Tejas LCA
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India’s Light Combat Aircraft program is meant to boost its aviation industry, but it must also solve a pressing military problem. The IAF’s fighter strength has been declining as the MiG-21s that form the bulk of its fleet are lost in crashes, or retired due to age and wear. Most of India’s other Cold War vintage aircraft face similar problems.

In response, some MiG-21s have been modernized to MiG-21 ‘Bison’ configuration, and other current fighter types are undergoing modernization programs of their own. The IAF’s hope is that they can maintain an adequate force until the multi-billion dollar 126+ plane MMRCA competition delivers replacements, and more SU-30MKIs arrive from HAL. Which still leaves India without an affordable fighter solution. MMRCA can replace some of India’s mid-range fighters, but what about the MiG-21s? The MiG-21 Bison program adds years of life to those airframes, but even so, they’re likely to be gone by 2020.

That’s why India’s own Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) project is so important to the IAF’s future prospects. It’s also why India’s rigid domestic-only policies are gradually being relaxed, in order to field an operational and competitive aircraft. Even with that help, the program’s delays are a growing problem for the IAF. Meanwhile, the west’s near-abandonment of the global lightweight fighter market opens a global opportunity, if India can seize it with a compelling and timely product.

LCA Tejas: India’s Lightweight Fighter

Tejas, side view
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Within India’s force structure, the LCA is largely expected to replace its 400 or so MiG-21 aircraft with a more versatile and capable performer. The MiGs are being retired as age claims them, and even India’s 125 or so upgraded MiG-21 ‘Bisons’ are only scheduled to remain in service until 2018. The LCA’s overall performance is expected to be somewhat similar to India’s Mirage 2000s, with lower top speed but more modern electronics.

The Tejas LCA design uses a tailless compound delta plan that’s designed to be unstable, but controllable over an 8g / -3.5g flight range thanks to advanced flight software and quadruplex fly-by-wire technology. Composites are used heavily in order to to save weight, and proper placement can also lower the plane’s radar profile. Japan’s F-16-derived F-2 fighters also made heavy use of composite technologies, but Japanese issues with delamination and cracking required repairs and changes. ADA has conducted Static and fatigue strength studies on finite element models, and aeroservoelastic studies have been performed on the Tejas design; nevertheless, only full testing and actual service will reveal how it fares. So far, composites haven’t become a public problem for the aircraft.

Unfortunately, reports indicate that the lack of early pilot input has compromised several aspects of the design, while a failure to consider maintenance up front has made key components difficult to reach. Barring published comparisons from experienced pilots or evaluating countries, it’s very difficult to pin down the extent or seriousness of these issues, but Tejas has certainly spent a very long time in testing.

The following sub-sections go into more detail about the fighter’s equipment rationales, and that equipment’s specific capabilities. The above list seems straightforward, but getting there has been anything but.


The plane’s avionics architecture is configured around a 3 bus, distributed MIL-STD-1553B system, using a 32-bit Mission Computer (MC) and software written in Ada. A “glass cockpit” of colour Active Matrix Liquid Crystal Displays (AMLCDs) provides the pilot with information, and is supplemented by Elbit’s DASH helmet-mounted display for commonality with other IAF aircraft.

The Mk.II is slated to use a more advanced glass cockpit with better computing and graphics processors behind it, full-duplex cross-Switched Ethernet (AFDX) based back up avionics, and digital maps. Elsewhere on the plane, a Universal Pylon Interface Computer (UPIC) will replace the Pylon Interface Boxes.

Radar Love: Weapons & Fire Control

Radar Failure & Replacement

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The Tejas project’s original radar, like its original engine choice, very nearly sank the project. The state-run Aeronautical Development Agency had originally intended to use Ericsson Microwave Systems’ PS-05/A radar, until they changed their mind and decided to develop their own. India’s Multi Mode Radar (MMR) program was started in June 1991, with a “Probable Date of Completion” of 6.5 years. More than 15 years later, development was still plodding away as a joint effort between Hindustan Aeronautics Limited in Hyderabad, India’s Electronics and Radar Development Laboratory in Bangalore, and the Centre for Airborne Studies. Even worse, test results for the radar were poor.

By August 2007, over 16 years into the project, even India’s MoD finally had to admit that the MMR faced serious problems. Radar co-development has now been initiated with Israel’s IAI Elta, with the EL/M-2032 as the radar base and interim solution. The EL/M-2032 multi-mode radar was originally developed for Israel’s Lavi fighter, and already equips India’s Sea Harrier fleet and Jaguar IM strike aircraft, and is popular around the world. M-2032s can be found on some F-16s in Israel and elsewhere, Kfir C10s flown by some Latin American customers, Chile’s upgraded F-5s, Romania’s MiG-21 Lancer upgrades, and South Korea’s FA-50 lightweight fighter. The radar features modular hardware design, with software control and flexible avionic interfaces, and a TWT coherent transmitter with a low-sidelobe planar antenna. The M-2032 functions in several air-to-air modes, as well as the air-to-ground, air-to-sea, ground-mapping in RBS, DBM, SAR with moving target tracking, and terrain avoidance modes.

Detection and classification ranges will vary depending on the aperture size. A radar adapted to fit in an F-5’s narrow nose will have lower performance than one that fits into a larger F-16. The Tejas’ dimensions suggest that performance may be near the radar’s claimed 80 nautical mile maximums for detection of fighter-sized objects.

There have been reports that the Tejas Mk.II and operational LCA Naval will fly with IAI’s EL/M-2052 AESA radar instead. That change would roughly double performance, while drastically reducing radar maintenance costs. These reports are unconfirmed, however, and other accounts cite American pressure to prevent Israeli AESA radar exports.

