India has been developing the Tejas fighter aircraft for almost the last four decades under the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) program. The aircraft has seen many delays, and only two squadrons have been formed till now after the Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) was given in 2013. Now with the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) clearing the purchase of 83 aircraft for the Indian Air Force (IAF), India’s Tejas dream is turning into a reality. The capability to develop fighter aircraft indigenously gives IAF several benefits like improving the shrinking squadron strength of the IAF, continuous improvements in the jet, and a technological base for next-generation fighter manufacturing. However, even with the order of 83 aircraft, the future course of Tejas may not be as smooth as the IAF and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) may hope.
India started its LCA program in 1983 to replace the ageing Russian MiG-21s. It is the second fighter jet program of India. The first was the HAL HF-24 Marut built with the help of a Nazi German engineer. However, the program was suspended after producing only 147 aircraft due to mainly an underpowered engine. Currently, Aircraft Research and Design Centre (ARDC) of HAL is working with the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) of the Ministry of Defence on the Tejas aircraft development.
Design-wise, Tejas is a single-engine, delta wing, multirole lightweight aircraft. It is powered by the General Electronics’ F404-GE-IN20 afterburning engines. F404-GE-IN20 is based on the F404 family series. F404 is one of the most powerful engines and has powered the United States (US) Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet, US Air Force F-117 Stealth Fighters, T-50 Golden Eagle, and JAS39 Gripen. Other important foreign components of the aircraft include an Elta radar and laser pods from Israel and avionics from Britain.
India has invested around USD 2.7 billion in the development of the program. The cost of a single aircraft of IOC standards was quoted by the Ministry of Defence at USD 26 million in 2014. The price of one aircraft of type Mk-1A under the order of 83 aircrafts worth USD 6.5 billion is USD 78.5 million.
There are two main variants of the Tejas. The first one is the Mk-1 which is presently underproduction, and the future Mk-2. IAF has ordered 40 Mk-1 variants from HAL with 20 aircraft belonging to the IOC and Final Operational Clearance (FOC) standards each. It started to receive the IOC aircraft in December 2013, while the first aircraft of the FOC standards was delivered in May 2020. These aircraft are inducted in No. 45 Squadron and No. 18 Squadron of Sulur Air Force Station of the IAF in Tamil Nadu. Once the delivery of the FOC standard aircraft is completed, IOC standard aircraft will also be upgraded to the FOC standard.
The price of one aircraft of type Mk-1A under the order of 83 aircrafts worth USD 6.5 billion is USD 78.5 million.
The Mk-1A variant follows the Mk-1. It is termed a 4+ generation fighter aircraft. Mk-1A will have significant improvements from the earlier versions. This version will go under production after signing a formal contract between the HAL and IAF, which was supposed to take place in February 2021 reportedly.
The Mk-2 variant will be an upgraded version of the Mk-1 and is currently under development. It is said to be a medium-weight multirole fighter due to an increase in its takeoff weight from 13.5 to 17.5 tons. Its first test flight is expected to take off in 2022. This variant is planned to replace Mirage-2000 fighters. The Mk-2 variant aircraft may enter production after the completion of the Mk-1A order of 83 aircraft. Besides, the Mk-2 will be powered by F414 engines made by the US company General Electronics. The GE-F414 engines also power the US Navy’s F/A-18 Super Hornet aircraft.
Moreover, the naval variant of Tejas is also under development and has gone under several tests by the Indian Navy starting in April 2010. In 2016, the Indian Navy, according to initial reports, termed the aircraft too heavy to operate from its ships. However, it kept testing the aircraft. The naval variant is still under development and may not be inducted by the navy in its current form. It is reported that the naval variant testing will be used for technological development to be incorporated in the Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF). The prototype of TEDBF is expected to be completed by 2028. The naval version of the aircraft will be operated by the Indian Navy by replacing its MiG-29K aircraft.
