Can the LCA Tejas fighter aircraft programme ultimately lift off at Aero India 2023?

LCA MK2 will need a production rate of at least 18 aircraft per year to match "the adversaries' flying machines in and around Indian skies".

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Aritra Banerjee
Aritra Banerjee
Aritra Banerjee is a Journalist with Indian Aerospace & Defence, Co-Author of the book 'The Indian Navy @75: Reminiscing the Voyage' and the Co-Founder of Mission Victory India (MVI), a new-age military reforms think-tank. He has been a columnist writing on defence and strategic affairs for national and international publications in both print and digital media.

The Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas, whose name translates to “radiance,” is India’s first indigenous, modern fighter aircraft. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), a state-owned defence and aerospace business, manufactured the aircraft for the IAF (Indian Air Force) and the Indian Navy (IN). Originally conceived as a technology demonstrator, the LCA has inspired the creation of various versions, including the LCA Tejas MK1, MK1A, MK2 Medium Weight Fighter (MWF), and Tejas Naval variant.

According to reports, HAL is also building a Tejas version for use as a training 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 concept for the LCA Tejas MK1 was conceived in the mid-1980s, the construction of the aircraft began several years later. The MK1 is a multirole fighter jet that entered service with the IAF in 2015. As of 2020, India has produced 37 of these aircraft.

An integrated radar warning receiver (RWR), chaff and flare dispenser system, self-protection jammer, and beyond visual range (BVR) missile capabilities are all included in the HAL Tejas’s in-house electronic warfare (EW) suite. Additionally, its airframe is composed of 45 per cent innovative composite materials, making it exceptionally lightweight. In addition, the LCA’s compact design offers the advantage of optical stealth. The jet is also equipped with a Y-duct inlet that shields the engine compressor face from radar signals.

Tejas has a strong flight control system with a Fly-by-Wire (FBW) system with four channels. FBW refers to flight control systems that utilise computers to process pilot inputs.

The LCA MK1 is powered by a single General Electric F-404 after-burning turbofan engine with an output of 85 kilotons. It grants the aeroplane a maximum speed of 2,200 kilometres per hour. The jet boasts a combat range of 500 kilometres.

The maximum takeoff weight (MTWO) of the aircraft is roughly 13,500 kg. The aircraft, which has a payload capability of 5,300 kg, can carry about 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, respectively. The payload capacity is 5,300 kilogrammes in total.

Anti-aircraft armaments for the Tejas include Astra BVR, R-73, I-Derby, ASRAAM WVR, and Python-5 missiles. BrahMos-NG, the supersonic version of the BrahMos cruise missile, is being developed for Tejas.

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

Boasts Indigenous Tech

The LCA has night vision goggles (NVG)-compatible ‘glass cockpit’ with three ‘5×5’ multi-function displays and two Smart Standby Display Units (SSDU). The Head-Up Display (HUD)- a transparent display that presents data without the pilot having to shift their view- has been made by the Central Scientific Instruments Organisation (CSIO). 

The aircraft touts a ‘get-you-home’ panel with a fail-safe air data computer (ADC) manufactured by Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL). It uses a system based on computational intelligence-based to provide the pilot with vital flight information in case of a crisis. The ADC is connected with the IAF ground station network, enabling them to take over emergency controls of an unstable plane. The Mission Planning, as well as the Flight Control System (FCS), is entirely Indian. 

The Tejas Mk1 has reportedly achieved a 58% level of indigenisation with many local partners involved. 

While HAL designed and built most of the internal systems, sourcing several components from nearly 500 private sector companies, some major components are still sourced from international players. The engine is from US GE, the ejection seat for the pilot is from UK-based Martin Baker, the radar is from Israel etc. 

As per open sources, the Tejas MK1A, with more than 40 improvements over the MK1, is expected to begin production in 2023. Meanwhile, work on MK2 is also ongoing.

