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Is The Indian Tejas LCA Ready For Export?

April 6, 2019

A certified darling of India’s press, the Tejas Mk I garnered serious publicity during the recent Langkawi International Maritime & Aerospace Exhibition or LIMA 2019. The world famous air show takes place very two years and draws industry leaders and immense crowds eager to catch the acrobatics performs by various fighter jets. On March 25, coinciding with the completion of the 16th Tejas Mk I, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) announced two air force Tejas’ were joining LIMA 2019.

Never mind if India’s defense ministry is at pains seeking a viable multirole fighter. HAL is almost halfway done with the 40 Tejas Mk I’s ordered by the Indian Air Force (IAF) and by the 2020s a further 250 upgraded Tejas Mk II’s could begin production. But what about exports?

The Tejas Mk I is a single engine supersonic multirole fighter that subscribes to a delta wing layout. But it’s not the first fully indigenous combat aircraft manufactured by an Indian enterprise. The distinction goes to the short-lived HF-24 Marut, a twin engine interceptor that only served for 20 years, whose development was helped along by West German expertise. The Tejas, on the other hand, was always suspected to be a joint venture between India and France, with the latter’s Dassault sharing technology from the Mirage III. This collaboration has never been acknowledged by the Indian government.

Indian sources aren’t helpful describing the origins and evolution of the Tejas. The Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), for example, claims the entire project launched in 1983 with the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) responsible for designing the new aircraft. Other sources date India’s aspirations for a single engine fighter back to 1969 and the Tejas project began in earnest by 1985, with the design work taking place between 1987 and 1988. It took 15 years and the involvement of multiple private companies and state-owned entities for the first prototype ‘s test flight in January 2001. Another 10 years went by before testing for the Tejas Mk I ended and HAL was contracted in 2014 to deliver 40 by decade’s end, with production capacity at eight planes a year.

The biggest draw for the Tejas Mk I is its Israeli-made AESA radar and ample payload that accommodates both smart and dumb ordnance. Up to 70% of each fighter is locally made, including the Kaveri engine, and the Tejas Mk I of the IAF’s 45 Squadron gained valuable experience in 2018 during Exercise Gaganshakti that took place from April 10 until 23. The purpose of the exercise was to simulate a two front war with China and Pakistan, a scenario that will stretch the IAF’s capabilities far beyond the limited conflicts (1965, 1971, and 1998) it fought in the past.

Untested in real combat and with the global market for single engine fighters crowded with souped up trainer jets, the Tejas Mk I is burdened with a dismal reputation. It also suffers when compared to the Swedish JAS 39 Gripen and the Lockheed Martin F-16/21 that are both competing for the IAF’s still unresolved MMRCA tender. China’s own single engine fighters like the J-10 threaten the Tejas’ prospects. As if its chances beyond India weren’t poor enough, the IAF may soon demand the Tejas Mk II that has multiple improvements: an aerial refueling nozzle in front of the cockpit, canards on the engine intakes to reduce drag, conformal fuel tanks, and perhaps a twin-seat arrangement for a carrier-based variant.

What happens to the Tejas Mk I? Without further orders from the IAF it looks doomed to join an export catalog together with so many different Indian weapon systems–assault rifles, frigates, helicopters, mortars and howitzers, supersonic cruise missiles, tanks, etc.–nobody cares about.

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