The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has approved the commissioning of 106 locally produced and upgraded Tejas Mark 1A Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) to replace Indian Air Force’s (IAF’s) ageing fleet of MiG-21 and MiG-27 jets that will be phased out by 2022-23. The cost of making these Tejas Mark 1A jets is estimated to be Rs 20,140 crore ($2.98 billion). According to a top-level source in the MoD, “It has been decided that 106 upgraded Tejas Mark 1-A jets will be made. Directions to this effect have been given to the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and the manufacturer, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).” The Bangalore-based HAL is a public sector undertaking owned by the MoD. HAL is expected to deliver the first Mark 1A jet by March 2019. It will start the production of the existing Tejas Mark 1 by March this year after it gets operational clearance from the IAF. HAL wants IAF to buy 106 of the newer Mark 1A jets as well, instead of waiting for Mark II, which will not reach production stage before 2025.
Each of the upgraded Mark 1A jets will cost Rs 190 crore ($28 million). HAL has been asked to deliver a minimum of 16 Mark 1A jets a year. The MoD has approved a modernisation grant of Rs 1,252-crore ($185 million) to ramp up the manufacturing facilities and increase the output from the present six-seven aircraft a year. The new upgraded jets will have 43 improvements over the existing Mark 1. The Mark 1 jets are currently in flight-testing stage with the IAF. The Tejas project is running several years behind schedule, a reason why the ministry has chosen to move ahead with Mark 1A instead of waiting for Mark II. “The Tejas programme is already running several years behind schedule. We cannot wait for the Mark II stage. Tejas Mark IA is an interim fighter jet. It is more capable than Mark I, but less than what Mark II will be. It is lighter, faster and highly manoeuvrable. It will be a great addition to our fleet of fighter jets. But these will not replace the naval fleet of MiGs, as for that they will require a more powerful engine for short take-offs from aircraft carriers. They will have to be redesigned,” said the top-level MoD source.
The IAF has agreed to buy 40 Tejas Mark I jets. It has also indicated that it will commission 4-5 squadrons (80-100 fighters) of the Mark II class when they are ready.
HAL, however, is concerned about the future of its Tejas production line. “After we deliver the 40 Mark 1 jets, the production line will lie idle till the Mark II enters manufacturing stage. We plan to make four Tejas Mark 1 jets by mid-2016; another eight jets by March next year; and then increase production to at least 16 fighters by March 2018. Post 2019, our Tejas production line will remain idle if we do not make Tejas Mark 1A jets,” a senior HAL official told this newspaper.
The MoD wants to keep its air-fleet battle-ready and “that is the reason Mark 1A jets were fast-tracked last year. These upgraded jets will fill the void that is created when the MiG-21s and MiG-27s are decommissioned. Currently, we have a total of 260 Soviet-era single-engine MiG-21 and MiG-27 jets in the IAF fleet. We need over 400 jets for the IAF over the next 10 years and delays are no longer an option. We cannot keep buying everything from other countries,” the ministry source said. Officials say that there is a larger picture that needs to be highlighted before criticising the move to indigenise. “Every country needs to nurture its defence manufacturing ecosystem. During the last 10 years, we have improved in all sectors of defence research and production, both in the public and private sectors. We have companies building carbon fibre composite materials for us, high tech avionics for our jets, advanced radar systems. Even Boeing buys avionics from Indian companies. The government has worked with hundreds of companies for years to create this manufacturing ecosystem possible. We need to nurture it. In the long run, it will help boost our own industry,” he added.
The MoD wants to finish the production of the jets before the MiG fleet is phased out. “We have set a deadline of 2018 for the completion of the first Tejas Mark 1A. The target to finish the production of the 106 jets is 2022. By that time, the MiG fleet, which has already aged, will be in its phasing-out stage,” the HAL official said.
The upgraded specifications for Tejas Mark1-A were finalised in September last year, where the IAF gave the nod for 43 modifications that will be done without changing the existing design of the Tejas. “Among the modifications done to the aircraft, the major improvements include the AESA (active electronically scanned array) radar. HAL will partner with the Israeli firm Elta to develop the AESA. It also includes air-to-air refuelling capability; self-protection signal jammers that are fitted externally to prevent enemy missiles from locking in on the aircraft using its radar signature. This will effectively give the aircraft, to some degree, stealth capability,” a senior researcher in the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), designers of the Tejas jet, told The Sunday Guardian.
“A total of 27 modifications have been approved in the new layout, which covers internal systems as well. This will help resolve maintenance issues as well. These modifications will help pilots greatly in combat situations as the Mark 1-A will be lighter than the Tejas by at least 1,000 kg. The plane is the lightest and smallest in the LCA class. The Mark 1 weighs 6,500 kg. It will make use of the same engine as the Mark 1 — General Electric’s 404, not the newer (and more powerful) GE-414. It is sufficiently powerful. It will suit our pilots’ needs just fine. If we were to fit the newer GE-414 engine, we will need to draw up a fresh design for Mark 1-A. That will take too much time,” he added. HAL and ADA are clear that Mark II is not likely to enter production stage until 2024-25. It will involve fitting in the more powerful engine — the General Electric F-414INS6 by replacing the current F-404IN — and also upgrades to avionics and weaponry. The prototype development is expected to finish by 2019 and another four years will be needed to flight-test the jets. So, HAL wants to keep the production line occupied from 2019-24.