Tejas at the end of the tunnel

Tejas at the end of the tunnel

The IAF’s Tejas buy is a boost for indigenous fighter development

The Tejas demonstrates mid-air refuelling. Credit: MoD.

The recent decision by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) to approve the acquisition of 73 Tejas Mk1A and 10 Tejas Mk1 trainer aircraft for the Indian Air Force (IAF), to be built by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), for a total outlay of Rs Rs 45,696 crore (approximately $6.26 billion at current rates) has led to some handwringing among sections of the commentariat about the purported ‘high cost’ of the project. The raised eyebrows are on account of initial press reports that compared the supposed cost per unit of the Tejas Mk1A with that of heavy fourth-generation fighters such as the Su-30 MKI and found the former to be higher.

These reports were incorrect, however, since they fallaciously compared the basic cost of an Indian-produced Su-30 MKI with the procurement cost per unit of all 83 sanctioned Tejas aircraft, with the latter having been obtained by simply dividing the total CCS outlay by 83. Such ludicrous apples to oranges comparisons apart, the actual basic cost of a Tejas Mk1A, arrived at after stripping away various ancillary allocations included in the CCS approval, is significantly lower than that of not just any medium or heavy fourth-generation fighter, but it is also lower than that of any comparable light fighter. In fact, given the advanced features of the Tejas Mk1A, the aircraft is the most cost-competitive multirole capability the IAF could acquire today.

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Indeed, since the system-level intellectual property of the Tejas fighter resides with India, a range of emerging indigenous weapons can be easily integrated with it, thereby allowing the IAF to be able to offer flexible response options to emerging requirements. Moreover, the procurement of this indigenous fighter, whose development was initiated in 1983 under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, is critical to the consolidation of painstakingly developed domestic aeronautical capabilities – developed right through the years when India was a much smaller economy and was under international technology sanctions – and will provide the kernel around which the Indian aerospace sector can grow.

The Cost Fallacy

The basic cost of a fighter aircraft refers to the actual cost of production, while excluding costs incurred due to R&D and additional costs related to spares, maintenance, support equipment and training. The procurement cost, however, would typically include these heads in addition to the basic cost. The total CCS sanction of Rs 45,696 crore is the overall procurement cost for 83 Tejas units, including as it does ancillary allocations for customs duties and GST, maintenance-related spares stockpiling, consultancy charges to the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), which is the developer of the Tejas platform, training and ground support equipment, as well as exchange rate variation. These ancillary allocations account for over Rs 20,000 crore, with the total basic cost of acquiring 73 Tejas Mk1A and the 10 Mk1 trainer units being a few hundred crores north of Rs 25,000 crore. However, simply dividing that total basic cost by 83 doesn’t give us the basic cost per unit of the Mk1A either, since the Mk1 trainer does not cost the same as the Mk1A. As such, the basic per unit cost of the Mk1A will be Rs 309 crore over the course of production, while that of the Mk1 trainer version would be around Rs 280 crore. These figures have been confirmed by HAL and corroborated to this writer by the Defence Research and Development organisation (DRDO), which controls ADA.

The Capability

And what will the IAF get for Rs 309 crore? Quite a lot, actually. The Tejas Mk1A will be a major step up from the Tejas Mk1 fighter version in terms of operational capability, survivability and maintainability. For one, the Mk1A will feature a state-of-the art active electronically scanned array radar (AESA), instead of a mechanically scanned array. Other improvements include the integration of a pylon mounted self-protection jammer pod, software-defined radio for secure network-centric operations, smart multifunctional displays, an improved radio altimeter, a unified video-cum-digital recorder, satnav, a combined interrogator/transponder, i.e., a contemporary identification friend or foe (IFF) system, besides a new digital flight control computer (DFCC).

While the Mk1’s DFCC was based on a 386 series processor, the new DFCC will feature PowerPC-based computing architecture with improved performance. The Mk1A will also incorporate various new line replaceable units (LRUs) to cater to obsolescence issues. The Mk1A’s use of a press-fit mechanism, instead of 24 different physical connectors as is the case with the Mk1, will reduce maintenance overheads. In fact, the Mk1A will also feature some structural changes, such as the greater use of composites, which will reduce airframe weight; and reduced supersonic drag through the use of more aerodynamic pylons. The outboard pylons will also feature dual-racks which will be able to carry the ASRAAM close combat missile, which is more modern than the R-73 variants used on the Mk1. In general, the Mk1A will feature better weapons in both the air-to-air and air-to-ground regimes.

