(photo: courtesy Ajai Shukla)
The fourth Tejas in the Limited Series Production (LSP) run, nearing completion in a hangar in HAL, Bangalore)
By Ajai Shukla
Aero India 09, Yelahanka, Bangalore
Business Standard, 12th February 09
At the opening of the Aero India 09 defence exposition today, Defence Minister AK Antony clearly enjoyed what must have seemed like a wild-west style shootout. One after another, four contenders for India’s purchase of 126 medium fighters --- the Eurofighter Typhoon, the F/A-18, the F-16 and the MiG-35 --- took to the skies in a fiesta of aerobatics clearly aimed at impressing the decision-makers who must decide which aircraft will win the $12 billion contract.
But the performance that evoked Mr Antony’s praise was that of the Indian-built Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). Although more cautious than the all-out performances of the established fighters, the Tejas went far beyond anything it had ever displayed before, surprising the spectators with steep climbs, an inverted pass, high-gravity turns and loops.
Addressing the press, Mr Antony remarked, “I was very excited to see the LCA. After many years we could see the LCA doing manoeuvres… I was excited to see the Indian-made LCA in Indian skies.”
But even amidst success, the Tejas LCA is struggling to overcome major development hurdles. Its maker, Bangalore-based Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) has taken the crucial decision to bring in a design consultant, a global aerospace major that would assist HAL to overcome persistent design glitches that dog the LCA, including fuel distribution, uneven braking, flight controls, environment controls and testing. And while US-based Boeing has declined to supply such know-how, German-Spanish consortium, EADS, one of the makers of the Eurofighter, has aggressively pursued the consultancy as a way of flying into the Indian market.
In multiple interviews with senior Indian and EADS officials who requested anonymity, Business Standard has pieced together the EADS strategy. The company has decided to supply India with high technology for Indian products that are not directly competing with an EADS product. The Tejas is not in the same category as the heavier Eurofighter.
Having established its presence in the Tejas programme, EADS is confident that it would be well positioned to get its Eurojet EJ200 engine accepted for the Tejas. India is currently deciding between the EJ200 and the GE-414 engine for powering future squadrons of the Tejas.
And EADS believes that winning the contract for the EJ200 engine, and producing it in India, would position it perfectly for the lucrative medium fighter contract; twin EJ200 engines power the Eurofighter.
While willing to part with the technology assistance needed to get the LCA over its hump, EADS worries about the possibility of eventually being held responsible for a possible failure in the Tejas development.
“Let’s be clear that we are not underwriting the LCA programme”, says a senior European official related with the contract. Another likens EADS’s role to helping someone in a dark room turn on the light switch. But EADS will do no more than indicate the direction of the switch.
The German and Spanish governments have already permitted EADS to part with the technology needed for the Tejas programme; the US government, in contrast, imposed stringent restrictions on Boeing. Explains a senior EADS official, “If we don’t supply technology, India will develop it anyway, perhaps with some delay. So it is better for us to establish our presence here, partner India in the Tejas, and perhaps even market it together.”