The Indian government officially announced the induction of the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft into the air force on Friday. This is a landmark development in Indian aeronautical technology. Yet it has to be seen whether the aircraft, for both technical and production reasons, can cover a dangerous gap in India’s airpower.
The purpose of the LCA was to replace the lightweight component of the Indian Air Force, largely composed of its obsolete Mig-21s and ageing Mirage 2000s. It is technologically far superior to the various types of Mig-21s, aircraft that were designed in the 1960s and put away in museums everywhere else. But the Tejas real test is whether it can better its equivalents in the Pakistani and Chinese air forces: respectively, the JF-17 and J-10.
Former Air Vice-Marshal Kapil Kak, based on conversation with pilots who have flown both the JF-17 and the Tejas, says, “The Tejas is far superior to the JF-17.” However, it is questionable if the Tejas is upto scratch when it comes to the Chinese J-10. The latter has received good reviews even in the US. Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment, in a report on the Indian Air Force, notes the J-10 has “turned out to be an impressive lightweight fourth-generation combatant.” And it is far ahead on the development curve than Tejas.
The LCA was initially envisaged to allow India to leapfrog ahead of its principal military rivals in the region, with claims it would be a 1000 kgs lighter and so on. According to those who have flown it, the LCA is remarkably manoeuvrable and agile, especially in turning.
But it is on par rather than decisively superior to comparable airplanes. The Tejas empty weight, for example, of 6560 kgs and a fully-loaded weight of 13500 kgs, no real improvement on the much older Mirage 200C’s figures of 7500 kgs and 17000 kgs. Executives of major international defence companies say the Tejas has poor thrust-to-weight ratio and a limited top speed given how new it is. It also uses an Israeli EL/M-2052 radar that is inferior to the US counterparts used by Pakistan. The Israeli Air Force prefers the US radar over the EL/M-2052.
The real challenge is how fast the Tejas can mature into a fully mature fighter and how fast it can be churned out. The Indian Air Force is already suffering a crisis in numbers and, in the coming decade, will be forced to retire many of its old fighters. The evidence is that Tejas fighters will trundle off the assembly lines too slowly to matter.
The first problem is that what is being inducted in the air force right now is not the finished fighter. This is the Initial Operational Clearance model, a functional early variety that will be used to help detect teething problems in the aircraft. This will then be followed by a Final Operational Clearance model and then, in theory, a final battlespace-ready product, the Tejas 1A. What is being rolled out now, says Kak, cannot be deployed in sensitive combat theatres in the east and west “for at least 10 years.” And the Tejas 1A may not make an appearance until 2030 or so.
The second problem is how fast Hindustan Aeronautics can actually produce the Tejas. At present, HAL can only churn out eight aircraft a year against an Indian Air Force minimum requirement of 18 aircraft a year. “Half a squadron a year is the rate of induction we can hope for, in the best of circumstances,” says Kak.
In the meantime, the Indian Air Force is facing a steady attrition in its numbers from crashes and simple age. More than anything else, the continuing delay in the Tejas’s development is why India’s air defence faces what Kak calls a “decade of vulnerability.” Senior Indian officials privately fret that India’s airpower is heading for parity with Pakistan’s and, in some exaggeration, “heading towards that of Bangladesh.”
The general consensus is that if it gets the right mix of technology and weapons the Tejas 1A will be a decent aircraft, especially when it gets midair refueling and active electronically scanned array radar.
Against the JF-17 the Tejas can easily hold its own. Against the J-10 it is questionable. Against the larger F-16 (9000 kgs) it is dead meat – which is why the unwillingess of the air force to give up on the Rafale. Right now, however, these things are seen as irrelevant compared to the simple issue of actually having some fighter aircraft, any aircraft, to defence the country’s airspace.