India's Hindustan Aeronautics Limited will produce the country's light combat aircraft. (Wikipedia)
NEW DELHI — India’s homegrown light combat aircraft received the initial operational clearance-II (IOC-II) Dec. 20, paving the way for Air Force induction nearly three decades after the project was conceived.
The Aeronautical Development Agency, a laboratory of the Defence Research and Development Organisation, has developed the aircraft to replace the Russian-made MiG-21 fighter.
Developmental delays have forced the Air Force to hunt for fighter aircraft from overseas, and final negotiations are ongoing with Dassault of France for the purchase of Rafale fighter aircraft. The planes are being purchased under the $12 billion Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft program.
Achieving IOC-II means the fighter is fully airworthy in different conditions. An Air Force official said the aircraft will be ready to take on a fighting role only after receiving final operational clearance, likely by 2015. The aircraft will be tested with its weaponry, including 23mm guns, beyond-visual-range missiles, air-to-air missiles, air-to-surface missiles, and air-to-air refueling capability.
The earlier step of achieving IOC-I occurred in January 2011. “In IOC-I, the aircraft had a few limitations in terms of combat performance, turn around time and its weaponization, which had to be refined and improved through the research and development process. In addition to this, wake-penetration trials and all-weather clearances were planned beyond IOC-1,” according to an Indian Defence Ministry statement released Friday.
Achieving IOC-II will also mean the aircraft is ready to be flown by Air Force pilots who can test the aircraft’s combat capabilities live.
So far, only test pilots with the National Flight Testing Centre have been flying the aircraft. Air Force pilots who will test the aircraft next year will have the final say on the granting of final operational clearance.
“The real test for [the aircraft] is not the second operational clearance, but the live testing of combat and weapon systems of the aircraft for over one year by [Air Force] pilots who will certify whether they are induction-and battle ready,” another Air Force official said.
After achieving IOC-II, state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) will begin serial production of the aircraft for the Air Force, which has ordered 20 Mark-1 aircraft, to be followed by another 20. The Air Force also wants 124 Mark-2 planes, the first of which is expected to be inducted around 2018.
Media reports this year said HAL is seeking overseas help from the Eurofighter consortium to develop the assembly line.
“The production facilities have been set up at HAL and the aircraft delivery is expected to commence from 2014. We have plans to initially produce eight aircraft per year. Further plans are afoot to enhance the production rate to 16 aircraft per year in consultation with IAF and MoD. HAL is fully geared up to meet the challenging production schedule and hopes to fulfill the requirements of customers in a time-bound manner,” said HAL Chairman R.K. Tyagi.
The Mark-1 is a single-engine, lightweight, highly agile, multi-role supersonic fighter with an advanced digital fly-by-wire flight control system with associated advanced flight control laws, according to a HAL executive.