At a little more than $40 million apiece, the Tejas Mark 1A is among the most cost effective fighter jets in the world and is considered far superior to its Chinese counterpart. And the involvement of 563 private companies in the project is seeding private sector arms manufacturing in India.
The phrase “game changer” is bandied about fairly loosely in the media. But the clearance by the Indian Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) of a $6.2-billion order to be placed on Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) for 83 Tejas Mark 1A Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) could prove to a real game changer for the fledgling Indian defence-industrial complex.
For one, it is the largest ever order placed for a domestic defence platform. The fact that as many as 563 private sector companies – including large, medium and small scale ones – are involved in the production of this best-in-class fighter jet proves that the first saplings of a home-grown defence production base are now visible.
“The LCS Tejas is going to be the backbone of the IAF fighter fleet in years to come. LCA-Tejas incorporates a large number of new technologies many of which were never attempted in India. The indigenous content of LCA-Tejas is 50 per cent in Mk1A variant which will be enhanced to 60 per cent,” Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh posted on Twitter shortly after the CCS approved the deal, which is likely to be signed between the Indian Air Force and HAL at the Aero India exhibition. Indian President Ram Nath Kovind, who is the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, will be present at the signing ceremony.
“The decision taken today will considerably expand the current LCA ecosystem and help in creating new job opportunities. HAL follows a system integrator model in LCA Mk1A program and acts as an umbrella organisation, fostering manufacturing & design capabilities in pvt industry,” Singh said in another tweet.
Contrary to many media reports, the Tejas programme is India’s second attempt at producing a jet fighter. In the 1950s, India invited German aircraft engineer Kurt Tank, who had designed the Luftwaffe’s deadly Focke Wulf fighters during the Second World War, to help design an indigenous supersonic fighter jet. The result: The Marut HF-24, which first flew in 1961.
Though it could never achieve supersonic speeds because of insufficient political support from the then leadership of the country, it made India the first Asian country to develop and fly a locally designed and built fighter aircraft.
Instead of building on the gains from this programme, the government of the day suddenly abandoned it and decided to import the MiG-21 aircraft from the USSR. Thus, India’s first tryst with indigenous aircraft design and manufacturing ended on an unhappy note.
Contrast this with the whole-hearted backing provided to the Tejas programme by the Narendra Modi government when sections within the IAF and the wider security establishment sought to downplay the features of this aircraft. It is this support that has enabled the project to come so far.
The 83 Tejas Mark 1A planes – 73 single-seat fighters and 10 twin-seat trainers – will have as many as 40 improvements over the 40 Tejas Mark 1 aircraft already ordered by the IAF.
They will come equipped with digital radar warning receivers, external self-protection jammer pods, active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, advanced beyond-visual-range (BVR) missiles and significantly improved maintainability.
“The LCA Mk-1A variant is an indigenously designed, developed and manufactured state-of-the-art modern 4+ generation fighter aircraft. This aircraft is equipped with critical operational capabilities of AESA radar, BVR missiles, electronic warfare (EW) suite and air-to-air refuelling and it would be a potent platform to meet the operational requirements of the IAF,” the defence ministry said.
In an interview to PTI, HAL Chairman R Madhavan said the first Tejas Mark 1A will be handed over to the air force in March 2024, i.e., three years from the date of signing the agreement. HAL will supply 16 planes a year till 2028.
He added that the company expects its first export order in the next couple of years as a number of countries had already shown interest in procuring the fighter, which cost a tad about $43 million apiece for the fighter version and tad less than $40 million for the trainer.
One major reason behind his optimism about export orders is the Tejas Mark 1A’s superior performance compared to China’s JF-17 fighter. The Indian plane has a better engine, radar system and electronic warfare suite and also enjoys a clear edge in overall technology. “The biggest difference, of course, is the air-to-air refuelling which is non-existent in the competitor’s plane,” he told the agency.
To bolster its export efforts, HAL is planning to set up logistics bases in Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. The UAE and a few other friendly countries are also believed to have shown initial interest in the Tejas.
Madhavan added that HAL will increase its capacity beyond 16 aircraft a year, with considerable support from the private sector, to meet export demand as and when such orders are received so that its timelines for delivery of the jets to the IAF do not suffer.
Once that happens and India enters the global market as a supplier of fighter jets, its arms industry will truly have come of age.