Tejas MK2 & Potential Turbulence Ahead 

The MK2 variant of Tejas has a canard added ahead of the wings, leading to the fighter resembling modern aircraft such as Sukhoi 30MKI, Eurofighter, or Rafale.

The look is one of many changes. Tejas MK2 has a more powerful GE F-414 engine. It also has an increased maximum takeoff weight of 16.5 tonnes, including the fighter’s 10-tonne body mass and 6.5 tonnes of external payload. Along with the 3.3 tonnes in the internal fuel tanks, this 

variant can also carry 3.5 tonnes of fuel in the external drop tanks. It can carry all this while still leaving space and capacity for three tonnes of sensors and weapons.

Some defence and aerospace analysts believe that a spin-off from the LCA technology will assist in further endeavours like the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) or other such platforms- substantially lessening the development time for similar future platforms. 

In an article for Mission Victory India, Group Captain Johnson Chacko noted that the “LCA programme has matured to a state where the MK2 is on the drawing board, which will probably be followed with the AMCA. These will definitely be equipped with futuristic systems. Design for these is also linked to timely government funding.” 

Expectations From Tejas MK2

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 LCA Tejas MkII 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 LCA MK1 and MK2 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, says that the capability shortcomings of the LCA are not attributable to HAL since the designing agency is the ADA. He believes that DRDO must be asked questions about the Kaveri engine that was supposed to power the LCA. GTRE, the prime design agency for the Kaveri engine, has the unique distinction of having yet to develop a single aero-engine since its inception in the early 1950s. Kaveri will never see the light of day, he notes.

Amidst such criticism, questions about the need for Tejas have also been raised. The opinion is divided between those who think it will be one of the milestones in achieving self-reliance in defence and those who believe that the aircraft was forced upon the IAF.

Does IAF Even Need The LCA Tejas? 

Gp Capt. Chacko’s assessment of the LCA is of importance here. He highlights that being a light aircraft, the jet’s manufacturing and operational cost will be lower. Given the Tejas’ small size, only well-selected specific features will be able to get incorporated. “A well-designed LCA will be able to match heavier fighters at a lower cost. What matters in air combat is who sees the enemy first, either by radar or visually.”

He also comments on other benefits of small size, noting that the smaller the aircraft, the larger the production numbers. This would allow for a greater number of fighter planes to be launched against a larger attacker. The ex-pilot believes that numbers are important in air combat. Furthermore, he highlighted that “smaller aircraft have better 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 LCA. 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 LCA with ease but with difficulty on other platforms,” he explained.

Yet, Gp Capt. Chacko defends the success of the LCA program. He highlights how everything had to be created from scratch in this very ambitious project. Not only were the systems that go into it never designed earlier for any aircraft in India, whether it is the structure, composites, components etc., but the platform itself was also untried. Yet India attempted to design and develop all that in one go. “Risk involved was extremely high. Time and hence cost overruns were anticipated. In the 75th year of our Independence, our team has delivered a product which forms the fountainhead from which other projects can bloom.” 

On the other hand, Gp Capt Srivastava believes that the LCA Tejas was forced upon the IAF. “The first lot of LCA was handed over to IAF after IAF was forced to grant (rather accept) 28 concessions to HAL. It may be of interest to mention that Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) pilots are unlikely to grant any concessions to IAF pilots flying LCA involved in air combat with JF-17s or J-20s.” 

Referring to the culture of the PSU in the past 35 years, he opines that the performance of HAL and its ancillaries could have been better. “Atmanirbhar Bharat is a wonderful slogan, provided it gets translated into action. At present, we are a few light years away from achieving that. The most formidable Air Force in the world, the USAF, is supported by the private defence industry viz Lockheed, Boeing unlike HAL, which is a state-controlled autonomous entity with no accountability. The solution does not lie in giving slogans. The solution is to break up HAL into private entities and demand output,” the former IAF fighter pilot. 

The Pathway 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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