For years, the development of the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) has followed a two-stage road map: First, an initial Tejas Mark I was to be developed, powered by the General Electric (GE) F-404IN engine. A more capable Tejas Mark II, featuring the more powerful GE F-414 engine, would follow this.
The Business Standard first reported (August 13, With Tejas Mark II years away, HAL asks air force to buy Tejas Mark 1A) the proposal to build an interim fighter, referred to as the Tejas Mark 1A.
Now the Business Standard has details of the interim fighter, which would fly with the same F-404 engine as the Tejas Mark I, but yet be more capable than the version currently cleared for production.
The aeronautical establishment is referring to the interim fighter as Tejas Mark 1A, though this name has not been officially allocated.
The Mark 1A will overcome a major drawback in the Mark I, the absence of a "self-protection jammer". Fighter aircraft have these "electronic warfare" (EW) systems to jam or blind enemy radars, preventing them from detecting the aircraft; and to prevent air-to-air and ground-to-air missiles from homing onto the fighter.
The Tejas Mark I was to have an "on-board EW system", but lacks the space for one. It has, therefore, been decided to develop an EW pod for the Mark 1A, which will be carried externally under the fighter's wing.
The Mark 1A will also have a mid-air refuelling probe to enhance its endurance and operational range. It will be integrated with long-range Derby and Python air-to-air missiles for aerial combat, and its internal systems will be re-arranged for better accessibility, making the fighter easier to maintain.
Ministry and Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) sources say defence minister Manohar Parrikar has thrown his weight behind this initiative. At his persuasion, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has begun preparing a procurement proposal for 80 Tejas fighters, over and above the 20 Tejas Mark I already on order in "initial operational certification" configuration.
The IAF had earlier agreed to buy another 20 Tejas Mark I, once the fighter obtains "final operational certification", a much-delayed landmark expected in early 2016. It is unclear whether that order will stand, or be integrated into the proposed order for 80 Tejas Mark 1As.
Parrikar's decisive move cuts a Gordian knot that has bedevilled Tejas production. For years Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), the agency that will mass-produce the Tejas, has resisted increasing production-line capacity, because the IAF has only committed to buying 40 fighters. In a chicken-and-egg situation, the IAF cites HAL's slow production rate as the reason for not ordering more Tejas.
The result: In the past two years, HAL has built just one Tejas. Meanwhile, the IAF responds to its dwindling fighter numbers - now only 34 squadrons - with demands for quickly buying large numbers of the Dassault Rafale from France.
Parrikar calculates that, with an order for 100 Tejas in hand, HAL will have the business case for quickly boosting production to at least 16 fighters per year.
Meanwhile, the Tejas Mark II will continue development, say sources in the DRDO, which oversees the Tejas development programme.
A defence ministry official concurs, pointing out: "The Tejas Mark II is not just for the IAF. The navy believes the Naval Tejas must have an F-414 engine to be able to take off from an aircraft carrier's short deck. So Tejas Mark II development will continue alongside the Mark 1A."
With the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) - the DRDO agency that has built the Tejas - targeting 2022-23 for completing the Tejas Mark II, HAL has seven years of production of the Mark I and the Mark IA. The defence ministry calculates that a 100-Tejas order is essential to keep it working to capacity.
Meanwhile, alongside the Tejas Mark II, ADA would also be working on the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), an indigenous, fifth-generation fighter already on the drawing board. ADA engineers point out that advanced technologies being developed for AMCA would inevitably leak into the Tejas Mark II, making the light fighter more advanced than currently anticipated.