By Sanjay Badri-Maharaj
A somewhat curious report emanating from the Indian Air Force, purportedly in response to a request from the Government of India to reconsider its plans to procure a new type of single-engine fighter (SEF) under the “Make in India” initiative with the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft has sparked understandable and justifiable furore. While justifying the need for a new SEF, the report allegedly spoke in highly derogatory terms of the Tejas, even suggesting the MiG-21 was better in some respects.
The Tejas – Not “Unfit for Indian Skies”
While such a blatant untruth would not normally dignify a response, the Tejas program has had to endure more than its fair share of unjustified criticism (with justifiable criticism being less forthcoming). For the record, in its current incarnation – the Tejas Mk.1 IOC – the aircraft outperforms and is more combat capable than the MiG-21FL, MiG-21M and the MiG-21bis. In its FOC configuration, it will easily surpass the MiG-21bison in every aspect except level speed.
There is of course justifiable criticism that the FOC for the Tejas is being excessively delayed. In part, this is apparently due to a shift in testing priorities at the request of the IAF. At their request, outstanding air-to-ground ordnance delivery issues and mid-wing pylon drop tank separation issues were prioritized over gun trials. This, and the request for inflight refueling to be part of FOC has set the process back. The latter issue, it is submitted, should have been left for post-FOC development. In the meantime, the BVR engagement envelope is being expanded. What is deeply regrettable is that to date HAL has shown no drive towards pushing the production of the Tejas at its required rate of 16 aircraft – indeed it hasn’t even attained the lower rate of 8 – per annum. This is having an impact on No.45 sqns ability to achieve operational status.
What was also unfortunate is that the report gave highly distorted comparisons for range/ endurance and payload for the respective aircraft. The Tejas Mk.1 and the Gripen A are roughly comparable in most aspect except level speed and endurance, it is somewhat inferior to the Gripen C with the latter being a much more mature platform. The F-16 is a larger aircraft with larger payload. Comparisons of endurance are worthless without payload and flight profile data but suffice it to say, the Tejas has demonstrated a flight endurance of between 112-115 minutes on internal fuel already.
The Tejas Mk.1 in its FOC configuration will therefore be an adequate fighter (certainly not “unfit for Indian skies” as one journalist termed it). Yet it would not be without shortcomings and these are proposed to be addressed in the Mk.1A variant which has the potential deploy an avionics and weapons package significantly superior to the Mk.1. However, once again, delays in avionics selection and testing are the bane of this program to the detriment of both the IAF and the ADA/HAL.
However, one has to ask why the comparison of the Tejas Mk.1 with the Gripen C/ E or the F-16 Block 70? The Tejas is still at an early stage of its evolution – compare it with those aircraft at a similar stage of theirs and you will see aircraft that were without BVR capability and far more maintenance intensive that their later, more capable iterations. The IAF has done itself no favours with its less than honest comparison.
The development and evolution of an aircraft takes the involvement of the user as a partner. To date, one senses the IAF to be a somewhat reluctant partner in the development of the Tejas. By comparison, the IAF had no problems inducting the MiG-21F when equipped with only 2 AAMs, no gun and an extraordinarily limited range and thereafter investing in its evolution. It had no issue with inducting the Mirage 2000 when the latter’s Super 530D missiles and Belouga submunition ordnance were not yet ready and it practically created the Sukhoi Su-30MKI from the modest Su-30K, which was not much more than a two-seat Su-27. So why not facilitate the evolution of the Tejas with a similar spirit of partnership and encouragement?
Why a new Single Engine Fighter?
So, with the Mk.1A promising to be a good aircraft and the Tejas Mk.1 an adequate one, why is there a need for a new SEF? The answer lies in the tyranny of arithmetic.
The strength of the Indian Air Force peaked approximately 39.5 combat squadrons, with four MiG-23MF/-BN and six MiG-27ML squadrons forming the core of the strike assets and some seventeen MiG-21 FL/M/MF/bis squadrons forming the bulk of the air defence units. These were, at the time, complemented by the Jaguar, Mirage 2000 and MiG-29 squadrons, which added a high-technology cutting edge to an otherwise mediocre force. Since then, the MiG-21 and MiG-27 squadrons have been in decline and the MiG-23 phased out completely. The IAF today, has some 34 squadrons – 3 of which (1 each MiG-21M, MiG-21bis and non-upgraded MiG-27) – are to be phased out soon and can be considered removed from effective strength of the IAF.
While the major force induction since the “peak” of IAF strength has been the Su-30MKI, the quest to replace the MiG-21/-23/-27 has been somewhat problematic. The Tejas was never intended to be a replacement for the MiG-23/-27 family. It is a light single-engine type as opposed to the MiG-23/-27 which were medium single-engine aircraft. It was always expected to replace a portion of the MiG-21 fleet rather than any other class of aircraft.
Therefore, to expect the much smaller Tejas to fill a void for which it was not designed is perhaps expecting too much. Use of twin engine aircraft such as the Rafale for the tactical roles to which the MiG-23/-27 family was assigned is possible but would represent a somewhat expensive solution. In these circumstances, the IAF’s rationale for a new class of medium SFE comes into being. Plans to acquire a force of 126+63 Dassault Rafales have not come to pass and as such, new aircraft are needed. The unfortunate fact is that the Tejas, even in its Mk.1A version, will still be somewhat limited in terms of its payload and its range/ endurance. With the Mk.2 version neither funded nor being pushed, the Mk.1A will be an adequate but not necessarily ideal aircraft for filling certain roles that require greater range and payloads.
