOC-in-C of Southern Air Command for “reposing faith” in the combat aircraft ~ though it was careful not to attribute to that officer any of the several claims made about the LCA’s prowess. There is no requirement of any sophisticated radar to detect the reason for the trumpet blowing ~ recent reports point to the IAF looking beyond the Tejas to meet its requirement of at least 100 single-seat fighters to replace the MiG series that have long outlived their utility. It would appear that the “competition” has narrowed down to the Swedish Gripen and the US’ Lockheed Martin F-16: the American firm has already entered into an arrangement with the Tatas to produce their jet in India, should it get the green light from the government. Clearly wary over the future of the Tejas, HAL has mounted a rearguard action to contend that it is still in the running. It remains unclear if Air Marshal Bhadauria’s brief flight was calculated to be part of that effort.

It is understood that while the IAF will proceed with acquiring the 40 units of the Tejas already ordered and will approve another 80 of an advanced version (after it “qualifies”), those orders are basically intended to keep the indigenous production-line operational. At present it can build just eight jets a year, and plans in hand to double that capacity. Those numbers will not suffice to compensate for the IAF’s depleting squadron strength and a tie-up with a foreign producer is inevitable.

Both the Gripen and the F-16 are “proven” (unlike the Tejas – Mark1A) and boast greater operational capabilities. Some IAF officers contend that even the advanced version of the Tejas will have to operate with other fighters for “protection” ~ which suggests that the HAL product, like the home-built MBT Arjun, is being bought for “political” reasons. The campaign by HAL might “succeed” ~ but it will be for the defence minister to certify that limited resources are being expended cost-effectively.