There wasn’t a whiff of this one coming. And when India Today broke the story this week, it created more than just a flutter.
The newsbreak, televised Friday (video above) on India Today’s 5pm news show anchored by Livefist’s Shiv Aroor, tells of how the Indian Air Force has pronounced the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft Tejas a sub-optimal combat platform to ‘protect Indian skies’. The story by senior journalist Sudhi Ranjan Sen suggests the IAF’s words were in the form of a presentation to the Ministry of Defence to fight off a hitherto unknown government move to rethink a large impending campaign to build imported fighter jets in India and instead simply buy more LCA Tejas fighters.
The Make in India single engine fighter (SEF) is expected to be a face-off between Sweden’s Gripen E and the American F-16 Block 70 for a deal that involves the sale of at least 100 jets to the Indian Air Force off a new production line in India in partnership with the private ‘strategic partner’. Thirty-three years in development, the LCA Tejas entered tentative service with the IAF last year, with a total of 123 airframes on order to populate five squadrons. The India Today report suggests the Indian government is wondering why it needs to build foreign fighters in India if the LCA Tejas meets single engine fighter requirements. It is reportedly in response to these questions that the IAF has explicitly labelled the LCA Tejas an insufficient combat platform.
While the Indian Air Force and MoD haven’t officially reacted to the story, the suggestion that the MoD is even rethinking the SEF program is explosive. A Request for Information (RFI) on the contest was to have been sent out to Lockheed Martin and Saab by the end of September. That deadline, the IAF chief later declared, had then shifted to the end of October. With no RFI out yet, the India Today report has amplified questions over the delay.
The report is a perplexing one, given that the SEF program has been brandished as the spearhead of India’s Make in India thrust in the field of aerospace. Suggestions of a government rethink — or an effort to whittle down the scope of the SEF contest — would fly directly in the face of expansive discussions both prospective competitors — Lockheed Martin and Saab — have very visibly been holding with Indian industry under the aegis of the MoD’s ambitious Strategic Partnership policy.
The conflict, though, is an expected one and the India Today report perhaps reflects the multiple pressure points weighing on the government at this time. Consider the following:
- One of the first questions to justifiably erupt when the SEF contest was announced was why India needed imported light fighters when the LCA Tejas had turned the corner into squadron service and was on a path of steady improvement. Armed with the LCA’s performance data and timelines, HAL and the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) have understandably brought to bear a great deal of pressure on the government to reconsider the SEF. There are specific interests at play here, of course — the SEF won’t involve HAL as a license production house, so the latter has no skin in the new game. Within the LCA Tejas ecosystem, ironically, the ADA has nursed misgivings that HAL simply hasn’t ‘owned’ the LCA Tejas as it should.
- The SEF fighter deal may not have begun in earnest yet, but make no mistake about the enormous political capital that’s already been invested in it. The world’s largest defence firm has the explicit backing of the most unsubtle and unpredictable political force in Trump to keep the contest at the very least on track. That along makes the India Today report explosive, given that there have been no indications so far that the Indian government has doubts about whether to push ahead.
- Obviously, both Lockheed Martin and Saab see space for their aircraft in Indian inventory alongside the LCA Tejas. The IAF’s reported pronouncements on the LCA only support the argument from vendors that one platform doesn’t replace the other. Of course, both Lockheed Martin and Saab explicitly recognise that concluding a deal with India will necessarily have to mean technology channels to the LCA Tejas program and the proposed AMCA fifth generation fighter. The LCA program however believes performance improvements on the Mk.1A and the less and less likely LCA Mk.2 would narrow the gap considerably. The truth is, the IAF is stoutly unconvinced.
- The SEF is an ambitious program brandished as one to cure several of India’s aerospace ills at once — the lack of large aviation-building capacity in the private sector, the lack of leading edge technologies on par with the best in the world, crucial aerospace skilling to support a new paradigm in quality manufacturing, the first true harnessing of Indian Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 3 and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the global airframing business, and not least, quality employment with spill-over effects into other areas. It is these deeply ambitious goals that make the SEF program more than just a funnel to supply 100+ fighters to a customer grappling with squadron strength depletion. Critics of the program offer, on the other hand, that the energies and time spent on creating SEF capacity could well be channeled into improving the LCA program and accelerating the AMCA, additionally suggesting that improved LCA jets could populate squadrons faster than license built foreign jets off a greenfield Indian facility. It is into the IAF’s new pronouncements that these impulses have now smashed.
- It is difficult to ignore the inventory path the IAF is taking. With a pair of Rafale squadrons, over a hundred LCA Tejas jets and the prospective SEF jets inbound, we’re talking of three all new types in operational service. And this isn’t even considering more twin-engine jets the IAF could consider at a later time, in addition to fifth generation fighters. From an inventory perspective, the scenario plays out ominously: the subtraction of one type — all variants of the MiG-21, and the addition of at least three types.