India's wrath: the Tejas fighter takes off with its complete, 14-tonne load
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 15th July 15
As the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) nears final operational certification (FOC), which clears a fighter for combat operations, there are contradictory signals about the future of India’s indigenous fighter.
Within the defence ministry, understanding is growing that the affordable Tejas (currently Rs 156 crore) must eventually replace most of the 13 squadrons of MiG-21 and MiG-27 fighters (about 230 aircraft) nearing the end of their service lives. Defence Minister Parrikar has courageously acknowledged that India cannot afford six squadrons (126 aircraft) of the pricey French Rafale that Dassault has offered for some $15-20 billion. Instead, says Parrikar, we will buy only two Rafale squadrons (36 aircraft), spending the money saved on a larger Tejas fleet.
“Rafale is not a replacement for MiG-21. LCA Tejas is a replacement for MiG-21”, Parrikar told Doordarshan News on April 13, three days after Prime Minister Modi revealed in Paris that he had asked French President Francoise Hollande for 36 fully-built Rafales in quick time.
Parrikar’s deputy, Rao Inderjit Singh echoed this at the Paris Air Show last month, stating there was “no proposal to increase this number [of 36 Rafales]”.
Yet, the Indian Air Force (IAF) is not acquiring the Tejas in large numbers until the improved Mark II comes on stream. The IAF has contracted with Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) for just 20 Mark I fighters for its first Tejas squadron that will come up at Sulur, near Coimbatore. One the Tejas obtains FOC, which is likely by the end of this financial year, another 20 fighters will be built in the FOC configuration.
This was made clear on December 20, 2013, when the Tejas obtained its initial operational certification (IOC). Then IAF chief, Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne, stated: “The final goal for all of us is not just the LCA Mark I, but the LCA Mark II. While our air warriors are fully geared up to induct and operationalise the two Mark I squadrons, IAF keenly looks forward to induction of four squadrons of LCA Mark II as the final version in its projected force structure.”
Although the Mark II is at least three years from flying, Parrikar, like his predecessor AK Antony, has accepted the IAF’s roadmap for ordering another four Tejas squadrons (84 fighters) only after the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) delivers a tested and certified Mark II. Added to these numbers would be the Indian Navy’s requirement of 65 Tejas fighters --- most of which would be Tejas Mark II.
If ADA manages to certify the Tejas Mark II in the six-year timeframe it has set for itself, it would have taken 28 years from the time that funds were allotted in 1993 to build the Tejas prototype. If it remains within the current budget, this would have taken Rs 14,047 crore.
“To have started from scratch and built a fourth-generation fighter; along with a countrywide aerospace industry, and research, testing and certification facilities for $2.2 billion in less than three decades is, by any standards, a remarkable technology leapfrog. In most countries, it would have drawn generous applause; in India, there is mainly criticism”, points out strategic expert, Bharat Karnad.
Tejas Mark I: a versatile fighter
For the test pilots of the National Flight Test Centre (NFTC) who have flown nearly 3,000 sorties in flight-testing, the Tejas is already a fine fighter. It has been tested to Mach 1.6 (2,000 kilometres per hour); a ceiling of 15,000 metres (50,000 feet); and carries 3,500 kilogrammes of mission payload. Its avionics, sensors and weapons make it a swing-role fighter. The pilot detects enemy aircraft with its Elta EL/M-2032 multi-mode radar beyond visual range, and fires Israeli Derby and Python air-to-air missiles through a “helmet-mounted sighting system” that locks onto a target merely by looking at it. In mid-flight, the pilot can switch to a ground strike mode, using his navigation-attack system to strike ground targets accurately with free-fall bombs, or conduct precision strikes with laser-guided munitions. The Tejas also has the trusty 23-millimetre Gasha cannon.
Although a lightweight fighter with a maximum take-off weight of 13,500 kilos, the Tejas carries more than 3,500 kilos of mission payload, as much as bigger fighters like the MiG-27 and the Mirage-2000. Nine hard points on its wings and fuselage carry air-to-air missiles, bombs, fuel drop tanks, a gun and a targeting pod.
With drop tanks, its radius of action is a modest 300-350 km, but can be doubled with in-flight refuelling. In a balanced IAF, with a mix of light, medium and heavy fighters, the Tejas --- operating from forward air bases like Srinagar, Pathankote, Adampur, Sirsa or Jaisalmer --- could focus on the tactical battle. Meanwhile heavier fighters like the Sukhoi-30MKI, with longer ranges and greater strike power, could be directed at strategic targets deep inside enemy territory.
