Tejas MK1A or MK2: Is it Really Worth $75 Million?

The Tejas single-seat, single-engine, lightweight, high-agility supersonic fighter aircraft entered service with the Indian Air Force (IAF) in July 2016. As of December 2019, Tejas had flown 4,599 test flights up to speeds of Mach 1.4.

The aircraft’s design and development programme was led by the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) of the Indian Department of Defense, with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) as the prime industrial contractor.

A Tejas naval prototype successfully completed a flight test aboard Indian Navy’s aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya in January 2020. After 40 years of development, the first Tejas Mk1 in final operational clearance (FOC) configuration entered service with the IAF in May 2020.

The IAF ordered 40 Tejas aircraft, including 20 Tejas Mk1 and 20 Tejas Mk2. The first 20 fighters are built according to IOC standards and the remaining will be built to the FOC configuration.

Tejas Mk2’s maiden test flight is scheduled for 2022. The IAF received four Tejas Mk1 aircraft by July 2017. The Mk1 version received the FOC in February 2019.

Costly Exercises

In November 2016, the Defense Acquisition Council (DAC) of India cleared the acquisition of 83 Tejas Mk1A variants worth $6.25 billion, bringing the total number of orders to 123.

The US$6.25 billion deal includes 73 Mk 1A fighters and 10 Mk 1 twin-seat trainers, with an additional US$164 million earmarked for the design and construction of associated support infrastructure.

The headline price immediately led to a chorus of disbelief about what appeared to be an average cost of Rs 548 crore (US$75 million) per aircraft, resulting in unwarranted comparisons with more capable aircraft such as the Su-30MKI. Lack of transparency in defence spending only damages institutional credibility, in addition to hurting the sales prospects of the LCA beyond its domestic customer.

The 16 IOC aircraft made their first flights between October 2014 and March 2019. This makes for an average build rate of about 3.5 aircraft per year, although technically no LCAs were flown in 2015, while six were built in 2018. A year after the final IOC jet had flown, the first FOC Tejas flew in March 2020, allowing for the raising of a second LCA squadron co-located with the first and sharing its resources. The rest of the year 2020 was, for obvious reasons, a difficult one. Beyond pandemic-related slowdowns, the build rate suffered as HAL had to work to resolve certain outstanding issues related to the design and production of the airframes.

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HAL’s Tejas backlog has ballooned, and now stands at 105 aircraft across variants — 14 FOC jets, eight trainers from the first order, 10 from the most recent order, and the 73 Mk.1A fighters themselves.

This should help minimize the impact of any developmental delays, as well as create something of a buffer to allow for a high initial production rate, which would quickly ramp up to the planned 16 aircraft per year. With the first Mk.1As likely to be delivered around 2024-25, and accounting for a slightly reduced output early in the production run before reaching a steady 16 deliveries per year, the final Mk.1As will be inducted sometime around 2029-2030.

Tejas Timeline

For the interested people and people who say Tejas is 40 years old, this is the time-line for LCA program:

  • 1984- Aeronautical Development Agency was established.
  • 1985- IAF presented their requirements
  • 1988-90- Design was done.
  • 1993- Funding approved for development
  • 1995- First Technology demonstrator
  • 2001- First flight
  • 2003- Sonic barrier crossed and Tejas became supersonic
  • 2007- Limited series production started
  • 2009- Tejas completed 1000 test flights (trials in various weather, terrain conditions and altitudes and firing different weapons were done)
  • 2011- certification for release to service (Initial Operation Clearance-1)
  • 2013- Initial Operation Clearance-2
  • 2014- Series production started
  • 2016- Induction of the first squadron into IAF

Does India need a low-end fighter jet like Tejas?

Tejas has been advertised as a BVR capable light combat aircraft, but under its current form, Tejas can fire short-range missiles and drops bombs.

A 23mm twin-barrelled GSh-23 gun with a burst firing rate of 50 rounds a second and muzzle velocity of 715m a second is installed in a blister fairing under the starboard air intake.

In October 2007, the aircraft successfully test-fired the R-73 air-to-air missile.

The Vympel R-73 (Nato code name AA-11 Archer) missile is an all-aspect short-range missile with cooled infrared homing. It can intercept targets at altitudes between 0.02km and 20km, g-load to 12g and with target speeds of up to 2,500km/h.

The Indian Government purchased Derby beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles (BVR-AAM) from Rafael Advanced Defence Systems to incorporate on 200 aircraft. The Derby missile can engage targets at a range of 50km.

These missiles were delivered by the end of 2012. They superseded Astra BVR-AAM and accelerated the development process. The weapon tests on the Tejas fighter jet were carried out at the Pokhran range in September 2011.

Tejas LCA LSP4 fighter successfully test-fired a Derby BVR missile against a manoeuvrable aerial target format the Chandipur test range in May 2017.

The aircraft’s electronic warfare suite, developed by the Advanced Systems Integration and Evaluation Organisation (ASIEO) of Bangalore, includes a radar warning receiver and jammer, laser warner, missile approach warner and chaff and flare dispenser.

It includes pulse Doppler radar with Doppler beam shaping, moving target indication and look-up / look-down capability. The radar is mounted in a Kevlar radome.

