In a clear confidence-building measure amidst chronic last-lap delays, India’s homegrown Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) will be deployed for the first time in an air force exercise, code-named Iron Fist, over the Thar Desert in western India.

Set to begin Feb. 22, Iron Fist will see the Tejas for the first time fire air-to-air and strike weapons while flying in battlefield conditions with other Indian air force (IAF) aircraft, including the Su-30 MKI, Mirage 2000H, Jaguar, MiG-21, MiG-27 and MiG-29.

Saddled with delays in a critical envelope-expansion effort, the Tejas is looking to achieve the second phase of initial operational clearance by June, with a final operational capability and squadron service in 2015.

During Iron Fist, a limited-series Tejas — one of eight such aircraft, with the eighth to fly next month — will deploy the R-73 close combat air-to-air missile and a series of laser-guided bombs. A day/night exercise, it will be the first time the IAF gets to fly the Tejas in a fully operational environment, including its surveillance and space assets. The IAF also is eager to test the aircraft’s EL/M-2052 radar in an environment with other aircraft and targets. Tejas series production is set to begin next year.

“There is confidence in the Tejas now. Scheduled to be inducted into a newly raised squadron in the Sulur air base [in southern India] in 2015, the IAF was keen to field the Tejas in this year’s fire power demonstration to get a feel of how it operates in real conditions. Accordingly, it was decided to invite the program to participate,” said an IAF officer on detachment to fly at the Iron Fist exercise.

In its final configuration, which needs to be proven before 2014, the Tejas will deploy the R-77 and Derby BVRAAMs and the Python-5 close combat missile. Once ready, India’s Astra BVRAAM will also be part of the Tejas weapons package. The missile is scheduled for a first firing from the air this year.

“The LCA is ready for operational conditions. We’ve waited for an opportunity like this to demonstrate how easily it will fit in with the IAF’s existing strength,” says a senior test pilot with the National Flight Test Center, which is currently pushing the Tejas toward final operational clearance. “We look forward to operating with other pilots and aircraft types for the first time. It will go a long way in establishing confidence in the platform. There’s no substitute for that ahead of squadron service.”

To achieve initial operational capability, the Tejas program will need to expand the platform’s angle of attack, G tolerance and weapons capability. Additionally, the Tejas needs to complete test points in all weather operations, lightning clearance and wake-penetration. Though slowed by critical delays, the program marked 2,000 accident-free flights earlier this month.

“The delay in delivery is a problem. It needs to be speeded up to ensure that there are no further delays in delivery to the IAF,” India Defense Minister A.K. Antony said this month. In its latest round of trials, the Tejas completed a series of high-altitude tests at the Leh air base in Northern India in January. IAF chief Air Chief Marshal Norman Browne said earlier this month that the trials had not been entirely successful, and that the platform’s engine didn’t perform as expected.

“Modifications will be required. There is much work ahead. Development projects do indeed take time, but it is imperative that there are no further delays in the program. A lot of effort has been invested in it, including from the IAF. It needs to be ready for operations soon,” Browne said.

The IAF has ordered 48 Tejas fighters so far, and indicated a higher level of interest in the proposed Mk.2 version of the jet. The Mk.2 will be powered by an F414 turbofan and feature currently unspecified aerodynamic improvements, an upgraded digital flight control computer, a unified EW suite, upgraded avionics, an onboard oxygen generation system, increased fuel capacity, a midair refueling probe and increased survivability. The Aeronautical Development Agency has begun building a wind-tunnel model and full-scale mockup of the aircraft.

The naval variant of the Tejas, which features a drooped nose, strengthened undercarriage and a tail-hook for arrested landings, remains on the ground after just four flights last year. Program sources indicate that the platform’s landing gear is undergoing a partial redesign through a consultancy with EADS, which is also helping execute the test program. Once ready to get back to flight test, the LCA-N, as it is designated, will resume testing at India’s brand-new, shore-based test facility in Goa, where the navy has built a ski jump and arrester deck to practice carrier landings.

Tejas photo: India defense ministry