India's Tejas Fighter: Flying Turkey?

India's Tejas indigenous Light Combat Aircraft has received its initial operational clearance, paving the way for its induction into the Indian Air Force by June.

However, the Tejas takes flight amid concerns that while the aircraft is an extremely expensive attempt at widening and deepening India's high-tech industrial base, it has only produced what amounts to a 30-year-old aircraft.

In a further disheartening contrast, the Tejas, presumably India's most technically advanced indigenous aircraft program, was rolled out at the same time as China chose to unveil, ahead of President Hu Jintao's US trip, its J-20 so-called 'stealth' fighter, designed to rival the best offerings from the US's Boeing, Lockheed and others, to the general amazement of the intelligence community.

"It is part of the story of India's lamentable and expensive history of domestic defense procurement programs," said a London-based security analyst. The analyst also questioned the aircraft's role, asking: "What is a 'lightweight fighter' in the Indian strategic context given their large number of highly capable Russian long-range aircraft? Is it an advanced trainer or intended for use in low intensity operations, i.e. against internal insurgents?"

India has five long-range Sukhoi squadrons in operation, which total around 105 aircraft, and aims to possess another 280 such fighters.

As has been the case of several domestic defense projects, India conceptualized the long delayed light fighter program as long ago as 1983, with the government eventually pumping nearly Rs145 billion (US$3.2 billion) into a development effort that was initially budgeted at slightly over Rs 5.5 billion.

The present Tejas is said to approximate Sweden's Saab JAS 39 Gripen, which was rolled out in 1984 – 27 years ago. The program has suffered major bottlenecks due to sanctions on imported high-tech possible dual use technology and equipment that was imposed by America following nuclear weapons tests by India in May 1998.

Nonetheless, Defense Minister A K Antony said the country's Air Force and Navy would ultimately deploy 200 such fighters, replacing the ageing and accident prone Russian MiG-21 fleet.

The Tejas is touted as a fourth-generation fighter, developed by India's state-run Aeronautical Defense Agency and manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd with several public-private tie-ups. Stealth capabilities could upgrade the aircraft to fifth-generation levels.

The Tejas is expected to get its final clearance over the next two years for formation of a squadron by 2013 or early 2014, India's Air Force chief, Air Chief Marshal P Naik said.

Ironically, in a reflection of changed Indo-US equations, the initial 40 Tejas aircraft will be powered by American GE-404 engines while the rest (Tejas Mk-2) will be equipped with more powerful GE-414 engines.

Future versions of the plane are slated to be driven by the domestically developed Kaveri aero-engine program with no certainty about the final completion period. The indigenization level in Tejas is presently about 65 percent and is expected to be scaled to 75-80 percent.

India continues to be one of the largest importers of weapons globally due to its inability to develop an effective indigenous delivery of weapons systems and emergence of private industry.

In the decade that has followed the 1999 Kargil war with Pakistan, India's arms purchase deal value has surpassed US$50 billion, with every sign of such momentum being carried over the next decade and crossing US$100 billion. After the terrorist attack on Mumbai by Pakistani-based militants in November 2008, India briefly considered attacking Pakistan but backed away because top military officials were afraid they would lose.

Most observers agree that the performance of the state-owned Defense Research and Development Organization that oversees all defense production has not been up to the mark and there is need to incorporate foreign technology and help.

Among the severely delayed DRDO projects are the Arjun main battle tank and attempts to modernize a Russian aircraft carrier, both of which are years behind schedule.

Meanwhile, the emergence of America as India's new military partner is even as New Delhi looks beyond Russia, India's traditional supplier dating back to the Cold War era. Problems with Russia include servicing and spare parts delays and obsolete technology.

Keen to diversify its weapons procurement sourcing, India has told US to ease its export control restrictions to allow high-end weapons technology tie-ups between the two nations.

America has also been looking to sweeten defense deals with India to bag new contracts.

India Air Power

Currently, India is in the process of building a fighter jet fleet that will comprise imported multi-role combat aircraft (MRCA) that will fit between the more powerful Russian Sukhoi-30 and the Tejas.

The competition is stiff for India's largest ever defense deal, the US$12 billion 126 medium MRCA contract, with the six players in the fray keen to outdo each other. Lockheed Martin, Boeing (American), Dassault's Rafale (French), Gripen (Sweden), MiG (Russian) and Eurofighter Typhoon (a consortium of British, German, Italian and Spanish companies) have begun presenting their fighter jets for flight testing to the IAF.

The country originally ordered 50 Su-30 MKIs from Russia in 1996 and additional 40 fighters in 2007. India's state owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd is contracted to build 140 more by 2017.

The Russian MiGs formed the backbone of India's air strike for a long time. However, technical snags, shoddy servicing and non-availability of spares resulted in many MIGs going down, killing pilots and maiming India's air force capabilities.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at sidsri@yahoo.com