Aero India special report

India's Tejas light combat aircraft is about to enter service more than two decades after it was conceived to replace the country's ageing MiG-21s

Few of the aircraft that will perform at Aero India have inspired as much opprobrium - or pride - as Hindustan Aeronautics' Tejas light combat aircraft.

After an agonising development process, the long-delayed fighter is finally approaching Indian air force service. Throughout its long history, the Tejas has had no shortage of critics, but if all the Tejas models that adorn the offices of India's aerospace industry mean anything, it is also a source of pride to the country's still nascent aerospace industry. It is an indigenous fighter, albeit one that benefits greatly from foreign equipment.

Despite its troubled past, the Tejas - named after the Sanskrit word for radiance - is finally entering service, more than two decades after it was conceived as a replacement for India's ageing Mikoyan MiG-21s.

TEJAS, Aeronautical Development Agency
 © Aeronautical Development Agency
India's Tejas light combat aircraft is about to enter service more than two decades after it was conceived to replace the country's ageing MiG-21s

 

The aircraft received initial operational clearance on 11 January. This paved the way for Hindustan Aeronautics to take up series production of 40 Mk I examples of the Tejas on order for the Indian air force. The company has the infrastructure in place to roll out 10 of the General Electric F404-IN20-powered aircraft a year, with the first due to be handed over before the end of 2011. However, it is unclear whether HAL is in a position to meet this deadline.

Before its initial operational clearance, Tejas enjoyed a rare good year in 2010. In March, India's first operational-standard Tejas made its maiden flight, from the southern Indian city of Bangalore, reaching a speed of Mach 1.1. In all, Tejas aircraft have now completed 1,450 test flights.

In July, a two-seat naval version of the Tejas was rolled out. To enable carrier operations, this model has strengthened landing gear and an arrestor hook. Additional control surfaces and a leading-edge vortex controller will help reduce its required speed on approach to the ship, and the front fuselage has been changed to provide better visibility over the nose.

At the time of the roll-out, India's Aeronautical Development Agency said the navalised Tejas's first flight would take place by the end of 2010, but it will now take place in 2011, says HAL chairman Ashok Nayak.

In November, the Tejas successfully fired the Russian-made Vympel R-73 air-to-air missile for the first time. The launch was performed from the Tejas LSP-4 test aircraft flying from an Indian naval air station near the city of Goa. The test was monitored by a chase Tejas, which provided a real-time data and video link to a base station in Bangalore.

The missile is integrated with the Tejas's on-board digital stores management system, says India's Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). Missile selection is performed through the aircraft's high-resolution multifunction display.

The main objective of the test was to gauge the effect of launch on the Tejas aircraft itself, says the DRDO. Parameters under scrutiny included the safe separation of the missile, the effect - if any - of the missile plume on the aircraft's engines and composite structure, aircraft handling during missile release, and the functionality of the avionics and weapons systems.

The milestones achieved in the past 12 months come after two decades of frustration and failure for the Tejas. The fighter's powerplant was originally supposed to be the Kaveri engine developed by the government-run Gas Turbine Research Establishment. As of 2009, the GTRE had spent Rs20 billion ($455 million) over the 20-year programme, only to produce an overweight engine unable to provide the 21,000-22,500lb thrust (93-100kN) required.

The General Electric F404 was therefore chosen as the powerplant for early models of the Tejas, including the aircraft on display at Aero India. Later versions of the Tejas Mk I will use the more-powerful GE F414, as will the Tejas Mk II. In October, GE defeated the Eurojet consortium in a contest to provide 99 F414-INS6 turbofan engines for a Tejas Mk II, which is due to fly in 2015 or 2016.

TEJAS, Aeronautical Development Agency
 © Aeronautical Development Agency
India's air force is due to receive the first of 40 Mk I Tejas on order by the end of 2011

 

As for the Kaveri, in October the DRDO said the long-delayed engine was undergoing flight testing at the Gromov Flight Research Institute near Moscow using an Ilyushin Il-76 transport as a testbed. Details of the engine's thrust output during the Moscow tests have not been disclosed. Asked when the Kaveri will be adopted on the Tejas, HAL chairman Nayak says it is likely to happen only with the Tejas Mk II, suggesting deployment of the Kaveri could be a decade away.