Saab is offering a sensor package for Mk1A variant of the Tejas LCA. The package includes airborne electronically scanned array (AESA) fighter radar technology and an electronic warfare (EW) suite. Tejas is yet to be integrated with any next-gen technology.

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Although several major air forces like France, Germany and the US are still inducting or ordering 4.5 generation fighters, India’s only 4.5 generation fighter jet is Rafale. HAL Tejas under its current form cannot be called fourth generation fighter.

What Capability Tejas Brings?

Tejas is developed with the primary objective of replacing MiG-21 and 27 fleets of the Indian Air Force and play the role of an interceptor with some ground-attack capability. But it also has ground support and attack as well as anti-ship capability.

LCA Naval Variant

Tejas can operate in a close-combat role with a short-range air-to-air missile, The Tejas can fire ‘Beyond Visual Range (BVR) ASTRA missile for a single occasion, but never cleared for BVR combat. It can launch conventional and laser-guided smart bombs and air-to-ground missiles as well as anti-ship missiles. It can also carry multiple drop tanks and will have an in-flight re-fueling feature so capable to fly medium-range.

CAG Reports

In its report, CAG had also pointed out that a serious lack of coordination was one of the major deficiencies in the management of the LCA program. This was however mitigated by setting up a committee in 2006 to monitor the progress of the programme with frequent reviews.

Today, the program is overseen by a 17 member Project Monitoring Team (PMT) headed by an IAF Officer of Air Marshal rank. NFTC with its 10 experienced pilots also provides valuable inputs to the designers. Maintenance engineers in the PMT as well as personnel from HAL who participate in reviews also provide valuable feedback to the designers to tailor their designs for easier maintenance. Overall, these design-level interactions between the IAF, ADA and HAL are helping refine all fighter aircraft programmes in India, with underdevelopment designs even helping upgrade designs closer to production.

Kaviri Engine And Uttam Radar Dilemma

Now as is known, the entire Tejas Mk1, Mk1A and Mk2 i.e. MWF fleet will be equipped with General Electric F404 and F414 series engines.  The Kaveri programme has as such failed to deliver a viable domestic engine that can meet the thrust requirements of even the Mk1. Although the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE) has been able to achieve the targeted dry-thrust in the Kaveri engine it has not been able to meet the wet-thrust requirement. Presently, efforts to make use of single-crystal turbine blades developed by the Defence Metallurgical Research Laboratory (DMRL) as well as research into afterburner design is underway at GTRE to ‘fix’ the Kaveri design. Unless an indigenous engine becomes available when it does, there is currently no plan to develop alternate engine sources for the fleet.

LCA-AFMK2. Source Indian Defence.

The first 40 will have Israeli mechanical radars and 83 Mk-1A fighters will get Active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars, but there is a catch. The Uttam radar is too heavy and too big to fit into the radome of HAL Tejas. According to LCA MK2 Project Director Dr. Madhusudhana Rao the Uttam radar in its current form 2700mm bigger than the Tejas MK1A radome which means Tejas needs to be reconfigured with a bigger radome to house 778TR module instead of 992 arrays of TR module. Dr Rao also said that the aircraft needs some modification for LCA-AFMK2 to accommodate IRST and other sensors.

HAL is also developing the Tejas Mk2 under the IAF’s Medium Weight Fighter (MWF) programme. Besides a greater payload carrying capacity over the Mk1 variant, the Mk2 is expected to feature further improvements such as a retractable AAR probe, a more powerful GE F414 engine, as well as improved combat ability with an infra-red search and track (IRST) system and a missile approach warning system (MAWS).

What Next For Tejas?

The final Mk.1As will be inducted sometime around 2029-2030 if there is no developmental delays and the Indian Air Force changes its mind about the future of HAL Tejas.

China already developed J-10C, J-16 and J-20 equipped with AESA radar. China is rapidly developing FC-31 aircraft for PLA Air Force and PLA Navy. Pakistan Air Force is going to induct JF-17 Block III aircraft with AESA radar. Pakistan interested to procure a batch of J-10C and J-11B fighter jets from China.

With MMRCA V2.0 looming on the horizon, the Indian Air Force needs modern fighter jets to fight two front if any war broke between either side. The Indian Air Force currently has 14 Rafale FR3 4.5 generation fighter jet, that’s not enough considering vast area of airspace IAF has to surveil, continue operate air interdiction and protect EEZ of India.

To Summarize

Considering the urgent need India has to expand its fighter fleet, which will require the induction of over a dozen new squadrons in the near future, a low cost lightweight indigenous jet seems to be stopgap measure to the country’s defense budget. The only issue with this is that India’s Tejas, largely due to its reliance on very costly foreign technologies, is very far from a low-cost fighter.

When the Indian Air Force finally receives 83 HAL Tejas in late 2030, Tejas will be obsolete fighter jets,– India’s geopolitical challenges will be intensified by the Chinese aggressive naval posture in the Indian Ocean. Considering the Indian AMCA fifth-generation fighter programme is a long shot, the HAL Tejas has no business in the year 2030, India needs modern fighters like Super Hornet Block III for its navy and F-15EX for its air force to deter Chinese aggression.

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