As India takes a great leap forward with a mega deal on home-grown Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), the question is how would they perform vis-a-vis the Russian-Indian Sukhoi-30MKI fighters?
In a major boost to PM Narendra Modi’s ‘Make in India’ initiative, the country on January 13 approved a much-awaited Rs 48,000-crore deal with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) to procure 83 indigenously-developed Tejas LCA for the Indian Air Force (IAF).
The deal is being hailed as the ‘game-changer’ for India’s domestic aviation industry, which will provide the state-owned HAL with the much-needed boost, along with many other indigenous defense manufacturers.
Defense minister Rajnath Singh said that the decision will strengthen the government’s self-reliance program, ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’, saying that about 50 percent of the parts of the aircraft will be manufactured indigenously — a figure which could go up to 60 percent by the end of the program.
The addition of the 83 indigenously-built fighter aircraft is expected to make up for IAF’s depleting squadron strength in the coming years. The LCA Tejas Mk 1A, being procured under this deal, is an advanced version of LCA Mk1 (FOC), which is already in service with the IAF.
The LCA-Tejas programme would act as a catalyst for transforming the indian aerospace manufacturing ecosystem into a vibrant Atmanirbhar-self-sustaining ecosystem. I thank the Prime Minister Shri @narendramodi for this historic decision taken by the CCS today.
— Rajnath Singh (@rajnathsingh) January 13, 2021
Tejas Mk 1A is armed with modern capabilities compared to its earlier versions and includes the indigenous Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) Radar, Electronic Warfare (EW) suite, and Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missile capabilities. The aircraft can also undergo mid-air refueling.
While the deal requires HAL to produce at least 16 aircraft per year to meet its target, its current capacity allows it to manufacture only 8 LCAs at its Bengaluru plant, although the company has said it will meet that target.
The IAF hopes to complete the first Tejas squadron by 2024 considering the deliveries happen on time, with the first flight of the fighter taking place by the end of 2022. The air force hopes to build a force strength of 40 Tejas Mk 1 and 83 Tejas Mk 1A, and around six squadrons of Tejas Mk II (still being built), in the long run.
Tejas Mk 1A Versus Sukhoi-30MKI
Tejas Mk 1A is built as a supersonic fighter at all altitudes for air combat, with the ability to carry a payload of 3,500 kg, and is best suited for offensive air support. According to HAL, the fighter has been built with the capability to fire BVR missiles such as Derby, which already arms the current Tejas itself.
The fighter will be integrated with the indigenously developed BVR missile (ASTRA Mk 1), billed as the weapon of choice of the IAF, which is expected to help Tejas outflank its counterpart JF-17 in BVR warfare.
With all the advanced additions to the Mk 1A variant, the price has gone up to Rs 550 crore per fighter, which is significantly higher than the Rs 430 crore cost of each Sukhoi-30MKI that HAL builds.
The Indian aircraft has many advantages over its Russian counterpart, which includes its light-weight and the capacity to carry up to a 9-ton payload. Moreover, the aircraft can fly at a speed of 1.6 to 1.8 Mach at an altitude of 52,000 feet.
Also, the addition of new technologies used in the Tejas – Active Electronic Scanned Radar, BVR missiles, electronic warfare suits, and air-to-air refueling – enhance its capabilities during critical operations.
The Mk 1A can hit enemy aircraft from a much longer distance and has the ability to deceive the enemy radar. It can fly as many weapons and missiles as the Sukhoi aircraft with a heavier weight.
The Air Force chief is confident that IAF will procure the Tejas Mk2 version and the futuristic Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) in the coming years, with the Director of ADA promising the first flight of Tejas Mk2 in 2026 and of AMCA by 2031.
However, the track record of the Indian defense PSUs in meeting their scheduled targets is far from satisfactory, and this has left defense experts wondering whether the expectations could be met.
There are many challenges for the Tejas Mk1A before it can dazzle the Indian skies – the aircraft is yet to fly. The first flight is likely to take place by the end of 2022, and beginning 2024, the deliveries will start, after HAL is able to shore up its manufacturing capacity from 8 to 16 units per year.
The Tejas Mark 1A will be built with the HAL partnering with a vendor base of about 500 Indian companies, including micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) in the design and manufacturing sectors.
According to the ministry of defense, “The program would act as a catalyst for transforming the Indian aerospace manufacturing ecosystem into a vibrant ‘Atmanirbhar’, self-sustaining ecosystem.”
The Modi government has lived up to its promise of self-reliance in the defense sector, however, whether the home-grown technologies can prove worthwhile in a war remains to be seen. The large-scale indigenization initiative will mean giving up on game-changing technology in defense and reliance on domestic capabilities.
Some experts say India is playing a big gamble on its national security and it remains to be seen whether it pays off in the long run.