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The Indian Tejas Fighter Jet Is Very Affordable

January 24, 2022
Via Indian government/EDEX 2021.

Throughout the 2010s India’s government expanded its participation and visibility at foreign “defense exhibitions” to attract orders for homegrown military products. So far there have been no successes and it doesn’t help that China’s state-owned manufacturers are flooding so many niches in the global market. But the EDEX 2021 arms show in Egypt, which took place from November 29 until December 2, featured India’s best known military-industrial enterprises. This included Hindustan Aerospace Ltd. (HAL) and its premier fixed wing combat aircraft the LCA-Tejas.

The LCA-Tejas is a supersonic single engine “light” fighter jet with a delta wing configuration. Having the benefit of a multinational supply chain means each Tejas flies on a General Electric F404F2-IN20 power plant. Among its more impressive features is having a full range of locally made air-launched munitions at its disposal. With a maximum payload reaching 3.5 tons and a mission range of 150-200 km the Tejas was optimized for South Asia’s climate and geography. This, in turn, makes it an attractive exportable fighter jet to many other parts of the world. When older Soviet vintage MiGs or French Mirages are retired the Tejas is a strong replacement for either.

In 2021 the Indian Air Force (IAF) announced it was ordering 73 Tejas MK IA and 10 Tejas trainers as part of its recapitalization toward a more advanced fleet based on homegrown technology. The dollar valuation of the IAF order for Tejas fighters totaled several billion dollars. If these estimates are correct the individual fighter jets are worth as much as $80 million each according to the current exchange rate. But well-connected Indian journalists claim a single Tejas Mk IA in particular is much cheaper and is priced in the $40-45 million range. This isn’t too surprising and comes way below the estimated cost per unit for Western fighter jets.

There were no contracts between the Egyptian defense ministry and an Indian supplier that were confirmed during or after EDEX 2021 although India’s “defense” portfolio today is unmatched. Aside from the LCA-Tejas the other aircraft offered by HAL include a multirole light helicopter, a high altitude attack helicopter, and a fixed wing light transport. These are all viable offerings to countries who must enhance their air power on modest annual budgets. Other HAL initiatives within this decade are just as promising such as a stealthy combat drone, a fifth-generation twin engine heavy stealth fighter, and a heavy lift helicopter, to name a few.

As attractive as the LCA-Tejas is for air forces that plan on rebuilding their fleets the competition it faces is daunting. Besides the obvious success the US’ Lockheed Martin F-35A/B/C will enjoy throughout the 2020s thanks to a global alliance reliant on premium technology the Tejas is up against China’s growing slice of the military aerospace market. In late 2021 the news leaked that China was making good on its promise to supply Pakistan’s air force, an institution that also struggles with an aging fleet, with the J-10C along with the necessary munitions. Their arrival in Pakistan and subsequent export to other countries will overshadow the Tejas’ own chances as a high value “Made in India” project. China’s long history of building the air power needed by friendly countries such as Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Myanmar, and North Korea is a bane for HAL’s own hopes for global success.

In 2021 the IAF conveyed to Indian media it was opening an international tender under the “Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft” or MRFA program to augment its fleet with 114 new fighters. It no doubt inspired enthusiasm from the world’s leading aerospace manufacturers eager for a contract whose value may exceed eleven figures in US dollars. What MRFA means for the longevity of the Tejas and its variants is unclear. Meanwhile, HAL and its partners are busy with the Tejas Mk II/Mk 2 and the prototyping needed for a carrier-based fighter and the fifth-generation AMCA.

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