Indian airpower: go big on Tejas, or go home

Indian airpower: go big on Tejas, or go home

The Indian Air Force's decision to issue a request for proposal (RFP) to Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) for the procurement of 83 Tejas MK-1A light combat aircraft (LCA) bodes well for the cause of military-industrial indigenisation in India. And since this RFP has been issued at a time when HAL is putting in place the means to double annual production rates for the Tejas, it shows that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is hopeful that the homegrown fighter will contribute towards shoring up IAF's squadron strength in a major way.

Indeed, the significant investment made into setting up a second advanced manufacturing line for the Tejas by HAL would be wasted if the intention were to truncate production at just the numbers projected till now, which as of date is some 123 units once we take into account the recent RFP. Instead, the focus needs to be on taking the Tejas programme to its logical conclusion, which would be the development and production of a more capable MK-2 variant in sizeable numbers.

Such a move would not only serve the purpose of obsolescence management and traditional product improvement, it would consolidate the gains made in terms of creating an aeronautical base in India via the LCA programme and provide the industrial pre-adaptation necessary for credibly producing a homegrown fifth-generation fighter. Meanwhile, it is imperative that various imported sub-systems used in Tejas variants be indigenised as soon as possible to both reduce operational risk as well as increase the domestic value capture of the programme.

The MK-1A variant of the Tejas is a step up from the baseline MK-1 (of which a total of 40 are on order) in terms of its avionics fit, maintainability and the fact that it will have in-flight refuelling capability. However, both the active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar and the self-protection suite that the MK-1A will sport are expected to be of imported origin.

HAL has floated tenders to procure the same from international vendors. HAL also intends to license-produce these sub-systems at its Avionics Division in Hyderabad
and will also assume the responsibility to maintain, repair and overhaul (MRO) them.
The company has decided to do so because indigenous alternatives to these items, such as the Defence Research and Development Organisation's 'Uttam' AESA radar and unified electronic warfare suite (UEWS) are both still under development.

Clearly, HAL wishes to reduce the risk to the overall Tejas build programme by first firming up supplies from abroad and then
undertaking license-production of the same, while creating another value stream for itself in the process. It is well understood that the total orders that HAL may end up receiving over the course of the Tejas programme is contingent upon its ability
to deliver this combat aircraft on schedule. At the moment, due to a firm order of only 40 of these fighters, HAL has taken its time in executing the same, with only five serial production jets having been delivered to the IAF's 45th Squadron as on date.

However, with serious movement on the MK-1A front, HAL knows that it will now have to demonstrate the ability to build up to 16 Tejas fighters a year. For this, HAL is currently scurrying to get its component and sub-assembly supply chain in place. Now, as far as the imported AESA radar for the MK-1A is concerned, a certain amount of engineering work will have to be done to fit it inside the nose of the plane, since its dimensions are the same as the MK-1.

Mk-2, the real deal

Due to the fact that the MK-1A will essentially have the same aero-body as the MK-1, it will not really be compliant with all the aerodynamic performance parameters desired by IAF in its air staff qualitative requirement (ASQR) for the Tejas design. It is only with the MK-2 variant that the developers of the Tejas, DRDO's Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), expect near-total compliance with the IAF's requirement. But for this, the addition of a pair of canards and an engine of higher thrust capability than the current Tejas engine will be necessary, according to one top former DRDO official.

Now, it must be said that the addition of canards is something that the 'control law' of the Tejas can be readily modified to accommodate, given that it was developed indigenously and something that ADA designers are well versed in.

A revamped Tejas Mk-2 will also have modernised line replacement units and a number of other features, which together with the improved aerodynamic performance will make it one of the better fourth-generation 'plus' fighters out there. Moreover, a long production run of the Mk-2 will also provide the industrial pedigree necessary, without attrition of imbibed skills, to produce the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) when that programme reaches fruition.

Meanwhile, it is important that India uses the growing scale of the Tejas programme to put in place joint ventures with foreign majors to secure the 'last mile' problem resolution support required to productionise key sub-systems such as the AESA radar to reduce both sanction and life-cycle cost risks for the Tejas, while increasing the share of domestic valued added to it. Interestingly, such collaborations are now forthcoming and even being explored as part of offset discharge for other military imports. Of course, the most key sub-system of all that needs to be indigenised would be the low-bypass turbofan engine powering the Tejas.

Once again, India needs to strike a credible deal to mature its own domestic Kaveri engine programme, even as the option of license-producing the current and future GE engine variants powering the Tejas family can be pursued by HAL's engine division in partnership with domestic private players. Simply put, Indian airpower has to either go big on the Tejas programme or go home.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based commentator on security and energy issues)

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