Other Sensors & Defensive


RAFAEL’s LITENING advanced surveillance and targeting pod will give Tejas long-range looks at ground targets, independent laser designation capability, and (rumored) fleet commonality with India’s Jaguars, MiG-27s, Mirage 2000s, and SU-30MKIs. The Mk.II will reportedly be adapted for a more advanced variant of the LITENING pod, but that means the pods would have to be bought and given to the Tejas fleet, rather than the SU-30MKI fleet for example.

The defensive system will be designed in India. Late testing means that it won’t be fully effective in the Mk.I aircraft, which must depend on an external Israel Aerospace Elta ELL/8-2222 jamming pod. The Mk.II is supposed to have a fully effective system of warning receivers, automated decoy dispensing, etc. In advanced western aircraft, these systems can even feed geolocation data from pinpointed threats into the plane’s targeting computers. Time will tell whether the Mk.II also has those capabilities.


LCA Tejas, armed
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Unsurprisingly, RAFAEL’s Derby radar-guided fire-and-forget missile will serve as the Tejas’ initial medium range air-air armament. It lacks the range and datalink of Raytheon’s AMRAAM or Russia’s R-77/AA-12, but in practice, positive identification requirements have kept most aerial fights within Derby range. Derby reportedly has good seeker cone coverage, which improves performance. It has already been integrated with the EL/M-2032 on India’s own Sea Harriers, and equips the country’s new SPYDER mobile anti-aircraft missile systems. If India’s own Astra MRAAM continues to progress, it will be integrated later.

For shorter-range engagements, Derby will be complemented by TMC’s infrared-guided Vympel R-73/AA-11 “Archer,” giving Tejas partial weapon commonality with India’s large MiG fleets. The R-73 is known for its exceptional maneuverability and a “wide boresight” seeker cone, a combination that inaugurated the era of 4th generation missiles. There’s even a rear-facing version, which offers enemies a nasty surprise. The jets will also carry RAFAEL’s Python 4/5, which can face forward and still hit targets behind their fighter.

Tejas planes are expected to carry a range of ground attack weapons, from ordinary bombs and unguided Russian S-8 80mm rockets, to precision munitions. Tests for unspecified laser-guided bombs and cluster bombs are expected, though they’re expected to be Russian KAB-1500L and RBK-500 weapons, along with Russian Kh-31/35/59 anti-ship and precision strike missiles. Specifications don’t mention a MIL-STD-1760 electrical interface with carriage stores, which is very helpful when integrating GPS-guided munitions. Time will tell, but the Tejas Mk.I’s initial weapons don’t include GPS guidance.

Engines & Alternatives

F414-GE-400 engine
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With its radar issue solved by a foreign partnership, the fighter’s indigenous Kaveri engine (vid. Appendix B) was left as the project’s biggest unresolved issue. That was resolved with a stopgap, followed by a competition to field a working engine; even so, India’s DRDO continues to pour dollars and time into Kaveri development.

The removal of American arms trade sanctions allowed smooth incorporation of a slightly modified F404-GE-IN20 turbofan in initial Tejas Mk.I production models. Over the longer term, an international competition for the Tejas Mk.II’s engines had 2 shortlisted competitors, 1 unofficial competitor, and 1 winner in GE’s F414.

The winner: F414. GE’s F414 is that company’s more advanced alternative to the F404 family that equips the Tejas Mk.I; it currently equips Saab’s JAS-39NG Gripen and Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet family. India’s F414-GE-INS6 engines will include the same single-engine FADEC modifications as the Gripen’s F414Gs, and may include some components of the F414-EPE research program for enhanced thrust. Standard F414 engines can reportedly produce up to 22,000 pounds of thrust on afterburners.

GE has been remarkably coy about its thrust in normal operation, but the figures it supplied to India were obviously good enough to beat Eurojet’s EJ200, which reportedly revised its bid too close to the deadline to change its fortunes.

Slow fade: Kaveri. This was supposed to be the fighter’s main engine, but India couldn’t develop a world-leading jet engine from a base of no experience. Kaveri was sidelined in 2008 by GE’s F404, in order to allow flight testing to go forward. DRDO finally admitted defeat in 2013 and stopped advocating Kaveri for the Tejas, after around 6 fruitless years of negotiations with French engine maker Snecma. A global re-tender for assistance was proposed, but late 2014 saw DRDO finally admit the obvious and file the paperwork to end the program.

In the Navy… Naval LCA

2011 briefing
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Indian officials were interested in an improved engine for 2 reasons. One is simply better performance, thanks to an improved thrust:weight ratio. Another is the need for additional thrust, in order to operate the Tejas successfully as a naval aircraft.

India will induct the 40,000t INS Vikramaditya in 2013, after extensive modifications to Russia’s former Admiral Gorshkov carrier. The navy is also proceeding with construction of 2 more 35,000t “air defence ship” Vikrant Class carriers, designed in collaboration with Fincantieri and built in India. Orders have been signed for 46 Russian MiG-29Ks, but India also wants to operate navalized LCA fighters from their decks.

These fighters are actually being designed in a trainer variant first, which will then be converted into a naval fighter. Key changes to the Naval LCA include:

Dropped nose, for better visibility in high angle-of-attack (nose pointed up) landings.

Leading edge vortex controls that can extend from the edges of the main wing. They help the aircraft safely sink faster to land in smaller spaces, and can also improve takeoff response.

Arrester hook to catch landing wires.

Strengthened spine and related systems, to absorb the high impact of carrier landings (7.1 m/s descent vs. 3m/s for IAF).

Longer, strengthened undercarriage. That actually ended up being a bit overdesigned.

Powered nose wheel steering for better maneuverability on deck.

Fuel dump system that can shed 1,000 kg of fuel from the fighter’s wing tanks, in case of an emergency just after take-off. Fuel weighs a lot, and that added weight can imperil attempted emergency landings.