In terms of overall sensor fit and avionics, the Tejas Mk1A will be superior to any other fighter in the IAF’s current inventory barring the recently inducted Dassault Rafale. Even the upgraded Mirage 2000s, which were modified for a per unit procurement cost of Rs 167 crore, do not have an equivalent radar, as revealed in Parliament by the Ministry of Defence in 2013.

Importantly, there is no light fighter in the world with such features (forget about medium or heavy ones) that India can buy at this basic cost, some press reports notwithstanding. And when it comes to procurement cost, the Tejas Mk1A is a hands down winner, judging by fighter tenders worldwide. For example, back in 2016, Botswana was considering the purchase of a mere eight Gripen Cs (a comparable fighter to the Tejas Mk1A but one that does not feature an AESA radar) for $1.7 billion. The only light fighter with an AESA radar that will have a basic unit cost comparable to the Mk1A would be an upgraded Sino-Pakistani JF-17. But in any case, as the IAF Chief confirmed recently, the Mk1A, in terms of overall technology, is “far ahead” of JF-17 variants.

Renergising the Ecosystem

And let us not forget that most of what will be spent to procure the Tejas Mk1A will remain in India and support about 50,000 jobs. Indeed, the CCS sanction will serve to re-energise the Tejas supply-chain, which was getting eroded due to a lack of fresh orders and has been further dented by Covid-19 disruptions. At present, the Tejas ecosystem has 563 domestic suppliers; the Mk1A will boost that number to over 600, according to HAL. Today, HAL also outsources major sub-assemblies for the Tejas platform, such as the front, centre and rear fuselages, wings as well as tail fins and rudder to key private players and then integrates the same.

A re-energised supply chain will ensure that India’s aerospace technical repertoire built through the LCA programme does not go to waste. This repertoire includes the ability to design, develop and build unstable high-performance aircraft, fly by wire systems, avionics and computer-controlled electrical and mechanical systems. Importantly, substantive flight-testing infrastructure has also been put in place alongside various facilities for the design and qualification of combat aircraft and their sub-systems. Today, many firms who cut their teeth supplying parts and developing software for the LCA-platform are now suppliers to international aerospace and defence majors.

The Mk1A, after all, will feature sub-systems and components that are being developed for new programmes, such as the Tejas Mk2 and the fifth-generation-plus advanced medium combat aircraft (AMCA). For instance, beyond the first 20 units, the projected Mk1As will sport the indigenous Uttam AESA radar, whose successors will find their way onto future Indian fighter developments. The SDR used on the Tejas Mk1A can also be expected to be replaced by an indigenous alternative for which work is underway in public-private partnership mode. As DRDO Chhairman Sateesh Reddy said to this writer: “The CCS clearance is a major boost to the existing aerospace ecosystem while making it ready to graduate to the creation of fifth-gen aircraft. It is therefore a harbinger of self-reliance in the domain of fighter aircraft development.”

Indeed, the 83-unit order will help increase the overall indigenous content of the Tejas platform to over 60% from the current 50% or so. Several fuel, hydraulic and electro-mechanical LRUs will be sourced from domestic vendors. Naturally, this growing vendor base will make it easier to both prototype and manufacture future ADA-developed combat aircraft. For the immediate, the Tejas ecosystem is being used to build five Tejas Mk-2 prototypes, with the first of these being rolled out in 2022. Greater indigenous content will also help address criticism about the substantial imported content of the Tejas. Of course, it is another matter that those who adopt this line of criticism often have no problem with wholly imported systems over which India has no design control and has had to pay a small fortune for upgrades. However, for true ‘Atmanirbharta’, India will have to develop its own fighter-class low bypass turbofan jet engines, but then that is a story for another day.

(The writer is Chief Editor, Delhi Defence Review)