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Can the TEJAS fighter plane programme finally take flight at Aero India 2023? To compete with “the opponents’ flying,” the TEJAS MK-2 will need to produce at least 18 aircraft per year.

Aritra Banerjee’s

The TEJAS Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), which translates to “radiance,” is India’s first indigenous, modern fighter aircraft. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), a state-owned defence and aerospace company, produced aircraft for the Indian Air Force and Indian Navy (IN). The TEJAS was originally designed as a technology demonstrator, but it has spurred the development of several variants, including the TEJAS MK-1, MK-1A, MK-2 Medium Weight Fighter (MWF), and TEJAS Naval variant.

According to sources, HAL is also developing a TEJAS variant for use as a teaching aircraft for pilots who have completed Advanced Training. The acronym for this endeavour is LIFT, which stands for Lead-in-Fighter Trainer.

From Technology Display to Modern Fighter

Although the TEJAS MK-1 design was developed in the mid-1980s, production of the aircraft began several years later. The MK-1 is a multirole fighter jet that entered service with the IAF in 2015. As of 2020, India had produced 37 of these aircraft.

The HAL TEJAS’s electronic warfare (EW) package includes an integrated radar warning receiver (RWR), chaff and flare dispenser system, self-protection jammer, and beyond visual range (BVR) missile capabilities. Furthermore, its airframe is made up of 45 percent novel composite materials, making it extremely light. In addition, the TEJAS’s tiny shape provides visual stealth. The jet also has a Y-duct inlet that conceals the engine compressor face from radar radiation.

TEJAS has a robust flight control system that includes a four-channel Fly-by-Wire (FBW) system. Flight control systems that use computers to process pilot inputs are referred to as FBW systems.

The TEJAS MK-1 is propelled by a single General Electric F-404 afterburning turbofan engine producing 85 kilotons of thrust. It allows the plane to reach a top speed of 2,200 kilometres per hour. The fighter jet has a fighting range of 500 kilometres.

The aircraft’s maximum takeoff weight (MTWO) is approximately 13,500 kg. The aircraft can carry approximately 2,458 kg of internal fuel in addition to 725 litres of external gasoline in the fuselage-mounted drop tanks and 1200 and 800 litres in the underwing in-board and mid-board stations. The total payload capacity is 5,300 kilogrammes.

The TEJAS’ anti-aircraft armament includes the Astra BVR, R-73, I-Derby, ASRAAM WVR, and Python-5 missiles. BrahMos-NG, a supersonic version of the BrahMos cruise missile, is being developed for TEJAS.

However, this indigenous aircraft lacks canards, making the fighter jet’s flight very unstable.

Native Technology

The TEJAS has a ‘glass cockpit’ that is compatible with night vision goggles (NVG), three ’55’ multi-function displays, and two Smart Standby Display Units (SSDU). The Central Scientific Instruments Organisation created the Head-Up Display (HUD), a transparent display that displays data without requiring the pilot to adjust their gaze (CSIO).

The plane features a ‘get-you-home’ panel with a fail-safe air data computer (ADC) made by Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL). In the event of a crisis, it employs a system based on computational intelligence to present the pilot with critical flight information. The ADC is linked to the IAF ground station network, allowing them to take over control of an unstable jet in an emergency. Both the Mission Planning and the Flight Control System (FCS) are totally Indian.

The TEJAS MK-1 is said to have 58% indigenisation, thanks to the involvement of various local partners.

While HAL designed and built the majority of the internal systems with components purchased from roughly 500 private sector enterprises, several significant components are still sourced from international players. The engine is made by GE in the United States, the pilot’s ejection seat is made by Martin Baker in the United Kingdom, the radar is made in Israel, and so on.

According to accessible sources, the TEJAS MK-1A will go into production in 2023, with more than 40 upgrades over the MK1. Meanwhile, construction on MK-2 continues.

TEJAS MK-2 and Potential Turbulence

The TEJAS MK-2 variant adds a canard front of the wings, making the fighter resemble modern aircraft such as the Sukhoi 30MKI, Eurofighter, or Rafale.

TEJAS MK-2 and Potential Turbulence

The TEJAS MK-2 variant adds a canard front of the wings, making the fighter resemble modern aircraft such as the Sukhoi 30MKI, Eurofighter, or Rafale.

One of the many alterations is the appearance. The GE F-414 engine in the TEJAS MK-2 is more powerful. It also has a 16.5-tonne maximum take-off weight, which includes the fighter’s 10-tonne body mass and 6.5 tonnes of external payload. This model can carry 3.5 tonnes of gasoline in the external drop tanks in addition to the 3.3 tonnes in the internal fuel tanks. It can carry all of this while still having room for three tonnes of sensors and armaments.

Some defence and aerospace professionals feel that a spin-off from the TEJAS technology will aid in future endeavours such as the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) or other similar platforms—significantly shortening the development period for such future platforms.

In an essay for Mission Victory India, Group Captain Johnson Chacko remarked that the “TEJAS programme has progressed to a level where the MK-2 is on the drawing board, which would presumably be followed with the AMCA. These will almost certainly be outfitted with cutting-edge technology. The design of these is likewise dependent on timely government funding.”

