Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has made it clear that her ministry will give a decisive push to the domestically-manufactured Tejas fighter plane for the Indian Air Force, which suggests that the plan for acquiring Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Block 70IN and SAAB’s Gripen E may be on hold.
“Tejas will be part of the Air Force. We are making provisions for Tejas Mark 2. They will be part of Air Force’s single-engine fighter jet requirement,” Sitharaman said at a select media briefing, adding that the government will throw its entire weight in developing variants of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas.
The single-jet engine Tejas is the smallest and lightest multirole supersonic fighter aircraft of its class. It is designed by the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) for the Indian Air Force and the Navy.
Given that the Air Force, facing a depletion in its squadron strength, is in dire need of fighter jets, Sitharaman said the government is “actively working with the Air Force to give them more aircraft.”
She also said the government is looking at giving a massive push to HAL to scale up the production of Tejas not just for the Air Force and the Navy but also to export it to countries that are interested in acquiring it.
At present, HAL is producing about six to eight of these fighter planes annually, Sitharaman said, adding that the numbers need to substantially increase by expanding the production capacity.
“We want them to do it faster and increase their capacity. We are talking with HAL and seeing how Tejas can be scaled up under ‘Make In India’. We are also finding a lot of interest from other countries,” she added.
Last year, Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen took a half-an-hour flight in Tejas at the Kalaikunda airbase and had found the warplane “excellent and very impressive.”
“There is a sense of urgency (to ramp up Tejas’ production), more so because we have to sell it to countries,” Sitharaman said.
According to top Defence Ministry sources, the government is planning to buy at least 80-100 Tejas for the Air Force.
Ironically, both the Air Force and the Navy have rejected Tejas, stating that the jet does not meet their requirements.
Procurement plans on hold ::
In 2016, the then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar expressed interest in procuring single-engine fighter planes from foreign manufacturers.
Eventually, the competition narrowed down to US’ Lockheed Martin, which offered to shift the entire production line of F-16 to India and also transform it into a global export hub for the fighters. Similarly, the Swedish SAAB offered to make Gripen E in India by creating an industrial ecosystem under ‘Make in India’.
Asked whether that plan has been shelved, Sitharaman said the focus is now on Tejas and on ramping up its production.
Sources added that the plan to acquire Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) under a different programme from the Russians has also been put on the back-burner as the planes are “abhorrently expensive” and that the Defence Minister will be visiting Russia soon to discuss the programme.
SOURCE : THE HINDU BUSINESS LINE