Naval LCA rollout
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The other change will be the engine. India’s military and designers believe that the naval Mk.I derivative, powered by the same F404-GE-IN20 engine in the IAF variant, can be used for training and testing. At the same time, they believe that only the a Tejas Mk.II derivative with its more powerful F414-GE-INS6 engine will be capable of loaded carrier operations from the Vikrant Class’ “ski jump” ramp, in just 200m of takeoff space.

The naval Tejas program began in 2003. Variant paper designs were produced, and an initial order placed in 2009 began turning those designs into prototypes. April 2012 saw the 1st flight of NP-1, and a 2012 decision gave the go-ahead for initial production of 8 planes. The naval variant is expected to receive a different designation than “Tejas.”

LCA Tejas: Program, Prospects, and Future

The Program

India’s LCA Programs
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The Tejas Light Combat Aircraft program began in 1983, and is currently in Full-Scale Engineering Development (FSED) Phase-II, under which India’s DRDO was trying to deliver production fighters to the IAF by December 2010. Initial Operational Clearance wasn’t granted until January 2011, and then only with significant waivers. Limited Series Production aircraft in final configuration have arrived, but IOC wasn’t declared until November 2013, and even that was done under pressure from the ministry. The plane’s core self-protection systems were only installed in October 2013, most weapons haven’t been tested yet, and neither has aerial refueling. The ministry is pushing for Final Operational Clearance as a day/night, all-weather platform, and the official induction of a Tejas squadron at Sulur Air Base in Tamil Nadu near Sri Lanka, by the end of 2014. It isn’t clear that the fighter can actually achieve those performance goals in time.

So far, 40 Tejas Mk.I fighters have been ordered. Current plans call for another 100 aircraft (mostly Mk.II) for the air force, and up to 60 naval variants for the Navy.

When it was originally approved in 1983, the Tejas program’s cost was set at Rs 560 crore (5.6 billion rupees). The cost had risen to over 3,300 crore by the late 1980s, and has continued to rise since. The Times of India places the 2011 program total at 17,269 crore/ $3.77 billion for all variants. As shown above, subsequent reports show continued cost increases.

LCA Tejas Mk.II: Delhi, we have a problem…

MiG-21bis: Hanging on
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The first test-flight of the improved and re-engined Tejas Mark-II is currently scheduled for December 2014, with production beginning in June 2016. Unfortunately for the air force, those markers are looking less and less likely, and switching in a new engine adds design and testing changes that will complicate matters. Engineers must rebalance the aircraft’s weight, adjust fuel capacity for changed consumption rates, etc. It’s already known that the LCA will need to add 0.5m in length to fit the F414, and its air intakes offer inadequate airflow and will have to be redesigned.

One also expects that an LCA Mk.II will add newer technologies in some areas, and there are reports that India intends to upgrade from IAI’s ELM-2032 phased-array radar to the ELM-2052 AESA. India’s avionics industry also continues to advance, leading to potential component swaps and re-testing. Finally, Tejas Mk.I has placed many key components in inaccessible places. Unless significant redesigns are forthcoming in Mk.II, maintenance costs will be high, and readiness will be low.

Redesign processes usually takes several years, even in a best-case scenario. China’s shift to a Russian RD-33 engine for its J-10 fighter was the centerpiece of a redesign that took more than a decade. Sweden’s JAS-39 Gripen made a similar shift from Volvo’s F404-derived RM12 in the JAS-39 A-D models, to GE’s F414 for its new JAS-39E/F, over a few years. There was a standing offer to have Saab adopt a significant role in Mk.2 development, with strong support from DRDO, but that offer remains in limbo.

Major delays to Tejas Mk.I production mean that activity probably won’t end until 2018. The delays will buy time for Mk.II testing, at the cost of IAF readiness and force strength. If the Mk.II also runs into testing problems, the LCA program will face a hard choice: produce more than 40 Tejas Mk.Is, or buy Mk.IIs before testing is done, with the accompanying risk of expensive rework and fielding delays.

Meanwhile, India’s MiG-21 fleet continues to age out.

Industrial Team

The Tejas industrial team is weighted toward government participation, which is one of the reasons for its long development cycle. Instead of buying finished and tested equipment from abroad, new designs had to be invented by government research agencies, then tested by themselves until they were ready, followed by integration testing with other elements. These choices were driven by India’s desire for long-term self-sufficiency in many aircraft sub-systems, in order to reduce their dependence of foreign suppliers.

There have also been a wide variety of sub-contracts to Indian firms for Tier 3 or Tier 4 participation to supply tooling, testing equipment, software development, or sub-assemblies. They are not covered in our list.

In late 2013, HAL told India’s Business Standard that it aimed to roll out the first 2 Tejas IOC fighters by March 2014, and deliver 8 more by the end of 2014. The next step after that will be to enhance to production line to 16 fighters per year, a task that might prove challenging without outside aid (q.v. Dec 9/12). That would leave 10 Tejas Mk.I IOC fighters to be built in 2015, whereupon HAL would be able to begin production of 20 Tejas Mk.I Full Operational Capability variants.

Required FOC upgrades to the IOC fleet, and initial naval production orders, will also compete for production space. An early 2013 interview with ADA director Shri PS Subramanyam saw 2018 as a realistic date for Mk.I production to end.

Tejas Prospects: Think Globally, Begin Locally

Tejas: 2 views
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Exports are important to fighter programs. The added buys keep production lines open at no cost to the home country, and drop prices per plane. A combination of profits and paid-for modifications would help keep the design current, allowing the plane to add new technology and remain relevant. On the industrial front, if ADA can move the plane from the current 55% Indian content to around 80% without creating more problems, it would help to insulate prices from currency exchange swings.