TEJAS MK-2 Prospects

Gp Capt. TP Srivastava (Retd), a veteran IAF fighter pilot, author and analyst, has noted that the MK2 will need a production rate of at least 18 aircraft per year to match “the adversaries’ flying machines in and around Indian skies”. He believes that it must also possess the following: indigenous weapons (if India has developed them by the time the aircraft is ready); Lo-Lo-Lo Radii of Action of about 500 km with a full weapon load of four tons; and an integral ECM/ECCM suite capable of neutralising AAMs.

Furthermore, the TEJAS MK-2 Should have mid-air refuelling capability compatible with AAR platforms with IAF and sport a homegrown AESA radar with Search/Track capability of about 200/120 km. The fighter must also be equipped with a suitable Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missile.

According to the veteran, a digital pilot-friendly cockpit display, an integral Radar Warning Receiver (RWR), a zero-zero pilot escape system (allows the pilot to eject at 0 altitude and airspeed) and FBW and Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC) systems, and dry regime supersonic capability are amongst other necessary features the MK2 will need to have.

Issues With The TEJAS Program

The TEJAS program has been criticised for multiple reasons. The most well-known of these are the delays and extended timelines and the lack of an indigenously built, adequately powerful engine. Currently, both TEJAS MK-1 and MK-2 rely on engines from the US. India is trying to expedite the processes that will allow it to build a powerful engine indigenously. However, even with these efforts in place, experts believe that it is unlikely that the country will have an engine by the end of this decade.

However, Gp Capt. G Ranjit Mohan (Retd), a former IAF test pilot, claims that the TEJAS’s capabilities problems are not attributed to HAL because the designing agency is the ADA. He feels that DRDO should be questioned regarding the Kaveri engine, which was supposed to power the TEJAS. GTRE, the primary design agency for the Kaveri engine, has the rare distinction of having yet to build a single aero-engine since its founding in the early 1950s. He remarks that Kaveri will never see the light of day.

In the midst of such criticism, some have questioned the necessity of TEJAS. The public is split between those who feel it will be a watershed moment in gaining self-reliance in defence and those who believe the aircraft was pushed on the IAF.

Is the IAF really in need of the TEJAS?

Gp Capt. Chacko’s appraisal of the TEJAS is crucial in this case. He emphasises that because it is a light aircraft, the manufacturing and operating costs will be lower. Due to the compact size of the TEJAS, only carefully selected particular functionality will be able to be implemented. “A well-designed TEJAS will be able to compete with heavier fighters at a reduced cost. What matters in air warfare is who sees the opponent first, whether through radar or sight.”

He also discusses the advantages of tiny size, stating that the smaller the aircraft, the greater the production numbers. This would allow more fighter planes to be fired against a larger adversary. Numbers, according to the ex-pilot, are vital in air combat. He also stated that “smaller planes have superior manoeuvrability to position themselves for the kill.”

However, the analyst warns that developing and maintaining a modern fighter takes work. According to him, designing, manufacturing and operationalising a modern fighter aircraft is quite difficult. “Besides the technological breakthrough needed during development in various fields, organising the supply chain with failproof delivery of components for timely manufacture is a gargantuan effort. Operationalising such a platform with the desired weapon systems is another herculean task though it has been inbuilt to an extent in the design of TEJAS. Even now, most weapons used by the IAF are of foreign origin as our weapons are under development and can be expected to be integrated on TEJAS with ease but with difficulty on other platforms,” he explained.

Nonetheless, Gp Capt. Chacko supports the TEJAS program’s success. He emphasises how everything in this massive undertaking has to be constructed from scratch. Not only were the systems that go into it never before designed for any aircraft in India, whether it was the structure, composites, components, or anything else, but the platform itself was also untested. However, India attempted to design and create all of this at the same time. “The stakes were exceedingly high. Cost and time overruns were anticipated. In the 75th year of our independence, our team has developed a product that serves as a springboard for further endeavours.”

Captain G.P. Srivastava, on the other hand, believes that the TEJAS was imposed on the IAF. “The first lot of TEJAS was handed over to IAF after IAF was obliged to grant (rather accept) 28 concessions to HAL. It’s worth noting that Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) pilots are unlikely to make any concessions to IAF pilots flying TEJAS in air combat with JF-17s or J-20s.”

In light of the PSU’s culture over the last 35 years, he believes that HAL and its ancillaries could have performed better. “Atmanirbhar Bharat is a fantastic slogan if it is converted into action. We are now a few light years away from

The Path Ahead

When asked about the way ahead, defence and aerospace analyst Girish Linganna explained that the Indian government’s policy on defence-related imports had been made amply clear. Equally explicit is the intention to foster self-reliance and a military-industrial complex in the country. Work on simultaneous equipment, such as radars, indigenous weapons, displays etc., is already underway, with a considerable degree of success. The export potential of the aircraft is also being actively explored- the fact that TEJAS is the frontrunner for the Malaysian requirement of light combat aircraft is a testament to this.

The need of the hour is to ensure that the intention aligns with the actions of the institutions and various companies involved. This would require a high level of coordination and accountability regarding costs and deadlines on the developers’ and producers’ part. Some experts believe that instituting an authority to which all involved agencies are accountable will streamline the process and reduce time and cost overruns in aviation-related projects.

In addition, the runway ahead must also consider marketing the TEJAS- a fairly advanced and cheap platform- to friendly countries in the Asian region and beyond. For this, the technical and diplomatic benefits India can provide will have to be leveraged in the context of the current geopolitical and security scenario.

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