Nayak's comments hint at the weight issues that plague the Mk I. The aircraft's official weight has yet to be published. Nayak says the Mk II will bring a complete reconfiguration of internal equipment to create a more agile aircraft. "The Mk II is only on the drawing board," he adds.

Despite its critics, who generally condemn Tejas as being behind schedule, overweight and inferior to similar light fighters produced elsewhere, the programme is arguably not so much about producing a world-beating light fighter aircraft, but building a foundation of learning for future projects. This suggests Tejas is just a single step on a decades-long journey to a globally competitive Indian defence aerospace industry.

SOBERING FACT

When presented with this idea, one critic likens it to "making a virtue out of a necessity". Another points to the sobering fact that, ultimately, combat aircraft are for fighting in wars. If the Tejas is, as many suspect, an inferior combat platform, the fact that the project has helped India's aircraft industry will be cold comfort to Tejas pilots.

One expert suggests that, in the event of war, the Indian air force would probably hold the Tejas back from high-threat situations and let aircraft such as the Sukhoi Su-30MKI, Sepecat Jaguar, Dassault Mirage, and the eventual winner of India's medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) contest, deal with high-intensity combat.

"Tejas is a prime example of the dispute between the guys in lab coats and guys in flight suits," says Teal Group analyst Richard Aboulafia, referring to the heavy government involvement in the project.

Nonetheless, India is determined to press on with development of its indigenous fighter industry. It has committed to 40 Tejas Mk Is, and is likely to buy 40 more, says Nayak. These first aircraft will all be powered by the F404, and will be followed by 80 F414-powered Mk IIs.

TEJAS, Aeronautical Development Agency
 © Aeronautical Development Agency

 

When Tejas received its initial operating clearance in January, Indian defence minister A K Antony said the aircraft had also given fresh impetus to the planned development of an indigenous medium combat aircraft. Industry sources say this has yet to reach the drawing board. The aircraft will incorporate stealth features, and was originally envisaged as using an advanced version of the Kaveri engine.

P S Subramanyam, director of India's Aeronautical Development Agency, said in 2009 that the medium combat aircraft "will replace the air force's existing MiG-29s and Mirages when those are retired over a decade from now. It is being conceptualised now to use technology that will be available only 10 years from now, and so will be very different and have superior capabilities to the current generation of fighters."

Despite the criticism both at home and abroad, India has soldiered on with Tejas, made tough decisions when needs be - particularly with regard to the aircraft's powerplant - and remains committed to the ambitious medium combat aircraft.

Perhaps it is worth remembering that Western manufacturers have produced more than their share of troubled programmes, from which useful aircraft have often emerged eventually. Seen in isolation, the Tejas is probably a failure, but it is unquestionably an important stepping stone for the medium combat aircraft and India's long-term aerospace ambitions.

HOW THE CRITICS SEE TEJAS

TEAL Group analyst Richard Aboulafia questions the viability of both the Tejas Mk I and Mk II. "Allowing for some residual face-saving, dreams of an indigenous engine are over," he says. "In fact, dreams of using a 19,000lb [85kN] engine have ended too, as speed and weight concerns became all to clear."

Aboulafia also questions how indigenous the aircraft really is, noting that the engine, radar, weapons and other key components are produced overseas. "This renders the national security/weapons autonomy rationale for the Tejas utterly false," he says.

An executive involved in India's medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) competition is equally dubious. "If they had got the Tejas right, they wouldn't need to do the MMRCA," he says.

TEAL Group analyst Richard Aboulafia questions the viability of both the Tejas Mk I and Mk II. "Allowing for some residual face-saving, dreams of an indigenous engine are over," he says. "In fact, dreams of using a 19,000lb [85kN] engine have ended too, as speed and weight concerns became all to clear."

Teal also questions how indigenous the aircraft really is, noting that the engine, radar, weapons and other key components are produced overseas. "This renders the national security/weapons autonomy rationale for the Tejas utterly false," he observes.

An executive involved in India's medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) competition is equally dubious. "If they had got the Tejas right, they wouldn't need to do the MMRCA," he says.

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