The Tejas Light Combat Aircraft’s exact per-plane flyaway price point isn’t known yet, but the goal is an inexpensive fighter in the $20-25 million range, with performance that compares well to early model F-16s and Mirage 2000s. Historically, the low end of the market is where the largest volume of global fighter buys have taken place. In recent years, however, pressure from home-country buyers has pushed the West into a niche of high-end platforms like the F-15, F-35, Eurofighter, and Rafale. Some mid-tier options exist, like new F-16s, the F/A-18 Super Hornet, and JAS-39 Gripens, but even those are fairly pricey for emerging economies. As regional tensions rise, it remains to be seen whether the last decade has seen a permanent shift toward mid-level and high-end platforms, or whether traditional buying patterns will reassert themselves through emerging economies.

Long-term Tejas competitors in the $20 – 40 million range include the market for second-hand F-16s, the Chinese/Pakistani JF-17, and Korea’s T-50 Golden Eagle family of supersonic trainers and light fighters. RAC MiG has received enough work from India and others to retain the MiG-29M family as a viable platform in this bracket; Russia’s chosen pricing approach will determine whether the thrust-vectoring MiG-35 multi-role fighter also becomes a competitor.

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India’s growing geopolitical influence, and the ability to price toward this bracket’s low end, offers the Tejas decent prospects, even in this crowded field. HAL’s problem is that the Tejas must first achieve success in India.

Delays have taken their toll. Bangalore-based Aeronautics Development Agency (MoD ADA) chief R K Ramanathan promised a 2010 in-service date, while touting a reduction from over 30,000 components to around 7,000. Even that was a late milestone, fully 27 years after the program began, but it didn’t come close to happening. Plans to field 40-48 interim aircraft in the first 2 operational air force squadrons won’t take place until 2015 (32 years), and the final “Tejas Mk.II” version will be very hard-pressed to become operational before 2018 (35 years).

A lot can change in 35 years. Official plans still call for 100+ fighters, but the IAF has embarked on a wide set of upgrade and purchase commitments for existing MiG-29s and Mirage 2000s, the new mid-tier MMRCA fighter, and a high-end FGFA stealth fighter joint venture with Russia.

Meanwhile, the IAF is now taking something of a “wait and see” approach to a longer term commitment, until the final aircraft is delivered with working systems and the “Tejas Mark II” design has shown what it can do. One the one hand, the project’s long development period, and DRDO’s past performance on defense projects, tend to justify that wait-and-see approach. On the other hand, the project can easily run into danger without adequate military and political backing. On Feb 6/06, The Telegraph in Calcutta reported that:

“Though air headquarters has not said so in public, it is weighing whether it should commit funds because it is anticipating a resource crunch for the big ticket purchases of multi-role combat aircraft – that could cost the exchequer more than $5 billion over 10 years – and other equipment that it has projected as an immediate need.”

The rumored growth of the MRCA foreign fighter program to 170-200 aircraft, naval plans for 32 more ships in the next 10-15 years, submarine construction imperatives, and other planned capital purchases do indeed have the potential to squeeze the Tejas. The reality of limited funds and budget cuts began to hit home in 2013, and another global economic slowdown will press India into harder choices still. Confidence in the Tejas, or the lack of it, will influence India’s choices.

So will other negotiations. India’s choices mean that the MMRCA program will deliver fewer aircraft at a flyaway price tag of $100+ million each. That makes $25-35 million Tejas LCA fighters look more attractive, in order to plus up numbers. Just as long as the LCA can in fact be produced to that cost level, be delivered in time to replace the MiG-21s, and perform at an adequate level.

Unfortunately, every one of those variables is currently in question.

At present, the worst-case scenario for the Tejas program is truncated production at about 40 operational aircraft, which would doom exports. In that scenario, Tejas Mk.I is built, but other expenditures grab priority. The plane’s role is then divided among upgraded MiG-29UPGs, new naval MiG-29Ks, upgraded Mirage 2000s, and possibly even Hawk Mk.132 trainers that are armed in a backup role.

The generally accepted goal for Tejas is 5 IAF squadrons plus 2 Navy squadrons, or about 140-150 planes. Even that is a relatively short production run at full capacity, which is the rate India must use in order to field new lightweight fighters in time.

The best-case scenario would involve full production for the IAF that raises planned order totals beyond 120, a serving STOBAR (Short Take Off via ramps, But Assisted Recovery via arrester gear and wires) naval variant in service by 2020, and export successes that drive up production totals and help finance future upgrades.

Contracts and Key Events


ADA Tejas video

May 11/15: India’s indigenously-developed Tejas Mk I light combat aircraft has come under serious criticism from the country’s Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), with 53 deficiencies cited in a recent report. A major concern is the lack of defensive countermeasure capability, with the jet reportedly failing to meet Indian Air Force (IAF) survivability standards. The LCA achieved initial operating clearance in December 2013, with the project severely delayed from its original scheduled induction date of 1994. The CAG report to Parliament also highlighted how the IAF will likely be forced to induct the aircraft without a trainer variant available for pilot training, with a repair and overhaul facility also yet to be established at manufacturer HAL’s facilities, a requirement previously set out by the IAF.

Nov 18/14: Kaveri. The DRDO is doing something unusual: submitting documents to cancel a major research project, after INR 21.06 billion has been spent by the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE) in Bangalore. The request to end the GTX-35VS Kaveri program must now be approved by the Ministry of Finance, and receive clearance from the top-level Cabinet Committee on Security. Which also helps explain why so few projects are canceled, but the biggest change required still involves the DRDO’s mentality. Director-General (Aero) Dr. K. Tamilmani indicates that elections do have consequences:

“These are part of the bold stand being taken by DRDO. Whereever we have found bottlenecks for long time, with no realistic solutions, it’s better to move on. It is an honest stand we are taking…. If you are fit to run only for 50 km, why attempt 100 km? DRDO has realized its mistakes of the past and we have no hesitation in taking some bold steps.”

