Exporting the Tejas; Yay or Nay?
To an Indian, the LCA Tejas is a matter of pride and joy. It is the first time that the military-industrial complex, led by the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and the Aircraft Design Agency (ADA), in collaboration with the Indian Air Force, along with a number of foreign companies sat at the same table. It took almost 20 years for the beautiful delta-wing aircraft to be painted in IAF colours, but what is the next step? As has been the tradition with every single fighter program in history, the aircraft now needs to be exported in numbers. The cost for developing the aircraft has to be first recovered, and then can we finally start making profits.
But there are a number of wrinkles that need to be ironed out. And as you’ll see later on in the story, it’s not as easy as simply building and packing them off into the waiting arms of eager fighter pilots all over the world.
While the design of the Tejas was finalized in the 1990s, full government funding began only in 1993, owing to the ongoing financial paradigm shift that India was undergoing and the subsequent shortage of funds.
It was only in 2001 that the first flight was completed using a technology demonstrator named the TD-1. The then P.M. Atal Bihari Vajpayee renamed the Light Combat Aircraft, calling it the Tejas, a name which became synonymous with India’s baby steps into the fighter aircraft makers’ arena.
The engine used in the Tejas was called the Kaveri and was jointly developed with Snecma, a huge French industrial conglomerate.
A couple of years later, the Tejas went supersonic for the first time. Its sonic boom was, in a sense heard throughout the country as, for the first time, the Tejas seemed like it was on par with the very best in the world.
In 2009, the Tejas recorded its 1000th flight, and air-to-ground weapons testing was initiated from there onwards. That very year, in December, the Government allocated 1000 crores towards the production of Air Force and Navy versions of the Tejas.
The Tejas made a grand appearance in the 2011 Republic Day parade, and the next year, the first naval prototype was flown.
On January 17, 2015, the Indian Airforce received its first brand new Tejas amidst much fanfare in a ceremony hosted by Defence Minister Manoj Parrikar and IAF Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha in Bengaluru.
In 2016, the Tejas made its international debut at the 2016 Bahrain International Airshow. In the same year, the first two aircraft of the very first Tejas squadron were handed over to the IAF, with the remaining 18 aircraft to be added in 2018. In spite of initially rejecting the Tejas for being overweight in 2017, the Navy restarted testing with the NP2 (Naval Prototype 2) in August 2018, with the first mid-air refueling being held in September 2018.
In February 2019, the Tejas was awarded Final Operational Clearance, wherein the Air Force said the Tejas had met and even exceeded its requirements, and that it will place an order for 83 Tejas Mk1A aircraft. By March 2020, the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, the primary manufacturer of the aircraft is expected to expand its production capacity to 16 aircraft per annum.
The design, testing, and manufacture of a fighter aircraft is quite unlike anything else. The programs get costlier the longer they are pursued, and with the see-sawing political atmosphere in India, it’s easy to see why everything takes much longer than it’s supposed to. That is also the reason why the hopelessly outdated Mig-21 is still in service.
The only way the Tejas can prove itself, unfortunately, is via exports to friendly nations. The single biggest challenge here is the fact that more than 70% of the entire aircraft has to be sourced from foreign companies, making overseas sales a tough nut to crack.
The engine, for example, was first developed with the help of Snecma, and since test results weren’t positive, the General Electric 404 turbofan engine was chosen as a replacement. The flight control systems and avionics have been developed with support from Elbit and Elta, two Israeli companies. Ditto for the multi-mode radar, which was to be developed by HAL and LRDE, which turned out to be a dead end. The radome is now supplied by Cobham, a British company.
In an audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India and the Indian Airforce, the following deficiencies were identified
- Lack of a trainer version (At least until 2020)
- Lack of sufficient simulation platforms (Currently only instrumented aircraft are available, and that too, only in Bengaluru, and even these cannot train pilots in mid-air refueling procedures)
- Glaring performances shortfalls that threaten the safety of the pilot and the aircraft
- Performance shortcomings in the RWR (radar warning receiver) and countermeasure systems
- Cost overruns; the project budget now stands at INR 10,937 crores, almost 20 times the original INR 560 crore figure.
In the same inquiry, the IAF put forth the following requirements to the HAL
- Inclusion of an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar
- Integration of a long range BVR (beyond visual range) missile (A BVR missile was successfully tested in April 2018)
- Air-to-air refueling capability across all models
- Addition of an up-to-date electronic warfare capability
So, what does this mean?
- Every U.S. fighter aircraft sold comes with an agreement that requires the user to comply with a certain set of norms.
- In the case of the Tejas, a user will have to approach not just India, but every foreign government involved if the aircraft is to be used as line equipment.
- Even if HAL’s production capacity is upgraded to 20 or 25 units per annum, it will be quite difficult to adhere to large export orders
- Every fighter aircraft has to be sold along with a trainer version, which is a big, big hole in the Tejas program
- The Tejas faces a very real risk of being used as a pawn in the ever-present political game in India, and the Canadian Avro Arrow aircraft is proof of how political knife-fighting can shoot down the hottest bird in the sky
- Currently, Malaysia and the UAE have shown interest in the Tejas, and this proves that all is not lost.
- If the Tejas could have been inducted in the 2000s, the IAF’s reliance on the Mig 21 a.k.a. the Flying Coffins would have been much less compared to what it is right now.
To an Indian, the Tejas is a matter of pride and joy, and I would like nothing better than to see the Tejas outflying the very best in the world.