At a ceremony at Yelahanka airbase in Bangalore this Wednesday, Indian aircraft manufacturer Hindustan Aerospace Limited (HAL) signed onto a $6.58 billion agreement to deliver 73 new Tejas Mark 1A Light Combat Aircraft jets and 10 Tejas Mark 1 two-seat training jets to the Indian Air Force.
The order, which received preliminary approval from Prime Minister Modi’s cabinet in January, actually falls a bit under the anticipated request for 83 Mark 1As and 18 trainers, perhaps due to financial exigencies imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
It supplements the initial order for 40 of the base Mark 1 model (including 8 trainers) roughly halfway through delivery to the Indian Air Force. One squadron, No. 45 Flying Daggers, currently operates the type. HAL has struggled to speed up annual deliveries of Tejas jets, but these are now are supposedly set to increase to 16 per year in 2021 due to outsourcing and the opening of a second production line.
The Mark 1A may reportedly make its first flight late 2022 or 2023, with final delivery expected by 2026.
In many way, India and HAL are counting on major improvements in the Mark 1A to validate India’s ongoing investment in the Tejas. If successful, the improved model could pave the way for higher-capability evolutions of the Tejas airframe.
The single-engine multi-role Light Combat Aircraft began development by HAL and India’s Aeronautical Development Agency in the 1980s as an eventual replacement for India’s large fleet of MiG-21 jets acquired in the 1960s. Currently, 50% of Tejas components (set to increase to 65%) are indigenous; the jet incorporates an American F404 turbofan, Israeli radars and Russian weapon systems.
But given the Tejas’ lengthy development cycle, the initial Tejas underwhelmed in performance to the extent that it was rejected for service with the Indian Navy. The IAF did chose to procure Tejas jets, but the service’s auditor general criticized the design for failing to meet 53 criteria, including deficiencies in its radar- and missile-warning systems, limited internal fuel, underpowered engine relative airframe weight, and lack of electronic warfare support.
Mark 1A : Farther flying, harder to kill…and easier to unscrew?
Despite its issues, the Tejas has seemingly been well-received by Indian Air Force pilots—and the latest Mark 1A model should correct most of the major shortcomings in the Tejas Mark 1’s avionics and make it substantially easier to maintain.
For example, while less costly short-range fighter make sense for a country like India facing military rivals directly on its border, the addition of an aerial refueling probe on the Mark 1A will allow more flexible use of Tejas jets on longer-range missions—thought that remains constrained by the IAF operating only six Il-78MKI air-refueling tankers.
HAL is also swapping out the Tejas’s ELM-2032 doppler radar with an ELM-2052 active electronically scanned array (AESA) system. X-band AESA radars are the gold-standard in contemporary air warfare because, in addition to higher resolution and jamming resistance, they are much less susceptible to detection. That’s a huge advantage, both reducing the risk of keeping the radar active, and increasing the odds of surprising an adversary.
The Israeli ELM-2052 can scan for both air and surface targets (including a synthetic aperture mapping capability) and can maintain 64 tracks simultaneously. Unofficial sources claim a range of 180 miles for large surface targets and 93-124 miles for aerial tracks with a radar cross-section of 1 meter squared.
However, European missile manufacturer MBDA has stated it will not integrate its high-performance Meteor beyond-visual range missiles, which India is procuring for its Rafale fighters. Instead, the Tejas will rely on radar-guided Israeli-built Derby missiles (range 31 to 62 miles depending on model) and indigenous Astra Mark 1 missile (range 50 miles) due for integration with Tejas.
The Tejas will also integrate the ASRAAM heat-seeking missile also used by the UK’s Royal Air Force. This is essentially a longer-range (31 miles) short-range missile than most peers, and can also target aircraft up to 90-degree-off-boresight and lock-on after launch.
The Mark 1A is also receiving a new Unified Electronic Warfare Suite which ties together an improved Radar Warning Receiver to alert the pilot of hostile radar locks as well as an external EL-8222 wide-band Self Protection Jamming pods. This addition too amounts to a vital improvement to survivability.
Other trimmings include an improved “moving map” system for the pilot, which can draw on multiple satellite-navigation constellations (Russia’s GLONASS, India’s IRNSS).
But, as detailed in an article by Livefist Defense, perhaps the Mark 1A’s biggest leap forward will be in terms of maintainability at the squadron (ie. local) level, including standardization of spare parts that up till now have not been interchangeable between aircraft. Moreover, many parts of the Tejas Mark 1 simply have too many screws and took forever to swap out, so they are being replaced by quick-release fasteners, while new panel-within-panel displays will allow mechanics to check systems without having to take everything part.
Tejas evolved: Mark 2 and beyond
India hopes to export the Tejas, though its mix of American, Israeli and Russian components may prove difficult to support for many clients. Egypt, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the United Arab Emirates have nonetheless expressed interest, and potentially Indonesia and Vietnam could fit the bill as well.
No doubt as part of its bid to attract export orders, HAL has conveyed details regarding the cost of the current Tejas deal. Reportedly taxes and custom duties account for 9,200 crores, and another 11,000 crore will go to ground systems, spare parts and training support. Money is also devoted to design and development costs, and there is also 2,500 crore set aside to account for possible variations in foreign exchange rates.
Ostensibly, when you drill down, the actual airframe cost comes to 309 crore ($42 million) per Mark 1A, and 280 Crore ($38 million) per trainer. Most new jet fighters on the international market cost between $70 to $120 million per airframe.
But while the Tejas overmatches older J-7 and Mirage jets and arguably slightly outperforms the Pakistani-Chinese JF-17 Thunder (though the cheaper Thunder is also set to evolve with longer-range missiles, AESA radar and higher-thrust engines), it still doesn’t match the kinematic capabilities of F-16 and J-10 single-engine fighters operated by Pakistan and China respectively.
HAL hopes to achieve that higher performance standard by swapping out the Tejas’s F404 engine with the more powerful General Electric F414 turbofan used in FA-18 Super Hornet fighters and Swedish Gripen-E jets.
This Tejas Mark 2, now officially designated the Medium Weight Fighter, would feature a long-range infrared sensor, a domestic AESA radar, canards (small wings on the nose) for enhanced maneuverability, AI pilot assistance and an integrated sensor/electronic-warfare package optimized for network centric warfare. It would theoretically boast a max payload of 14,300 pounds on 11 hardpoints, and increased fuel capacity allowing for twice the range of the Tejas.
HAL claims it will complete a MWF prototype by 2022 which will make its first flight by 2023.
As a bigger stretch, HAL is proposing a twin-engine “Super Tejas” to fulfill the Indian Navy’s twin-engine deck-based fighter (TE-DBF) requirement, which would also come in a land-based variant for IAF service dubbed the ORCA (Omni-Role Combat Aircraft).
However, evolutions of the Tejas face a challenge: they are non-stealth fourth-generation fighters at a time when countries around the world are pursuing stealthy, fifth-generation aircraft. As India’s defense dollars are stretched thin, funding both at once may prove difficult.
Having dropped out of a joint-venture to develop an Indian-specific FGFA variant of Russia’s Su-57 stealth fighter, New Delhi’s bets currently are placed on developing a domestic stealth fighter by HAL called the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).
HAL still hopes to make back the Tejas’s protracted development cycle by rapidly improving and evolving the type in the 2020s. Time will tell whether the Indian government will remain onboard for more advanced Tejas variants as it also weighs purchases of mature foreign designs like the Rafale and F-15EX, and stealth aircraft, whether the domestic AMCA, or foreign prospects such as F-35s or Su-57s.