An advanced version of the indigenously produced Light Combat Aircraft (LCA ) or Tejas was on Monday successfully refuelled mid-air by an Ilyushin-78 tanker demonstrating a key capability sought by the Indian Air Force. The Russian-origin tanker fed the fighter plane piloted by Wing Commander Siddharth Singh with 1,900 litres of fuel at an altitude of 20,000 ft, public sector aircraft maker Hindustan Aeronautics Limited said in a statement. The wet (actual) engagement followed two dry tests last week when the refuelling systems (probe and drogue) were tested without actually transferring fuel. On Monday, the LCA’s internal and drop tanks were refuelled while the jet was flying at 270 knots. The IAF has ordered 123 LCA variants and plans to order 201 more upgraded models to arrest a sharp decline in its combat capabilities. Of the 123 planes worth ₹70,000 crore on order, 20 each are in the initial operational clearance (IOC) and the more advanced final operational clearance (FOC) configurations while the remaining 83 are in the Mk-1A configuration that comes with additional improvements. The defence ministry described Monday’s test as a “significant achievement”; a major step towards the FOC of the LCA.
Apart from mid-air refuelling capability, the most advanced Tejas versions will come with improvements including a digital radar warning receiver, external self protection jammer pod, an active electronically scanned array radar, advanced beyond-visual-range (BVR) missiles and improved maintainability. “The next target should be to meet all the remaining requirements of the IAF such as BVR missiles, advanced radar and electronic warfare suite at the earliest and prove them together,” said Air Vice-Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (retd), additional director general, Centre for Air Power Studies. “The enhanced range and endurance in air is expected to provide IAF a host of options in exploiting the operational potential of the LCA,” the defence ministry said in a statement. The IAF raised its first Tejas squadron in 2016 and it has inducted nine jets so far. HAL claims it is ready to produce eight aircraft per year and is ramping up the production rate to 16 by 2019-20 by investing ₹1,331 crore.