It is an honest stand, and DRDO can take it without giving up on India’s strategic industrial policy to become more self-sufficient in jet engine technologies. The project delays created by Kaveri remain a total waste, but the research itself can be harvested. DRDO intends to press on with jet engine research, and it’s possible to undertake projects that are militarily useful but much less ambitious. INR 3 billion has reportedly been earmarked for such work, and DRDO wants to make progress is 12 identified technical areas. Sources: OneIndia, “OneIndia Exclusive: DRDO to abandon indigenous fighter jet engine Kaveri project”.

All Kaveri research to end

Oct 4/14: Industrial. Defense News quotes an unnamed source, who says that the Indian government has been talking to major private sector industrial players about setting up a full production line for up to 250 Tejas Mk.2s. That would certainly justify the investment.

If carried out, that move would sidestep HAL’s production difficulties (q.v. Dec 9/12) by partly or wholly removing Tejas from HAL’s purview, create a full competitor to HAL in the aerospace sector, and turn the winner into India’s 1st major private sector defense firm. It would also double planned Tejas Mk.2/naval buys, based on past reports (q.v. Jan 11/14).

Since it seems apparent that the Indian government would have to fund a new production line for HAL anyway, funding the line elsewhere and reaping the benefits of diversification and competition is a logical policy option. Especially since the resulting competitor would also be a potential source for programs like India’s light transport competition, which stalled out because the private sector can’t afford to set up a full production facility for just 40 planes.

The challenge is that setting up a production line for modern combat jets isn’t simple, and major problems could really mess with already chancy schedules for Tejas Mk.2 and the planned naval variant. One obvious way to reduce this risk would be to bring in a foreign firm like Boeing, Saab, Dassault, et. al. to help set up the plant, and assist with management for the first few years. If done in conjunction with Mk.2 design assistance (q.v. June 17/14), the Tejas program as a whole could get a substantial boost.

Tata Group, Mahindra & Mahindra and Larsen and Toubro have been mentioned, and L&T Heavy Engineering President Madhukar Vinayak Kotwal has confirmed that discussions are taking place, but that’s all he is prepared to say. Watch this space. Sources: Defense News, “India Offers To Spend $12B To Break Monopoly”.

Aug 17/14: Industrial. HAL and DRDO’s ADA are trying to encourage more small and mid-size manufacturers to make parts for the aircraft:

“They aim to raise the LCA’s indigenous content to 80 per cent in three years, up from the present 50 to 55 per cent…. HAL Chairman R.K. Tyagi told them that starting 2015–16, “we aim to roll out 16 LCAs every year, [increasing] from the initial target of eight a year”.

Currently, 168 of the 344 LCA components are made in the country.

A key defence scientist involved in the programme said HAL and ADA would help manufacturers to pick up at least 10 more simple components and offer the use of government-owned manufacturing and test facilities.”

If they can do that while maintaining quality, and pick manufacturers who are capable of further innovation, they would make future upgrades easier. More local content would also reduce cost shifts based on currency exchange rates, and create a wider base for future programs like the Su-50/FGFA. The bad news? This policy falls into the “simple, but not easy” category. Sources: The Hindu, “A few small production pushes for LCA”.

June 17/14: Saab for Mk.2? As M-MRCA negotiations to buy advanced Rafale fighters stall, and projected costs rise sharply, Saab remains in position with a different offer. Instead of touting their superior JAS-39E/F Gripen, they’ve proposed to take a 51% share of a joint venture company, then leverage their expertise to create the LCA Mk.2. DRDO chief Dr V K Saraswat was enthusiastic, and they issued an RFI in 2012 and an RFP in 2013.

It isn’t a crazy idea. The Indo-Russian BrahMos missile has been very successful using a similar structure, and a 51% share plus freedom from Indian government strictures would remove many of the program’s decision-making and organizational issues. Saab is the only aircraft major with single-engine fighter conversion experience from the F404 to the F414 engine, so tasks like stretching the fuselage 0.5m, changing the air intakes, etc. have already been thought through in another context. Their Gripen has also achieved low operating costs, in part due to maintenance-friendly design. That’s another Tejas weakness, thanks to very maintenance-unfriendly placement of key components.

Since LCA Mk.2 is also expected as a carrier fighter, success already matters to India. they need to complete development successfully. From the IAF’s perspective, replacing M-MRCA with Tejas Mk.2 would simplify their future high-medium-low mix by avoiding a 2nd fighter in the same class as the SU-30MKI, while allowing them to field more squadrons. The flip side is that their high-end capability becomes irretrievably Russian-dependent: SU-30MKIs now, and FGFA/SU-50s later. For Saab, a JV would give them a major new niche in the global marketplace, providing a low-end fighter in a class below the Gripen and its Western competitors.

The catch? Incoming DRDO chief Dr Avinash Chander is more focused on developing the Mk.2 alone, and believed that any foreign partnership would require a global tender. In India, that would take years. Re-opening the opportunity would depend on a failure of M-MRCA negotiations, and continued failure to field Tejas, pushing the new BJP government to take a second look at all of its options. Sources: India’s Business Standard, “Rafale contract elusive, Eurofighter and Saab remain hopeful”.

Feb 12/14: Costs. India’s MoD releases another set of official cost figures for the program, leaving out the Kaveri engine but adding a “Phase-III” development period. LCA development costs have now risen from an original INR 71.16 billion to INR 140.33 billion (+97.2%), or INR 168.72 billion (+137.1%) if one properly counts the Kaveri engine. Expected production line investments would push those figures even higher. India’s MoD was savvy enough to compare development costs to Saab’s more advanced Gripen NG:

“Developmental cost of Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), Tejas is Rs.7965.56 Crore ($1.09 Billion) including building of 15 aircraft and creation of infrastructure for production of 08 aircraft per annum. This compares with the developmental cost of JAS 39 NG Grippen is $1.80 Billion for developing 5 Proto Vehicles.”