The Challenge: The Tyranny of Force Arithmetic
The IAF desires a strength of some 42 combat squadrons by the period 2027-32 to meet the contingencies of a two-front war. If we take the effective strength of the IAF to be 31 squadrons (the three remaining MiG-21M/bis and MiG-27 sqns being discarded), there is an immediate requirement for 11 more to meet its desired force levels by 2027. To date, three more Su-30MKI and two Dassault Rafale squadrons are on order with two squadrons of Tejas MK.1 fighters supplementing them. All this will add some seven squadrons to the IAF. However, six squadrons of MiG-21Bison and the two MiG-27UPG will be phased out by 2025. If no new aircraft are ordered, it is possible that the IAF would be left with 30 combat squadrons by 2025 – an overall deficiency of 12 squadrons when set against its desired strength. Subsequently, one Jaguar squadron is due to be retired by 2027, which would mean an overall deficiency of 13 squadrons.
Options: The Tyranny of Production Arithmetic
There is no way for production of the Tejas – even if it were to reach 16 aircraft per annum – to replace those thirteen squadrons. If the IAF is not desirous of accepting more Tejas Mk.1 squadrons– although a compelling argument could be made for the acceptance of three more to replace the non-upgraded MiG-27s and MiG-21M/bis – it means that it wishes to wait for the Mk.1A. This is yet to have its avionics selected – much less fly. This process must, of course be expedited but experience suggests that no more than 4 Mk.1A sqns are feasible by 2027. The suggestion of establishing production lines in the private sector has much merit but given the strategic partnerships already formed, this option may run into some difficulty.
This leaves a gap of nine squadrons to be filled. These numbers suggest that the SFE – some five squadrons worth – are an important path towards reaching the IAF’s desired strength by the stipulated date. Therefore, as much as the Tejas should be supported, the IAF cannot do without the SFE option to meet its targeted fleet strength. Once again, the practicality of production means that even if SFE production were to start between 2021 and 2022, no more than five squadrons could be produced by 2027.
Therefore, even the combined Tejas/ SFE effort would still leave the IAF short by at least four squadrons. It is here that the proposed twin-engine procurement comes into its own. This competition, it is submitted is superfluous and time consuming. The IAF has already indicated its desire for more Rafale squadrons and as such, additional aircraft could be ordered to fill this four squadron deficiency without the bureaucratic rigmarole of renewed trials.
The Solution: Adopt Multiple courses of procurement.
There is no single option that would satisfy the desire for the IAF to not only improve the quality of aircraft but also increase squadron strength. At present, the IAF and the government seem intent on adopting a three-phase solution involving the Tejas, the new SFE and a new twin-engine aircraft. Unfortunately, attempts to short-circuit or remove one of these options will not produce the desired results. It is therefore suggested that the way forward is:
- Full support for the Tejas Mk.1A project has to be forthcoming on the part of all stakeholders – Government, ADA, HAL and IAF. This would deliver four squadrons to the IAF by 2025, with the prospect of additional aircraft if the Tejas Mk.2 is funded and developed through the necessary redesign of the airframe. A lack of focus and priority has been the bane of the Tejas project in recent years rather than technical shortcomings in the aircraft or technological hurdles. HAL’s somewhat lackadaisical approach to the production of Tejas Mk.1 has to end and partnership with ADA and the IAF intensified.
- Forego the selection of a new twin-engine fighter under a “Make in India” initiative. The selection of the Rafale should stand and, subject to the price and technology transfer package being satisfactory, the induction of additional Rafale aircraft beyond the existing 36 should be considered as a priority. A separate twin-engine project, unless there are severe problems with the Rafale, is a time-consuming luxury with little benefit to India.
- The Government of India through the Ministry of Defence and the IAF needs to take steps towards initiating the procurement of a single-engine type through the Strategic Partnership route. However, care must be taken for this program to feed into the Tejas Mk.2 project. Linkage between the SFE and the Tejas cannot be allowed to become competitive with the former undermining the latter. Rather it must become complimentary with expertise aiding in expediting the Tejas Mk.2, partnering with the ADA and HAL as needed. To date, this iteration of the SFE program has not been emphasized.
It is understandable that the Government of India would desire the most cost-effective approach. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to achieve the results that the IAF desires. However, in putting forward its views, the IAF would do well to remember that gratuitous and fallacious attacks on the Tejas program do its image no good at all. The Tejas project has come too far and achieved too much to be cancelled at this stage and certainly not on the basis of highly suspect comparisons.
Yet, while criticizing the IAF for its Tejas bashing is entirely justifiable, the truth is unless there is some dramatic progress in respect of the Mk.1A and an acceleration of Mk.1 production, there is no effective way for the Tejas to make up the squadron shortfall that the IAF is facing. In those circumstances, the Tejas, the SEF program and additional Rafales are all needed for the IAF to reach its sanctioned strength by 2027.
Dr. Sanjay Badri-Maharaj is an independent defence analyst and attorney-at-law based in Trinidad and Tobago. He holds a PhD on India’s nuclear weapons programme and an MA from the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. He has served as a consultant to the Trinidad and Tobago Ministry of National Security. He has also served as a freelance journalist and correspondent for various publications in the defence sphere, a teaching assistant at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, researcher at the University of the West Indies and as a lecturer in naval history, strategic studies and threat perception and critical analysis for the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard Officer Training Program at the University of Trinidad and Tobago. Views expressed in this column are personal.