India’s home-grown fighter is set to debut on the international stage. The defence ministry has announced that the Tejas will perform aerobatic displays at the Bahrain International Air Show from January 21-23.
“The show will witness flying demonstration of the ‘Tejas’, the latest and state of the art Light Combat Aircraft, the ‘Four-plus’ generation and highly cost effective fighter aircraft (sic),” said the defence ministry on Friday.
This is a bold marketing move, given that the Tejas’ final operational certification is expected only by mid-2016, and only a single fighter has been delivered to the Indian Air Force (IAF). In contrast, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) made an international splash with its F-17 Thunder fighter only after inducting the fighter into squadron service.
Top officials in the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) say this is a measure of their confidence in the Tejas, which has flown in several Aero India Shows in Bengaluru.
This could be a clever gambit, provided the Tejas makes a favourable impression at Bahrain. In the recent Paris Air Show in June, the PAF’s JF-17 — a light, cheap fighter like the Tejas, developed in partnership with China — was eyed by several air forces that cannot afford heavy fighters.
Respected defence group, IHS Janes, quoting Pakistani officials, reported that an unnamed air force had already signed a contract for the JF-17, and that discussions were under way with 11 other air forces, including Argentina.
However, the Tejas is at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the JF-17, which the PAF has aggressively supported and marketed to bring down costs by building more aircraft. The PAF aims at inducting some 250 JF-17s, with exports orders adding to that number.
In a telling contrast, the IAF has supported the Tejas reluctantly, agreeing to accept 100 improved Tejas only after the defence minister put the squeeze last year on import-happy air marshals.
There will be high stakes at Bahrain for the IAF, DRDO and the Tejas’ manufacturer, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL). If the two Tejas fighters going to Bahrain are hamstrung by maintenance glitches, or their aerobatics performance is unimpressive, that would seriously jeopardise prospects for future exports.
“A fighter participating in an international air show is scrutinised like a Miss Universe contestant. Every mole of the Tejas will be scrutinised in Bahrain”, warns Pushpindar Singh, aerospace expert and editor of Vayu magazine.
Singh also wonders why Bahrain has been chosen for the Tejas’ debut. “Last month’s Dubai Air Show was the world’s third biggest air show after Farnborough (in UK) and Paris (in France). Even next month’s Singapore Air Show would provide a bigger audience,” he says.
The Tejas is regarded as technologically superior to the JF-17, and only somewhat more expensive. Built largely of light composite materials, the Tejas carries more fuel and weapons. A fourth-generation fighter, it has an “unstable design” that makes it more manoeuvrable than the JF-17, which has a “relaxed stability” design.
Aerospace experts say the JF-17 is basically a heavily re-engineered MiG-type fighter. In contrast, the Tejas represents a technology leap, with its quadruplex, fly-by-wire system that stabilises it in flight.
The participating Tejas fighters will fly in mid-January from Bengaluru, via Jamnagar and Muscat, to the Sakhir Air Base in Bahrain where the show will be held.
The defence ministry has also announced that the IAF’s Sarang helicopter aerobatics team, which has impressed audiences in Berlin and Farnborough, will perform at Bahrain.