The first aircraft under the program was expected to be built by 1994. However, the first test flight of the aircraft took place on January 4, 2001, seven years behind schedule and 18 years after the development starting in 1983. The initial contract of 20 aircraft for INR 2,813 crores was signed in March 2006, and after several tests and evaluations, it got an IOC on January 10, 2011. The first squadron of Tejas under the 2006 contract was formed on July 1, 2016, three decades after the start of the program. The second contract for another 20 aircraft worth INR 5,989 crores was signed in December 2010. The FOC was granted in February 2019, and the second squadron under the second contract was formed in May 2020.
Out of the 83 aircraft ordered, 73 aircraft will be fighters, and ten will be trainer jets. HAL plans to start delivery of the 83 aircraft from 2024 within 8-9 years. It is also increasing the production rate to 16 per year from the current status of 8 per year after the completion of an additional production line. The first Mk-1A aircraft is scheduled to fly in 2022, and all aircraft are expected to be delivered by 2029-2030. The Mk-2 and the naval variants are still in the development phase, and it may take a decade to test fly them looking at the record of HAL.
CAPABILITIES AND SIGNIFICANCE FOR IAF
In terms of capabilities, Tejas has a proven engine, avionics, radars, and other important components that can make it a potent fighter in the sky. However, the initial variants of the Tejas had design issues, limited speed and manoeuvrability, small payload, and small range due to fuel limitations. Several of these issues have been sorted out in the newer variants. The Mk-1A can carry laser-guided bombs beyond visual range (BVR) air-to-air missiles, air-to-surface missiles, and anti-ship missiles. The Israeli Derby BVR missile is carried by Tejas. The indigenous Astra BVR with a 110 km range is also under development. Besides, the Mk-1A variant will also have an improved fuel capacity with the installation of an additional fuel tank in its central line. In addition to an increased fuel capacity due to an onboard tank, the ability to refuel mid-air will also increase the range of the aircraft. All these capabilities look good on paper, but how the Tejas fighter aircraft performs in terms of maintenance, sortie generation rate, and serviceability ratio can be assessed when it gets delivered in a substantial number.
As the program was envisioned to produce an indigenous aircraft to replace the retiring aircraft, the IAF’s primary objective remains the same. The indigenisation of the defence industry is also a top priority of Prime Minister Modi’s government. It may have similarly forced the IAF to accept the Tejas rather than ordering more foreign aircraft. The program will help make up the depleting squadron strength of the IAF. The IAF had 30 squadrons against the sanctioned strength of 42 in 2020. Tejas has currently two squadrons, and with the delivery of an additional 83 aircraft, it will be increased to six by 2030.
Out of the 83 aircraft ordered, 73 aircraft will be fighters, and ten will be trainer jets.
The other benefit of the indigenous development of Tejas will be the continuous development and advancement of the program, which is not possible with the purchase of a foreign platform. Tejas currently has two variants, and future development is already under process. The flexibility to modify the aircraft to better suit the IAF requirement makes the platform more necessary. HAL and IAF are also working to maintain a higher availability ratio by taking care of the spare parts and service issues.
LCA program gives India expertise and experience in producing an aircraft indigenously, albeit with foreign contributions. It will also help India in its fifth generation HAL Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). The lessons learned from delays due to bureaucracy and fewer inputs by the IAF in the development of Tejas may help in meeting the timelines of the AMCA development. Similarly, the program is already used as a testbed for the development of the TEDBF for the Indian Navy, as discussed above. The need to replace the MiG-29Ks would have forced the Indian Navy to look globally for a replacement if the TEDBF was not under development.
FUTURE OF THE TEJAS PROGRAM
HAL production rate of the aircraft has been slow over the past years. HAL was supposed to deliver 40 aircraft by now, including 16 jets of IOC and FOC standards each and eight trainer aircraft. However, it has only delivered 16 IOC and two FOC standards thus far. This leaves the production of 24 aircraft delayed. After the placement of an order of 83 aircraft, HAL has to deliver 105 aircraft to IAF. Along with delivering the 105 aircraft, HAL also needs to upgrade the 16 IOC to FOC standards. Looking at the above figures, it may be safe to say that the issues of delayed timelines by HAL may not have ended, and the IAF will have to live with it. Though, it is also true that foreign procurements have also been slow due to bureaucratic hurdles and funding issues. Further delay in both foreign and indigenous procurements will continue to impact the squadron strength of the IAF.
