As the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) nears final operational certification, which clears a fighter for combat operations, there are contradictory signals about the future of India's indigenous fighter.
Within the defence ministry, the feeling is growing that the affordable Tejas (currently Rs 156 crore) must eventually replace most of the 13 squadrons of MiG-21 and MiG-27 fighters (about 230 aircraft) nearing the end of their service lives. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has courageously acknowledged that India cannot afford six squadrons (126 aircraft) of the pricey French Rafale that Dassault has offered for $15-20 billion. Instead, says Parrikar, India will buy only two Rafale squadrons (36 aircraft), spending the money saved on a larger Tejas fleet.
"Rafale is not a replacement for MiG-21. Tejas is a replacement for MiG-21," Parrikar told Doordarshan News on April 13, three days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi disclosed in Paris that he had asked French President François Hollande for 36 fully-built Rafales in quick time.
Yet, the Indian Air Force (IAF) is not acquiring the Tejas in large numbers until the improved Mark II comes on stream. IAF has contracted with Hindustan Aeronautics for just 20 Mark I fighters for its first Tejas squadron that will come up at Sulur, near Coimbatore. Another 20 Tejas will be contracted when the fighter obtains final operational certification, likely by the end of this financial year.
This was made clear on December 20, 2013, when the Tejas obtained its initial operational certification. Then IAF chief, Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne, stated: "The final goal for all of us is not just LCA Mark I, but LCA Mark II. While our air warriors are fully geared up to induct and operationalise the two Mark I squadrons, IAF keenly looks forward to induction of four squadrons of LCA Mark II as the final version in its projected force structure."
Although the Mark II is at least three years from flying, Parrikar, like his predecessor AK Antony, has accepted IAF's roadmap for ordering another four Tejas squadrons (84 fighters) only after the Aeronautical Development Agency delivers a tested and certified Mark II. Added to these numbers would be the Indian Navy's requirement of 65 Tejas fighters, most of which would be Mark II.
If the Aeronautical Development Agency manages to certify the Tejas Mark II in the six-year timeframe it has set for itself, it would have taken 28 years from the time that funds were allotted in 1993 to build the prototype. If it remains within the current budget, this would have taken Rs 14,047 crore.
"To have started from scratch and built a fourth-generation fighter, along with a countrywide aerospace industry, and research and testing facilities, for $2.2 billion in less than three decades, is, by any standards, a technological leapfrog. In most countries, it would have drawn generous applause; in India, there is mainly criticism," points out strategic expert Bharat Karnad.
A versatile fighter
Although a lightweight fighter with a maximum take-off weight of 13,500 kilos, the Tejas carries mission payload as much as bigger fighters like the MiG-27 and Mirage-2000. Nine hard points on its wings and fuselage carry air-to-air missiles, bombs, fuel drop tanks, a gun and a camera.
In a balanced IAF, with a mix of light, medium and heavy fighters, the Tejas, operating from forward air bases like Srinagar, Pathank or Jaisalmer, could focus on the tactical battle. Meanwhile, heavier fighters like the Sukhoi-30MKI, with longer range and greater strike power, could be directed at targets deep inside enemy territory.
Tejas test pilots maintain the fighter is more versatile than the MiG-29 (built for air-to-air combat), MiG-27 and Jaguar (both oriented to ground strike), and all variants of MiG-21, including the multi-role BISON which the Indian fighter comprehensively outclasses. They say it can take on the Pakistan Air Force's early F-16 variants and outclass the Sino-Pakistani JF-17 Thunder.
The Tejas' performance rests on advanced technologies that were extremely ambitious when they were undertaken. Its manoeuvrability comes from an "unstable design", and is prevented from falling out of the sky by a sophisticated quadriplex digital "integrated flight control system". The fighter's on-board systems and weapon delivery are managed by an "integrated mission computer" and the pilot sits in a high-tech "glass cockpit" with digital displays that make flying a videogame experience.
On the day the Tejas obtained initial operational certification, Group Captain Suneet Krishna, who has test flown the fighter for years, told Business Standard: "This is a pilot's aircraft. It flies beautifully, and the avionics are excellent. There is a huge flow of information coming in to the pilot."
Developing the Mark II
Notwithstanding their affection for the Tejas, National Flight Test Centre test pilots admit it needs specific improvements for evolving into a world-beating aircraft. For close-in dog fighting, which involves sudden acceleration and sharp climbing, the fighter needs more engine power than the 83 KiloNewtons (kN) of peak thrust its General Electric F-414IN20 engine provides. For that reason, the Aeronautical Development Agency has decided to power the Mark II with a GE F-414INS6 engine that will deliver 98 kN of peak power. Upgrading the engine is more essential for the Naval Tejas, providing the burst of power needed for getting airborne in just 200 metres of runway on an aircraft carrier's deck.
The Aeronautical Development Agency has said that GE will supply 99 F-414 engines for the Tejas Mark II, with the first of them arriving by September. The GE website indicates the two engines are of identical size, but the F-414 is probably heavier.
Besides a new engine, the Tejas Mark II would have its internals rearranged, to make them more accessible and maintenance friendly. Furthermore, the Tejas Mark I is burdened with 300 kilos of ballast: dead weight inserted while designing the fighter to correct its centre of gravity. The ballast removed, and the Mark II could instead carry 300 more kilos of useful payload. Finally, the Tejas Mark II would feature upgraded avionics that are faster, lighter and smarter than the Mark I. This would improve combat performance and operational security. A key upgrade would involve fitting indigenous Airborne Electronically Scanned Array radar to replace the current ELTA EL/M-2032 multi-mode radar. Recent media reports suggest the defence ministry could bring in a foreign vendor - Airbus Defence and Saab have been mentioned - to develop and mass manufacture the Mark II.
Foreign collaboration has already featured in the Tejas programme. US major Lockheed Martin and Dassault of France contributed to its initial design. European consortium EADS (Airbus Group now) has provided consultancy on flight-testing. And, as Business Standard reported in June 2014, the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO), under which the Aeronautical Development Agency functions, had asked Swedish company Saab in 2013 to submit a proposal for partnering on designing the Mark II and establishing a manufacturing line for the fighter. Saab duly submitted a quote. But DRDO's leadership changed in June 2013, with Avinash Chander succeeding VK Saraswat. Chander stalled Saab's proposal, reluctant to award such a contract without competitive tendering. Senior Saab officials, bitten by this experience, say the company would now participate only with clear sovereign guarantees.
Unless the Aeronautical Development Agency comes a cropper in designing the Tejas Mark II, it is highly unlikely that a foreign company could be parachuted in to oversee the development. It remains firmly in control, not just of the Tejas LCA project, but also in developing the next-generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft. Foreign vendors could, at the most, provide design consultancy on specific aspects. A role for foreign companies is rather more likely in galvanising production lines, an area that has seen only faltering progress in the Tejas programme.