Tejas Mark 1A to fly by 2022, if defence ministry issues contract this year

Light Combat Aircraft ‘Tejas’ takes off for a sortie on the second day of the Aero India show | Photo: PTI
An advanced version of the Tejas light fighter could fly by 2022, said Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) on Thursday, a day when Army chief General Bipin Rawat and principal scientific advisor to the government Vijay Raghavan both took flights in the fighter at the Aero India 2019 show in Bengaluru.

However, that depends on a crucial step: the Ministry of Defence (MoD) must place the contract for 83 Tejas Mark 1A fighters this year. HAL executives point out that building a complex fighter from ground up requires three years. For each year delay in ordering, there will be a corresponding delay in delivery.

The MoD accorded “Acceptance of Necessity” for 83 Tejas Mark 1A in December 2017. HAL submitted its technical and commercial bids in March 2018 and technical clarifications have been obtained. Now the MoD must open the commercial bid, negotiate a price with HAL and then place a formal contract. Only then does the three-year clock start running.

“Even Dassault insisted on three years’ lead time for delivering the first Rafale. Similarly, we can only start ordering the long-lead items needed for building the first Tejas Mark 1A once we have a contract in hand,” explained R Madhavan, HAL chairman and managing director.

The Tejas Mark 1A fighter will have four major improvements over the current Tejas Mark 1, which was granted interim “final operational certification” on Wednesday. The two most challenging tasks involve equipping the fighter with “active electronically scanned array” (AESA) radar, in place of the current manually scanned Israeli Elta EL/M 2032 radar; and mounting a “self-protection jammer” (SPJ) on a pod under the Tejas’ wing.

Two other upgrades — improving the “maintainability” of the fighter, and fitting it with external refuelling capability — are already well in hand.

While awaiting an order, HAL has gone to extraordinary lengths to prevent delay. Business Standard learns it has already invested Rs 700 crore of company funds into ordering the AESA radar and EW suite from Elta. This will allow development to proceed, even without an order.

Once the Mark 1A obtains operational clearance, HAL plans to deliver all 83 fighters — each of them priced at about Rs 400 crore — in three-four years. To ramp up production, HAL has set up a second production line in Bengaluru and resorted to outsourcing aerostructure assembly. On December 20, 2017, the defence minister told Parliament: “For ramping up production capacity from existing eight aircraft to 16 aircraft per annum, the Government of India has sanctioned Rs 1,381.04 crore in March 2017”.

After significant delays because of teething troubles in manufacture and repeated changes in specifications by the IAF, HAL is on track to deliver eight fighters in 2018-19.

“We are expanding our capacity to 16 Tejas per year. By the time the Tejas Mark 1A goes into production, our capacity will increase to 24 at least. That is how we intend to deliver the entire order for 83 Mark 1A in three-four years,” explained HAL’s design director, Arup Chatterjee.

An area of conflict in the Tejas Mark 1A is the IAF’s wish to integrate the Meteor air-to-air missile into the fighter. The Meteor’s vendor, MBDA, has made it clear it would not integrate their prime missile with an Israeli radar, which has been chosen for the Tejas Mark 1A. But HAL says the IAF has not formally opted for the Meteor.

“The IAF has not included the Meteor as a firm requirement. Weapons come under the category of ‘customer furnished equipment’. If they provide us with the Meteor missile, we will see how it can be integrated with the Tejas,” said Chatterjee.

Before starting to build the Mark 1A, HAL must deliver existing orders for 20 Tejas Mark 1 single seat fighters. Also on order are eight twin-seat Tejas Mark 1, but repeated changes in specifications by the IAF – notably the demand for mid-air refuelling, which the IAF earlier required only in the single-seat Tejas – has preventing them from being produced.

Meanwhile, the Defence R&D Organisation’s Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) is working on giving the Tejas the remaining three capabilities required for final operational certification. These include expanding the envelope of its “beyond visual range” missile, giving it mid-air refuelling capability by night, and of carrying out “windmill relight” if its engine switches off during flight.

Capability to build Rafale

Rejecting allegations that HAL was not capable of building the Rafale, Madhavan said HAL might start slowly but, after building 50 Rafales, it would be as fast, or faster than Dassault, which builds in France.

He explained it was internationally acknowledged that the learning curve for aerospace manufacturing has a coefficient of 1.79. In other words, if building a fighter requires 179 man-hours at the start of production, that reduces to 100 man-hours when production stabilises.

Applied to the Rafale, if building in India requires 2.7 times as many man-hours at the start of production as building in France, that figure would come down to 1.5 times the French figure, once production stabilises. Then, if production continues, it would match, and then surpass, the French figure.
HAL executives point out that the Hawk trainer began being built at a slow pace, but then matched, and then surpassed, the speed it was built in the UK by BAE Systems.

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