Still thinking small
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The LCA's initial clearance is welcome. But the aircraft, and MoD, have a long way to go.
The grant of the initial operational clearance (IOC) to the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) "Tejas" marks the "release to service" of the indigenously developed fighter aircraft projected as the ideal replacement for the MiGs. But it would be premature to celebrate. An IOC does not certify actual combat readiness. The LCA has been three decades in the making and the Tejas requires a lot of work before the final operational clearance (FOC) — its weapons systems are nowhere near fully in place, and without the full integration of the combat suite, the LCA cannot be called combat ready. The challenge of developing the MK-II version comes thereafter. Apart from weapons components, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) will face the tough task of equipping Tejas with in-flight refuelling capacity.
The LCA's protracted journey is a testament to the wrongheadedness of India's approach to arming the military. Nobody can question domestic production in principle, but it's an understatement to say that the DRDO's and ordnance PSUs' track records are poor. The lack of political will and ideas has confined defence production to the PSUs. And India's armed forces have paid the price. Meanwhile, the UPA's tendency has been to freeze serious projects and programmes at the whiff of a scandal and blacklist all key foreign suppliers. While that hasn't precluded fresh procurement scandals, it has significantly compromised India's planned military modernisation and replenishment.