HAL Tejas is an Indian single-engine, delta wing, multirole light fighter designed by the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) for the Indian Air Force and Indian Navy. It came from the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) programme, which began in the 1980s to replace India’s ageing MiG-21 fighters.
The Tejas began development in the early 1980s, and following massive delays and almost 40 years of work the aircraft was accorded final operational clearance (FOC) by India’s aviation certifying authority in February 2019. The fighter is from a comparable weight range to the Swedish Gripen and Pakistani JF-17 fighter and is considerably lighter than higher-end single-engine designs such as the American F-16 Fighting Falcon and Chinese J-10 Firebird.
While touted as an indigenous program, many of the Tejas’ core systems are purchased off the shelf from foreign suppliers including an American F404 engine – the same as that designed to power the F-20 Tigershark light fighter in the 1970s, an Israeli sensor suite and electronics, and Russian air to air missiles.
The Indian Air Force is set to finalise a deal to purchase 83 Tejas Mk1A lightweight single engine fighters, which will mark the second major order for the aircraft following a prior order for 40 jets. The recent order will cost the Defence Ministry $62.7 million per airframe.
Purchasing the F404 and Israeli sensors and electronics at export prices, which are the most costly parts of the jet, the Tejas cannot be manufactured as a cheap indigenous platform as Pakistan’s JF-17, Taiwan’s Ching Kuo and Brave Eagle, China’s J-10 and JL-15 or America’s F-16 are.
Using the American F-35A as an example of the discrepancy in the prices of domestically produced and exported fighters, the jet is being purchased by the Air Force for around $80 million each but is being marketed for export for around $200 million each. Similarly, while Russia’s Su-57 is currently the most costly non-Western fighter being marketed for export, with an estimated export price of around $110 million, it is being purchased by the Russian Air Force for just $35 million each. Compared to the prices Russia and the U.S. respectively are purchasing the Su-57 and F-35A, both state of the art fifth-generation designs which are considerably heavier and more sophisticated than the Tejas, the Indian fighter appears to present the country with much less value for money than previously thought.
The LCA programme development has already cost India over Rs 10,000 crore.
According to the Indian Express in response to a request for a proposal for 83 Tejas Mark1A fighter jets issued by the IAF in December last year, HAL quoted a price of Rs 463 crore per jet in April. This raised eyebrows in the government, sources said, as the price compared unfavourably even with more modern foreign fighters. “The HAL supplies the more modern Russian Sukhoi fighter, which it assembles at Nashik, at Rs 415 crore. The Russians supply it at Rs 330 crore. The Swedish Gripen was offered to us for Rs 455 crore, and F-16 for Rs 380 crore and both were to be made in India. The HAL itself gave us Tejas Mark1 at Rs 100 crore less. This price for an improved version seems high,” sources said.
Development of a lightweight and low cost indigenous fighter has been pursued by a range of countries from Sweden to Taiwan from a number of reasons – allowing them not only to tailor the jet to the needs of their armed forces, develop high end technologies domestically and pursues their own design philosophies, but also because manufacturing jets domestically is usually a great deal cheaper than importing them at market prices.
Considering the highly ambitious plans India has to expand its fighter fleet, which will require the induction of over a dozen new squadrons in the near future, a low cost lightweight indigenous jet would provide an effective means of doing so while remaining within the limits of the country’s defence budget. The only issue with this is that India’s Tejas, largely due to its reliance on very costly foreign technologies, is very far from a low-cost fighter.
According to Defence analysts to maintain a qualitative edge over its adversaries, put scarce resources to better use and look at over 50 years at the horizon, the Indian Air Force should drop its plan to make 200 fourth-generation LCA Tejas Mark-2 fighter jets and focus on the fifth-generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft – AMCA – stealth fighter jets.
Otherwise, the Indian Air Force risks the AMCA becoming obsolete on arrival, while flying an even more obsolete LCA Mark-2 jet into the 2070s. Even the Indian Navy requires the AMCA because the Light Combat Aircraft – LCA – that is currently being tested is not good enough for carrier operations.