The Indian Air Force (IAF), after years of opposing the indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA), now accepts it is on track to be a world-class light fighter.
The specifications of the new Tejas - termed Standard of Preparation-2018 (SoP-18) - were agreed in New Delhi on September 23, between the air force and the Tejas' designers and manufacturers. One hundred SoP-18 Tejas fighters will join the IAF, starting 2018-19.
The key battle-winning capability in the SoP-18 Tejas is "active electronically scanned array" (AESA) radar that Israel will develop jointly with India. This was the clincher that made the IAF agree to buy 100 SoP-18 fighters from Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), in addition to the 20 Tejas Mark I already on order.
HAL also undertook to equip the SoP-18 Tejas with air-to-air refuelling, a "self-protection jammer" (SPJ) under the fighter's wing, and to refashion the layout of internal systems to make the fighter easier to maintain. Yet, it was the AESA radar that conclusively grabbed the IAF's attention. No Indian fighter has this capability yet nor does any fighter with Pakistan or China.
AESA radar enjoys key advantages over conventional "manually steered" radar. In the latter, the antenna is moved manually to let the radar beam scan the sky for enemy targets. In AESA radar, the beam moves electronically, switching between multiple targets so rapidly that it effectively scans them simultaneously, even when they are located far apart - in the air, on sea, and the ground. By switching its beam rapidly, the "multi-tasking" AESA radar can simultaneously track enemy aircraft, guide missiles to those targets, and jam enemy communications and radar. In modern-day aerial combat, AESA radar would be a key difference between defeat and victory.
Since India's Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) cannot yet miniaturise airborne radar for a fighter's nose (it has built a larger radar for airborne early warning and control aircraft), the Tejas fighter was equipped with the EL/M-2032 radar, bought from Israeli company, Elta.
The impending replacement of this manual radar with Elta's ELM-2052 AESA radar illustrates the symbiosis between Israel's high-tech defence industry and India's equipment-hungry military, and how each sustains the other.
Business Standard first reported the IAF's decision to order 100 improved Tejas Mark 1A fighters (August 13, With Tejas Mark II years away, HAL asks air force to buy Tejas Mark 1A, and October 2, Parrikar cuts Gordian knot to boost Tejas line). Now, from HAL Bengaluru, comes this account of how Elta's ELM-2052 AESA radar was chosen.
The decision stems from the IAF's ongoing plan to refurbish its 123-aircraft Jaguar fleet, upgrading those six squadrons of deep penetration strike aircraft to continue in service for another 15-20 years. This involves spending $2 billion (Rs 13,000 crore) on new, more powerful engines (the Honeywell F-125N has been chosen); upgrading 61 Jaguars with HAL's vaunted DARIN-3 navigation-attack system, and arming the fleet with lethal, smart munitions like the Textron CBU-105 "sensor-fuzed bombs" that India bought from the United States in 2010.
Then, in 2012, Elta sensed an opportunity and offered to equip the Jaguar with its new ELM-2052 AESA radar. This would provide the Jaguar real ability to beat off enemy fighters, even while on its primary mission of ground strike. Says HAL Chairman T Suvarna Raju: "I was delighted when Elta offered the AESA radar for the Jaguar. Elta wanted neither development costs nor more time."
Elta's offer, however, came with the condition that at least one more fighter in the IAF's inventory should field the ELM-2052 AESA radar. To sweeten the deal, Elta offered to work jointly with HAL on an improved version of the ELM-2052.
This was a win-win for both Elta and HAL. "Look at the market HAL provides Elta. The 61 Jaguars being upgraded to DARIN-3 would all be fitted with the ELM-2052. At least 100 Tejas would get the improved version, possibly with more to follow. Meanwhile, 50 IAF Mirage-2000 fighters are being upgraded, but with a manual radar that could become obsolescent quickly. So the improved AESA could eventually equip the Mirage fleet too, adding up to 200-plus radars," says Raju.
Aerospace industry experts highlight other benefits for Elta. While bearing the design and development cost of the new AESA radar, the Israeli company would save a great deal of money by having flight-testing done on IAF Jaguars. "Israeli Aircraft Industries (IAI is Elta's parent company) and HAL have signed an agreement that says we would partner IAI in developing the improved AESA radar for the Tejas," confirms Raju.
Defence ministry sources say the agreement specifies that 60 per cent of the new radar, by value, would be manufactured in India.
The Elta proposal is typical of how Israeli defence companies do business, explains a senior HAL manager. The Israeli Air Force operates US-built F-15 and F-16 fighters, which come fitted with US-designed AESA radar. All this comes to Israel free, as US military aid to a crucial ally. That leaves little space in Israel's military inventory for equipment built by domestic companies like Elta. Yet, the Israeli government insists on nurturing its defence industry, in case the pipeline from Washington ever shuts. "To stay in business and to fund high-tech R&D, Israeli defence companies like Elta rely heavily on sales to India, particularly the IAF", says aerospace expert Pushpinder Singh.
Illustrating Israeli capabilities, the Tejas Mark I was already armed with an all-Israeli combination of the Elta EL/M-2032 radar, the Derby and Python air-to-air missiles, and a data link that digitally interconnected these. Indian test pilots say this was a "world-class" air-to-air combat configuration. But now, the Elta-HAL AESA radar could make Tejas a more capable air-defence fighter.
JET, SET, GO
The specifications of the new Tejas - termed Standard of Preparation-2018 (SoP-18) - were agreed in New Delhi on September 23, between the air force and the Tejas' designers and manufacturers
One hundred SoP-18 Tejas fighters will join the IAF, starting 2018-19
The key battle-winning capability in the SoP-18 Tejas is "active electronically scanned array" radar that Israel will develop jointly with India
- This was the clincher that made the IAF agree to buy 100 SoP-18 fighters from HAL, in addition to the 20 Tejas Mark I already on order