That’s actually just the current predicted cost of the IAF’s MK.I/II development, minus the Kaveri engine, and arguably without creating infrastructure that could actually deliver 8 aircraft per year. The Gripen NG figure would need to be checked carefully, to see what it included and excluded. Even so, the simple act of making the comparison shows a greater sense of external awareness than we’re used to seeing from India’s MoD. Source: India MoD/ PIB, “Developmental Cost of LCA Project”.

Feb 10/14: A written reply from Minister of State for Defence Shri Jitendra Singh to Lok Sabha parliamentarians triggers stories about the IAF raising their planned LCA buys from 200 to 300. Unfortunately for the media reporting that story, it rests entirely on an error of logic. Here’s the exact quote, which can’t be linked anymore thanks to MoD web site changes:

“The MiG-21 and MiG-27 aircrafts of the IAF have already been upgraded and currently equip 14 combat squadrons. These aircraft, however, are planned for being phased out over the next few years and will be replaced by the LCA. Steps have been initiated for upgradation of other fighter aircrafts like MiG-29, Jaguar, Mirage-2000; transport aircraft like AN-32 and Mi-17/Mi-17 IV helicopters.”

What this statement does not say is that the replacement will happen on an equal basis. It’s perfectly possible to replace existing squadrons with fewer squadrons and fewer planes, if one is so inclined. The Americans have been doing so for decades, and they’re hardly alone. So far, firm IAF commitments involve 126 LCA Tejas planes: 6 squadrons of 21 planes each, with only 96 (16 x 6) as front-line fighters. Each squadron also has 3 rotation aircraft to cover maintenance absences or loss replacement, and 2 twin-seat trainers, to make 21. Beyond those 2 Tejas Mk.I squadrons and 4 Tejas Mk.II squadrons, we’ll have to see. Sources: India MoD, “Modernisation of IAF” | India’s Business Standard, “IAF will buy 14 Tejas squadrons, lowering costs”

Jan 12/14: Budgets. India’s defense budget will drop by INR 78 billion in 2013-14, after a drop of INR 100 billion in 2012-13. A more sluggish economy, and a weakened ruling Congress Party that’s trying to shore up its electoral base, are the issues. At the same time, India is negotiating the MMRCA deal for 126 Rafales, the FGFA deal with Russia for their future high-end stealth fighter, the Project 75i submarine buy that’s becoming an emergency, and attack and heavy-lift helicopter buys with Boeing. They also want to add to their fleet of P-8i long-range maritime patrol planes, buy AWACS early warning jets as a priority, and improve their aerial tanker fleet as a priority. Among other priorities.

That explains why the MoD asked for INR 400 billion more, instead of 78 billion less. Unless this gap changes, future Tejas production will find itself caught in an environment where everything can’t be funded, but big air force commitments have already been made. Sources: Times of India, “Despite budget cut, defence ministry continues with modernization drive”.

Jan 11/14: Pricing. Sources tell India’s Business Standard that HAL has quoted the Ministry a price of INR 1.62 billion (about $26.5 million) per plane for the first 20 Tejas Mk.I fighters. The Ministry wants to know why its 40% higher than the INR 1.165 billion quoted in 2006, and HAL has a good answer. One, inflation over the past 8 years takes a toll. Two, 45% of the plane’s cost involves imported parts, and the Indian rupee is sinking. Three, Tejas is still about half the $45.8 million price of a Mirage 2000 upgrade ({EUR 1.4 billion is now INR 118.3 billion + INR 2.02 billion to HAL}/ 49 jets = INR 2.8 billion or $45.8 million per), and those upgrades are even more dependent on currency rates.

HAL sees eventual purchases of 40 Mk.Is, 84 Mk.IIs, 11 naval trainers, and 46 naval variants (TL: 181), and recent government declaration have used 200 aircraft as a possible figure. Now that Tejas is on surer ground, and the opportunity is clearer, HAL is trying to control costs using longer-term commitments of its own. Step one reportedly involves Long Time Business Agreements (LTBAs) of 3-5 years and 40-50 aircraft sets with key sub-contractors, including clauses that let it vary annual production rates to some extent, a feature also seen in many of the US military’s multi-year purchase agreements. Long lead time components have been identified, and industrial improvements are underway. Practices like having 5-axis CNC machines on hand, and using computerized drilling of 8,000 holes or so in the composite wing skin, are more or less assumed in North America. They’re a step forward for HAL, which needs that kind of long-term investment in its industrial capacity.

Will that investment, and higher production, improve costs enough? Pakistan’s JF-17, which has already delivered 50 planes, is reportedly priced around $23-24 million per plane. If the Tejas Mk.II comes in around $30 million in current dollars, pointing to composite construction and supposedly better avionics isn’t going to cut it in export competitions as a reason for the 25% price difference. An AESA radar might, depending on what Pakistan does for the coming JF-17 Block II, and how much it costs. Sources: Business Standard, “HAL pegs price of Tejas fighter at Rs 162 crore”.


GE F414 engine contract; No Kaveris for Tejas fleet; AESA radar?; Why the multi-year delay for self-protection EW?; IOC at last, but is the plane ready?

LCA Naval
(click to view full)

Dec 20/13: IOC-2. the LCA program achieves Initial Operational Clearance II. This is closer to the F-35’s IOC than traditional American IOC designations: limited capabilities with some initial weapons, and more testing required, but regular air force pilots can now fly it. Sources: Economic Times of India, “Indigenous fighter aircraft LCA-Tejas gets Initial Operational Clearance”.

Dec 19/13: What’s next? Centre for Military Airworthiness and Certification Director-General Dr K Tamil Mani explains what’s next for Tejas, whose remaining testing and certification needs show the IOC-2 designation’s limits. The fighter needs to pass 6 milestones in the next 15 months, on the way to G=Final Operational Clearance. They include:

Integrating the Russian GSH 23mm gun, which also requires certifying the surrounding LRU electronics boxes for much higher vibration levels.