The Mk-2 variant is already under development; therefore, procurement of a total of 123 Tejas Mk-1 may be the only procurement of the variant by IAF. However, a challenge for the Teja Mk-2 variant may arise from the tender of April 2018 MMRCA for foreign fighter aircraft manufacturers to produce 114 jets for the IAF in India. Assuming the tender goes ahead well and a foreign firm starts manufacturing one of the jets from Su-35, MiG-35, Rafale, F-16 Block 70/72, Saab Gripen JAS 39, F/A-18, and Eurofighter Typhoon. Then, these all aircraft are superior to Tejas. IAF also tends to favour foreign aircraft like the Russian Su-30 MKIs and, recently, the hype over Rafale aircraft. Therefore, the Mk-2 variant may have to compete with MMRCA 2.0 to get substantial orders from IAF. Another factor contributing to this development will be that Tejas will already be in service in good numbers, and their performance will determine IAF’s decision to acquire more. The IAF will also be no longer under any moral compulsion to procure more Tejas aircraft to support the indigenous program, as it will be done by getting 123 jets. Therefore, the number of Mk-2 variant aircraft may be less than the number of Mk-1 variant.
Price is another determining factor for Tejas Mk-2 to get the placement of an order by the IAF in significant numbers. The pricing of the Mk-1A, as discussed above, is not a favourable factor anymore. The Mk-2 will also be costlier than the Mk-1A.
Experts have also cautioned IAF to not expand Tejas beyond six squadrons due to the technical shortcomings and focus on MMRCA. Some of the inadequacies of the aircraft include it being overweight, not having enough thrust to weight ratio, and its top speed limitations. The reason for these shortcomings, as identified, is the limited IAF input in the designing and development of the aircraft.
On the export potential of the aircraft, the delayed timelines, the non-operationalisation of the aircraft, and the reservations by the IAF over the past years are a bad starting point for putting confidence in the Tejas program. Furthermore, the small set of weapons integration, supply chain issues, re-export license issues relating to the US engine, mix and matching of components, and Israeli radar all have dented the export potential of Tejas. In order to export Tejas, HAL will have to get a re-export license for the engine from the US first. However, it can also be argued that the reservations raised by the IAF were incorporated to meet the force’s requirement, which may bring in some confidence in the performance of the aircraft. In a nutshell, slow induction rate, future orders by the IAF for the Mk-2, costs, and performance of the aircraft will all impact the opinion of foreign air forces interested in the aircraft’s both variants, including the Mk-1A.
The inflated prices of the Tejas will be another factor that may impede its export. The aircraft targets developing countries seeking an affordable capable fourth-generation aircraft to replace their ageing legacy fighters. A prime example of this would be the JF-17 jointly developed by China and Pakistan. The development of JF-17 started almost around the same time as Tejas, but besides the developing partner Pakistan, it is also being operated by the Myanmar Air Force. The Nigerian Air Force has placed an initial order of three aircraft, and more are likely to be placed later. Similarly, several other nations have shown a deep interest in the procurement of this aircraft due to JF-17’s affordability, capabilities, and performance factors.
The start of the induction process of the next four squadrons of Tejas Mk-1A variants will be monumental for the IAF and HAL. Not only the platform will help make up the shrinking squadron strength of the IAF, but it will also give it the flexibility to upgrade and make changes to it according to the IAF’s operational needs. The aircraft has some good foreign procured components like the US engine, Israeli radars, and weapon suite. It can turn out to be a good aircraft if all the components perform well to integrate it with other IAF assets like the early warning and electronic warfare platforms and improve the situational awareness of the pilot. This will take years of training and exercises after the Mk-1A is delivered to the air force.
However, the issue of delayed delivery will be there, which will slow down the induction process of the aircraft in the IAF. Apart from delayed delivery, high costs and integration and maintenance in the IAF will also negatively impact the Indian hopes of exporting the aircraft. Even the future of the platform in the IAF will depend upon the performance of and satisfaction in the Mk-1A. Therefore, the aircraft’s journey in the future may not be as smooth as the HAL and IAF may aspire.