The Indian government is proposing to export its Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Tejas light combat aircraft to other Asian nations. New Delhi hopes that the indigenously developed fighter’s relatively simple design and potentially low maintenance costs will be a selling point for the jet. But India’s prospects for selling the its “new” fighter are highly dubious.
“The government proposes to export the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas to other countries. In this connection preliminary discussions have been held with a few friendly countries,” reads a statement from Indian defense minister Shri Manohar Parrikar. “Presently, HAL has established facilities for manufacturing and delivery of 8 LCA per annum. There is a plan to ramp up the production rate from 8 to 16 Aircraft per annum progressively by 2019-20.”
It’s unclear which potential customers might be interested in the Tejas, though New Delhi has been trying to market the jet overseas with an appearance at the Bahrain air show earlier this year. But given that India has been trying to develop the Tejas since the 1980s without delivering a viable combat aircraft, it is highly doubtful that any of New Delhi’s allies would be willing to purchase such a fighter. Moreover, even after more than 33 years of development, the Tejas continues to be plagued with problems—though developers believe that they can resolve outstanding issues with the aircraft within a year. “I told them that all shortcomings should be fulfilled and the plane should be ready in a year,” Parrikar told the Hindustan Times on Nov. 20.
Nonetheless, New Delhi continues to assert that the Tejas offers performance comparable to France’s Dassault Rafale. “This is a plane which is completely indigenously manufactured and can compete with any other fighter plane in the world. It is as capable as the Rafale. Only this is a light combat aircraft (LCA),” Parrikar told the Hindustan Times. “Only a 3.5 ton missile can be carried on it, Rafale on the other hand can carry a nine ton (payload). This plane can fly at the rate of 450Kms, Rafale can run 900Kms because it has twin engines.”
Despite, India’s bold claims, the generally unimpressive Tejas is not in the same league as other comparable aircraft in the export fighter market. The Swedish Saab JAS-39 Gripen and even upgraded older model F-16s and F/A-18s generally offer superior performance for comparable and sometimes even lower prices. Moreover, the Tejas—with a hodgepodge of technologies drawn from Israel, France, Russia and the United States, among others—would be a nightmare to clear for export.
Despite being billed as an indigenous aircraft, roughly 25 percent of the current Mk-1 version of the aircraft is built from imported components. While that might seem fairly low, those components are the core of what makes a fighter a fighter. Imported systems on the Tejas include the Israel Aerospace Industries/ELTA EL/M-2032 radar, an Elbit helmet-mounted cueing system, a British-made Martin Baker ejection seat and an American General Electric F404 afterburning turbofan. Additionally, many of the jet’s weapons—such as the GSh-23 23 mm cannon—are of Russian origin. Indeed, the very fact that the Tejas is equipped with a U.S. engine means that Washington has a veto on which nations New Delhi can offer the aircraft to for sale. Thus, a potential customer might be better served to simply purchase a used F-16 or F/A-18—which are far better jets with a far more attractive package of weapons (not to mention political clout).
Meanwhile, India recently ordered 83 more Tejas Mk-1A jets, a slightly refined version of the current Mk-1 aircraft, of which 20 are on order. The Tejas Mk-1A will replace the current mechanically-scanned radar with a new Israel Aerospace Industries/ELTA EL/M-2052 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, a new electronic warfare pod and a Cobham in-flight refueling probe. There are also a host of other improvements to correct the deficiencies found on the original Mk-1.
New Delhi is continuing to refine the aging Tejas design with the Mk-II version, which is set to make its debut in 2025. The new version of the jet will be equipped with the 22,000-pound thrust class General Electric F414 engine, which was originally developed for the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet. However, the Indians are attempting to revive the failed Kaveri indigenous engine that was originally slated to power the Tejas before it became glaringly apparent that it was not up to the task. The France’s Snecma is working with the Indians to certify the Kaveri engine for the flight of a Tejas light combat aircraft prototype in 2018.
“Once the engine houses make it a flightworthy engine, we have numerous programs coming up and there is more than one place for it to be fitted. The question is whether we will be able to fit it into only the LCA or will we be able to get it into the (GE) 414 with the higher power is a point that we are raising,” C.P. Ramanarayanan, DRDO’s Director General for Aeronautics told India’s Business Standard.
Given India’s abysmal track record in developing indigenous combat aircraft, there is little reason to be optimistic about New Delhi’s prospects for the Tejas. Frankly, the Indian Air Force would be better served by relegating the Tejas to being technology demonstrator and simply buying a genuine combat aircraft from one of its allies.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for the National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.
Image Credit: Tejas.