Tejas test pilots maintain the fighter is more versatile than the MiG-29 (primarily built for air-to-air combat); the MiG-27 and the Jaguar (both oriented to ground strike); and all variants of the MiG-21, including the multi-role BISON, which the Indian fighter comprehensively outclasses. They say it can take on the Pakistan Air Force’s early F-16 variants and outclass the Sino-Pakistani JF-17 Thunder.
The Tejas’ performance rests on advanced technologies that were extremely ambitious when they were undertaken. Its manoeuvrability comes from an “unstable design”, and is prevented from falling out of the sky by a sophisticated quadruplex digital “integrated flight control system” (IFCS). The fighter’s on-board systems and weapons delivery are managed by an “integrated mission computer” and the pilot sits in a high-tech “glass cockpit” with digital displays that make flying a videogame experience. All these technologies are Indian.
On the day the Tejas obtained IOC, Group Captain Suneet Krishna, who has test flown the fighter for years, told Business Standard: “This is a pilot’s aircraft. It flies beautifully, and the avionics are well integrated. The information from various sensors is presented to the pilot in manner that gives him complete situational awareness in a far better way than in other fighters.”
Developing the Mark II
Notwithstanding their affection for the aircraft, NFTC test pilots admit it needs specific improvements for evolving into a world-beating Tejas Mark II. For close-in dog fighting against enemy fighters, which involves sudden acceleration, sharp climbing and sustained turning, the fighter needs more engine power than the 83 KiloNewtons (kN) of peak thrust its General Electric (GE) F-414IN20 engine provides. For that reason ADA has decided to power the Mark II with a GE F-414INS6 engine (hereafter F-414) that will deliver 98 kN of peak power.
Upgrading to the F-414 is even more essential for the Naval Tejas, providing the burst of power needed for getting airborne in just 200 metres of runway on an aircraft carrier deck.
ADA has announced that GE will supply 99 F-414 engines for the Tejas Mark II, with the first of them arriving by September. The new engine will then be accommodated in the existing fuselage space and ADA will reconfigure the air intake to provide the extra air the F-414 burns. Some analysts claim this redesign is beyond ADA; while senior ADA engineers say they have the problem licked. The GE website indicates the two engines are of identical size, but the F-414 is probably heavier.
Besides a new engine, the Tejas Mark II would have its internals rearranged, to make them more accessible and maintenance friendly. While building the Mark I prototype, these “line replacement units” (LRUs) were positioned randomly as the need arose. Rearrangement would improve space utilisation, accessibility, and make maintenance easier and quicker, reducing turn-around time between operational missions. Furthermore the Tejas Mark I is burdened with 300 kilos of ballast --- dead weight inserted incrementally while designing the fighter, to correct its centre of gravity. The internal LRUs could be re-arranged, the ballast removed, and the Mark II could instead carry 300 more kilos of useful payload.
Finally, the Tejas Mark II would feature upgraded avionics that are faster, lighter and smarter than the previous generation in the Mark I. This would improve combat performance and operational security. A key upgrade would involve fitting indigenous Airborne Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar to replace the current ELTA EL/M-2032 multi-mode radar.
Recent media reports suggest the defence ministry could bring in a foreign vendor --- Airbus Defence and Saab have been mentioned --- to develop and mass manufacture the Mark II.
Foreign collaboration has already featured in the Tejas programme. US major Lockheed Martin, and Dassault of France contributed to the Tejas’ initial design. European consortium, EADS (Now rebranded as Airbus Group) has provided consultancy on flight-testing. And, as Business Standard reported (June 17, 2014, “Rafale contract elusive, Eurofighter and Saab remain hopeful”), the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO), under which ADA functions, had asked Swedish company, Saab, in 2013 to submit a proposal for partnering ADA on designing the Mark II and establishing a manufacturing line for the new fighter. Saab, which had similarly upgraded its Gripen-D fighter to the Gripen-E by replacing the GE F-404 engine with a F-414, duly submitted a quote. But the DRDO’s leadership changed in June 2013, with Avinash Chander succeeding VK Saraswat (currently Member, NITI Aayog). Chander stalled Saab’s proposal, reluctant to award such a contract without competitive tendering. Senior Saab officials, bitten by this experience, say the company would now participate only with clear sovereign guarantees.
Unless ADA comes a cropper in designing the Tejas Mark II, it is highly unlikely that a foreign company could be parachuted in to oversee the development. ADA remains firmly in control, not just of the Tejas LCA project, but also in developing the next-generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). Foreign vendors could, at the most, provide design consultancy on specific aspects. A role for foreign aerospace companies is rather more likely in galvanizing production lines, an area that has seen only faltering progress in the Tejas programme.