Tejas Mark 1A faces delay as air force adds to demands

The Tejas Mark 1A was conceived specifically to bring the Tejas into production | Photo: PTI
A key reason for delays in indigenous weaponry such as the Tejas fighter and Arjun tank has been the military’s tendency to repeatedly enhance specifications, preventing weapon systems from leaving the drawing board and entering production.

This is now happening with the Tejas Mark 1A fighter.It was to enter production in 2020-21 with five specific enhancements. But, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has demanded additional features and the fighter could be entering a time-consuming development spiral that takes another three to four years.

Tejas Mark 1A was conceived specifically to bring the Tejas into production. In early 2015, the IAF, defence ministry and Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) agreed it could enter mass production as soon as HAL incorporated five improvements. Namely, an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, an electronic warfare (EW) suite, a self-protection jammer, mid-air refuelling capability and easier maintainability.

Now, however, the IAF has added to that wish list. Among several additional demands are: “smart multi-function displays” for the cockpit, a “combined interrogator and transponder” to differentiate friendly aircraft from foes, a digital map generator and an improved radio altimeter.

While some of these systems can be bought off the shelf, integrating these on to the Tejas would require comprehensive redesign of the fighter’s mission computer. HAL estimates doing so and integrating the additional software could take up to three to four years.

“The existing ‘open architecture mission computer’ cannot support the software upgrades that are now needed for the Tejas Mark 1A”, says HAL chairman, T Suvarna Raju.

With HAL planning to deliver the 40 Tejas Mark 1 fighters currently on order by mid-2020, the Mark 1A must enter final assembly by that date. Before that, two years are needed for building the systems and assemblies that come together on the final assembly line.

This schedule requires the IAF to contract for the Tejas Mark 1A by mid-2018. That order is still awaited.

“The time line is certainly important from the IAF’s operational perspective. But, it is equally important from the standpoint of industrial production”, a HAL manager told Business Standard during a visit to the Tejas production line.

Another question: who will re-design the Tejas’ mission computer? The Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), a Defence R&D Organisation entity, designed the current version. “We have extensive experience, having designed mission computers for the Jaguar, Mirage and, more recently, the Hawk-i trainer. Furthermore, we are responsible for the Tejas Mark 1A project and time lines and would not like to be dependent on an external entity”, says Raju.

Worldwide, aircraft designers (ADA in this case) cede control to the manufacturer (HAL in this case), which is subsequently responsible for supporting the users (IAF), through spares, overhauls and upgrades during an aircraft’s service life cycle.

With both ADA and HAL keen on re-designing the Tejas’ mission computer, the former argues it is already developing a more powerful mission computer for the Tejas Mark 2. HAL, however, counters that the Mark 2 will be a decade in the making, ADA is targeting 2025 – while the Mark 1A has much tighter time lines.

HAL officials say they are on track with the original requirements of the Tejas Mark 1A. In December, global tenders were floated for the AESA radar and EW suite. Three companies have responded, Elta of Israel, Saab of Sweden and Thales of France. The winner is likely to be announced soon.

Meanwhile, the Tejas has already been installed with air-to-air refuelling capability, and maintainability improvements are almost complete. In the recently concluded IAF Exercise Gaganshakti, eight Tejas fighters participated with credit, consistently flying six sorties each per day and drawing praise from the air force.