Integration of additional weapons, incl. Python 4/5 short-range air-to-air missiles and Derby medium range air-to-air missiles.

Integrating Cobham’s air refueling probe.

Increasing sustained Angle of Attack parameters from 22 – 24 degrees.

Improved braking system with higher heat tolerance. They might even need to add fans, as they did for some of their MiGs.

Change the nosecone from composite materials to a quartz-based material, in order to remove the current 45-50 km limit on the radar and bring it to its design level of 80+ km.

Sources: Indian Express, “Tejas Needs to Cross 6 Milestones in 15 Months”.

Dec 18/13: IOC process. India’s Centre for Military Airworthiness and Certification (CEMILAC) explains what IOC-2 certification involved to the Indian Express. The bureaucracy takes credit for the plane’s accident-free history, of course, and proudly notes their “concurrent participation in all development activities,” without discussing Tejas’ developmental delays.

The did have a lot to do between the incomplete Initial Operational Clearance on Dec 10/11, and IOC-2 about 2 years later. Full integration and testing of IAI’s ELM-2032 radar, testing of stores integration and release, flight envelope expansion from 17 degrees Angle of Attack to 22 degrees. Maximum flight parameters are now 6gs maneuvering, with a maximum speed of Mac 1.4 and a service ceiling to 50,000 feet. Safety-related work included safe emergency jettisoning of all stores, engine relight, wake penetration, night flying and all weather clearance. Sources: Indian Express, “Clearing Flight Test Parameters was a Challenge, Says Airworthiness Centre”.

Dec 17/13: Updates. India’s MoD summarizes the state of the LCA program. The key takeaways? As on Nov 30/13, they’ve conducted 2,415 flight tests using 15 Tejas Aircraft. A lot of reviews are riding herd on the program, which can add urgency or slow down actual work, depending on how that’s handled. Structurally, the Phased Development Approach has been changed to Concurrent Development Approach, which adds development risk but can cut time if it works, and Quick Reaction Teams have been formed to address design and production issues as they arise.

IOC-2 is still expected on Dec 20/13, but another release makes it clear that the Mk.II project continues to slip. The Probable Date of Completion for LCA Phase-II full-scale engineering design work is now December 2015: 9 months later than the previous March 2015 goal, and 7 years later than the original plan. Sources: India MoD, “LCA project” and DRDO projects“.

Dec 17/13: MiG-21 update. India’s MoD summarizes the state of the IAF’s MiG-21 fleet. The MiG-21FLs are retired now, but the answer shows that the remaining MiGs may have to serve longer than intended:

“254 MiG-21 aircraft are still in service with the Indian Air Force. During the last ten years (2003-2004 to 2012-2013) and the current year (upto 30.11.2013), a total of 38 MiG-21 aircraft have crashed.

Phasing out of aircraft and their replacement with new generation aircraft depends upon national security / strategic objectives and operational requirements of the defence forces and are reviewed by the Government from time to time. This is a continuous process.”

On Dec 12/13, Air Chief Marshal N A K Browne confirmed that the LCA Tejas would replace the MiG-21 in the IAF fleet. That may appear to have been obvious, but official confirmation indicates a greater degree of confidence in the program. Sources: India MoD, “MIG-21 Aircraft” | Indian Express, “Tejas to Officially Replace MiG-21 FL”.

Dec 9/13: Defence Minister A K Antony is scheduled to give the Tejas its Initial Operational Certificate (IOC) on Dec 20/13, which would allow Tejas to be flown by regular IAF personnel outside of the test pilot community. Note that IOC doesn’t include key performance parameters like qualification with many of the fighter’s weapons, basic self-protection systems, air-to-air refueling, or finalization of the Tejas Mk.I’s design. Those will have to wait for Final Operation Clearance (FOC), and an increasingly-impatient defense minister has reportedly ordered DRDO to ensure that FOC takes place before 2014 ends.

The first Tejas squadron of 18-20 fighters will be built to IOC standard, and based at Sulur AB in Tamil Nadu, near Sri Lanka. They should be able to handle the minimal threats from that quarter, and one hopes that reported problems (q.v. April 21/13) were either untrue, or have been fixed.

On the industrial front, HAL has told India’s Business Standard that it aims to roll out the first 2 Tejas IOC fighters by March 2014, and deliver 8 more by the end of 2014. The next step after that will be to enhance to production line to 16 fighters per year, a task that might prove challenging without outside aid (q.v. Dec 9/12). That would leave 10 Tejas Mk.I IOC fighters to be built in 2015, whereupon HAL would be able to begin production of 20 Tejas Mk.I FOC variants. Required FOC upgrades to the IOC fleet, and initial naval production orders, could probably keep HAL at a minimum activity level through 2017; but an early 2013 interview with ADA director Shri PS Subramanyam saw 2018 as a more realistic date for Mk.I production to end. That might actually be helpful. If Tejas Mk.II isn’t ready to begin production by time Mk.I is done, India will have an industrial problem on its hands. Sources: Business Standard, “Tejas LCA sprints towards IAF’s frontline squadron” | AeroMag Asia, Jan-Feb 2013 issue.

Dec 7/13: Testing. The LCA’s 1st firing of an AA-11 short range air-to-air missile is successful, as the missile hits a target that was towed by a drone. The demonstration was conducted off the coast of Goa, in the Arabian Sea. Sources: The Hindu Business Line, “Light combat aircraft Tejas fires missile on target”.

Dec 7/13: MiG-21FL retires. After 50 years of service, the IAF is about to phase out its MiG-21FL variant, which is prepping to fly its last sortie on Dec 11/ 13 over Kalaikunda AFS in Bengal. Other MiG-21 variants will remain in service, and current expectations will extend the most modern MiG-21 Bison variants to at least 2018. Sources: The Calcutta Telegraph, “Supersonic jet set for last sortie”.

