By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 25th March 19
Two Tejas light fighters from the Indian Air Force (IAF) are in Malaysia to display their aerobatic performance at the Langkawi International Maritime Aerospace Expo (LIMA-2019), which begins on Tuesday. The Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) will be watching carefully to evaluate if the Tejas meets expectations for its Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) project.
Aerospace experts believe Malaysia will choose between three light fighters: Tejas, the South Korean FA-50 Golden Eagle and the Chinese-Pakistani JF-17 Thunder, which already equips the Pakistan Air Force (PAF).
Since the RMAF is still deciding between a supersonic LCA and a sub-sonic fighter lead-in trainer (FLIT), three additional jet trainers are also regarded as contenders. These include Italian firm Leonardo’s M-346FA aircraft, the South Korean T-50 trainer and the Russian Yakovlev-130.
In January, Malaysia issued requests for information (RFI) under its LCA/FLIT procurement programme, expressing interest in acquiring an initial 12 fighters by 2021-22, with an option for 24 more in the future. Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), which builds the Tejas, also received an RFI and responded in March.
Of these six contenders, only the Tejas and the Yakovlev-130 will be flying in LIMA-2019, according to the flight display programme. The JF-17 Thunder is a notable absentee, given that RMAF chief, General Affendi bin Buang, while visiting Pakistan last November, had personally invited the PAF to demonstrate the JF-17 Thunder at LIMA-2019.
The Chinese-Pakistani JF-17 Thunder
However, the Pakistani fighter has registered its presence. On Saturday, at Pakistan’s National Day parade in Islamabad, the JF-17 presented an aerobatics performance before Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed, who was the chief guest.
The RMAF is procuring an LCA/FLIT under a its “Capability 55” modernisation programme, which envisages adding a single-engine, supersonic fighter to the current RMAF fleet, which consists mainly of twin-engined fighters, including the Boeing F/A-18D Hornet and the Russian Sukhoi-30MKM and MiG-29.
Kuala Lumpur has priced the procurement programme at about US $300 million, or $25 million per fighter. That is the estimated cost of the JF-17 Thunder, with the Tejas and the FA-50 Golden Eagle priced slightly higher at about $30 million each.
However, the ticket price is only one dimension of a fighter’s life-cycle costs. There are apprehensions over the JF-17’s engine, the Russian Klimov RD-33, which provides low serviceability, requires heavy maintenance and leaves a give-away smoke trail. The RMAF knows this, since its MiG-29 also use the RD-33 engine.
The South Korean FA-50 Golden Eagle fighter
In contrast, the Tejas and the FA-50 Golden Eagle both use the highly reliable General Electric F-404 engine, which also powers the RMAF’s F/A-18s. Further, the Tejas incorporates a significant amount of Israeli avionics, which also feature in the RMAF Sukhoi-30MKMs. These factors would reduce the life-cycle cost of the Tejas.
In design and materials, the Tejas is the most advanced of the three light fighters. It has an unstable design and a quadruplex fly-by-wire system controlled through an sophisticated mission computer. While the JF-17 and FA-50 are built mainly from metal, the Tejas’s fuselage and wings feature advanced composite materials, which reduces the aircraft’s weight and allows it to carry more weapons and fuel.
The Tejas’s big drawback is the IAF’s reluctance to back it. In contrast, the JF-17 and FA-50 are strongly backed by the Pakistani and Korean air forces respectively. The PAF already flies six squadrons of JF-17s.
“It would be a travesty if the Malaysian air force likes the Tejas, but decides against it because it sees IAF reluctance to back the fighter. The sooner the IAF throws its weight behind the Tejas, the earlier it will crack the international market, where there is already drawing significant interest,” says strategic affairs expert, Bharat Karnad.
For LIMA-2019, however, the IAF and HAL have taken a formidable team of 80 personnel and four aircraft – including two Tejas, one C-130J Super Hercules and one Illyushin-76.