Aug 7/13: Costs. A Parliamentary reply to Shri S. Thangavelu in Rajya Sabha sets out the costs for each phase of the Tejas program in slightly more detail. Our chart above has been amended to reflect the current figures.

India is still in Full Scale Engineering Development Phase II, which aims to build 3 prototypes and 8 Limited Series Production (LSP) aircraft, and establish infrastructure for producing 8 aircraft per year. LSP-8 made its maiden flight on March 31/13, but reports to date suggest that meeting the infrastructure goal will require a significant increase in development costs (q.v. Dec 9/12). India MoD.

BEL on EW, 2011
click for video

Oct 16/13: Why no EW? The DRDO has finally fitted a Tejas fighter (PV-1) with electronic warfare/ self-protection systems, and intends to begin flight tests in November and December. Why has this key development been delayed for 5 years? Believe it or not, they thought it was more important to preserve the plane’s flight safety record:

“For almost eight years, a section of the aeronautical community has been resisting its fitment, anxious that the add-ons may cause a first crash…. They have been very keen on securing the operational clearance, initial as well as final from the Indian Air Force, even if the LCA did not have the electronic system…. no one wished to risk an add-on on the LCA that had not been tried. The idea was to defend the ‘zero crash’ record. This was made known sometimes explicitly to engineers and scientists working on the electronic systems, who, however, had been pressing for very long that the systems ought to be fitted and trials conducted to be able to fine-tune them.”

Unfortunately, PV-1 hasn’t been flying recently, so they may end up introducing risk that way. Tejas Mk.Is will have an Israeli IAI Elta jamming pod available as an external store, with the full RWJ system slated for the Mk.II. Sources: Deccan Herald, “Finally, Tejas gets electronic warfare systems”.

DRDO’s problems, in a nutshell

June 1/13: Excuses. DRDO chief V K Saraswat tries to deflect criticism of Tejas’ continuing delays, by citing the effects of sanctions that ended 13 years ago. Lack of cooperation and foreign help might explain why Tejas was slow to develop from the early 1980s to 2000. It doesn’t explain why DRDO didn’t follow professional practice by working with experienced pilots and the IAF, which created a multitude of poor design decisions that required years of delay to produce only partial fixes. Or the reason DRDO has wasted so much time with engine and radar choices that were obviously inadequate, all well after sanctions had ended. Or why, 13 years after sanctions had ended, Tejas isn’t ready for service yet, while Pakistan’s JF-17 equips 3 squadrons.

Weak excuses do not inspire future confidence. Brahmand Defence & Aerospace.

April 21/13: Tejas a lemon? The Sunday Standard reports that the Tejas is much farther away from viability than anyone is admitting, and says that DRDO’s notional stealth AMCA (Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft) has been put on hold until the LCA project can be made to work. A stealth FGFA/SU-50 is already in co-development with Russia, so AMCA’s value is unclear anyway. With respect to the Tejas LCA, the Sunday Standard’s unnamed sources say:

“The plane cannot fly on its own. It needs a lifeline in the form of support and monitoring of its systems from the ground by technicians…. The common man thinks the plane is doing fine, its engine sounds great and the manoeuvres are perfect. But those flying and weapons firing displays are done with ground monitoring and support. The plane is still not ready to flying on its own”…. the sources noted that LCA was grounded for three months between September and December 2012 following problems with its landing gear. “Normally, a combat plane is ready for its next sortie following a 30-minute [servicing]. In the case of LCA, after a single sortie of about an hour or so, it needs three days of servicing before it can go for its next sortie,” they said.”

These revelations come against a backdrop of pressure from India’s defense minister Antony and India’s government to buy designed-in-India items unless there’s no other choice. He’s selling changes to India’s Defence Procurement Policy as an anti-corruption effort – but what do you call spending billions of dollars on politically-allied state organizations, who don’t deliver on the critical defense projects assigned to them, and never pay any serious penalties for it? Their competitors in China and Pakistan are consistently faster and often better – while doing a better job developing their industries. See also India PIB.

March 20/13: More delays. A Parliamentary reply confirms the obvious, formally extending the scheduled end of the LCA’s Phase 2 Full Scale Engineering Development from December 2012 to March 2015.

The IAF has ordered 20 fighters in “Initial Operational Clearance” (January 2011) status, and another 20 in “Full Operational Clearance” (i.e. combat-ready) configuration. Full Operational Clearance is now expected in December 2014. PTI, via Zee News | India MoD.

Feb 6/13: AESA Radar? At Aero India 2013, Defense Update files a report that adds the short-range Python 5 air-to-air missile to the Tejas’ list of integrated weapons, alongside the Russian R-73/AA-11. It adds:

“The LCA will also carry the EL/M-2052 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar developed by IAI Elta. Originally, the EL/M-2032 was selected but the new 2052 now available with a more compact antenna is best designed to fit the nose cones of LCA and Jaguar, offering enhanced capabilities for both fighters.”

If the Defense Update report is true, it would roughly double the Mk.II fighter’s radar performance, and sharply lower its maintenance costs. DID has been unable to confirm this report, and there have been previous reports (q.v. Jan 14/11 entry) that said M-2052 sales for the Tejas Mk.II had been barred by American pressure. Indeed, the Americans managed to pressure the Israelis not to install the M-2052 in their own F-16i fighters.

Feb 5/13: On the eve of Aero India 2013, Indian defense minister AK Antony tells DRDO that:

“I am happy for your achievements of DRDO but not fully happy. Delay in delivery is a real problem… Try to speed up your process and reduce time for research, development and production. [DRDO is getting ready for a 2nd initial clearance for Tejas, but] I am impatient for the Final Operational Clearance (FOC)….. Antony also expressed his disappointment over reported lack of cohesion between the aircraft development agencies under DRDO and aircraft maker HAL.”

In India, FOC means “ready for combat operations”, which is closer to the US military’s idea of “Initial Operational Capability.” The Pio

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