With the clearance for the development of the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Mark 2 fighter for the Indian Air Force (IAF), the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) has reposed its trust in India’s defence research and industrial capability. It has also reaffirmed the urgent need for more fighter aircraft for the IAF. “In view of the rapidly depleting strength of fighter squadrons in the IAF and phasing out of the MiG 21 aircraft fleet in the coming years, it is essential that laid down timelines for projects related to the development of combat aircraft are adhered to,” said Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari, Chief of the Air Staff of the IAF.
The Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) developed and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL)-manufactured LCA programme has come a long way since the first flight of the first prototype on January 04, 2001. Having struggled with India’s first major attempt at making a jet-fighter, the HF-24 ‘Marut’, the LCA’s success has brought India into a new league of aerospace manufacturing nations. The multi-role aircraft has great combat potential and is flying with two IAF front-line squadrons. Introduced into service on January 17, 2015, the total numbers delivered to the IAF continue to be just 30. At least six to eight LCAs are expected to be delivered by the end of the year. Considering the depleting number of IAF fighter squadrons, the annual rate of production needs to be increased.
LCA Development History
The LCA ‘Tejas’ is single engine, delta wing, light multi-role fighter. It was evolved by ADA and later developed jointly with HAL’s Aircraft Research and Design Centre (ARDC) for the IAF and the Indian Navy (IN). In 1983, the Government of India cleared the need for the LCA project with the initial goal to develop a new light combat aircraft to replace the MiG-21 variants. In 1984, ADA was formed under the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to manage the LCA programme. HAL was chosen as production partner. For indigenisation, there were three major technological challenges, the Fly-By-Wire (FBW) flight control system, multi-mode pulse-doppler radar and after burning turbofan engine.
The design of the Tejas was finalised in 1990 as a small tail-less compound delta wing with inherent relaxed static stability. In 1992, a dedicated National Control Law (CLAW) team was set up by the National Aerospace Laboratories to develop India’s own state-of-the-art FBW flight control system for the Tejas. They set up the Iron-Bird test rig for FBW control laws testing. On January 04, 2001, the aircraft made its maiden flight. The DRDO decided to make the Multi-Mode Radar (MMR) on its own. HAL’s Hyderabad division and the DRDO’s Electronics and Radar Development Establishment (LRDE) laboratory began work on the MMR in 1997. The Centre for Airborne Systems (CABS) along with IAF’s Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE), was responsible for the MMR’s test programme. An HAL-748 airborne surveillance aircraft was converted for this purpose. By 2005, only two radar modes could be tested and performance was found to be suboptimal. Using an ‘off-the-shelf’ foreign radar was chosen as interim option. The development and manufacturing of carbon-fibre composite structures and skins as well as a modern glass cockpit, was a great success story.
Prototype testing began in 2003, on the first prototype PV-1, a year after the first flight of the second Technology Demonstrator (TD-2). The first trainer prototype PV-5 made its first flight in November 2009. The first naval prototype designated NP-1, made its first flight in April 2012. The first Limited Series Production (LSP-1) aircraft of the seven eventually built flew in April 2007. The LSPs were used for initial sensor and weapon trials including the Israeli Elta EL/M-2032 multi-mode radar, Rafael Litening targeting pod, R-73, Derby missiles and the BDL developed Counter Measure Dispensing System (CMDS).
The Tejas is the smallest and lightest in its class of contemporary supersonic combat aircraft. It was awarded Initial Operational Clearance-I (IOC-I) in January 2011. To ease up the process of Final Operational Clearance (FOC), an interim IOC-II was issued to Tejas in December 2013. The IOC-II expanded the g-limit, angle of attack and allowed the aircraft to carry precision guided munitions and close combat missiles. The first squadron, consisting of Tejas aircraft in IOC-II configuration, was formed in July 2016. In September 2018, the Tejas successfully completed its mid-air refuelling trials required for the aircraft to obtain the FOC that was accorded in 2019. The second Tejas squadron, No.18 Flying Bullets, was formed on May 27, 2020, with the first four FOC aircraft. The aircraft can now perform aerial refuelling from Ilyushin Il-78 and buddy refuelling with Sukhoi Su-30MKI.
A Full Mission Simulator (FMS) phase-1 was commissioned on October 23, 2021. It features training in aircraft handling and full envelope flying. Phase 2 is under development and will focus on weapons system and advance sensors. There are currently three production variants, the Tejas Mark 1, Mark 1A and a trainer variant. The IAF had already ordered 32 Tejas Mark 1 and eight trainers. Later, 73 Tejas Mark 1A and ten trainer aircraft were ordered. In December 2021, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) clarified that the Tejas is no longer considered as a replacement for the MiG-21, instead it is now part of a general IAF fleet modernisation programme.
The IAF plans to procure 324 aircraft in all variants, including the Tejas Mark 2. As of 2022, indigenous content in the Tejas Mark 1 is 59.7 percent by value and 75.5 percent by number of line replaceable units. The indigenous content will increase in subsequent variants to be developed in the future.
Tejas Mark 1A
The Tejas Mark 1A retains the basic Mark 1 airframe but has reduced aircraft weight through the greater use of composites and reduced supersonic drag by using more aerodynamic pylons. On June 20, 2022, the Tejas Mark 1A prototype completed its first flight. It is hoped that the ADA will be able to get Centre for Military Airworthiness and Certification (CEMILAC) operational airworthiness clearance in time before this version enters mass production. The variant is equipped with EL/M-2052 AESA radar that will later be replaced with indigenous Uttam AESA radar. DRDO’s Electronics & Radar Development Establishment (LRDE) has completed production Transfer-of-Technology (ToT) of Uttam AESA radar to HAL. The radar derivatives would be further integrated on Su-30 MKI, TEJAS MK-2, and AMCA. Mark 1A will host the DARE Unified Electronic Warfare Suite (UEWS), and have an externally mounted Self-Protection Jammer (SPJ) for enhanced survivability.
There will be an advanced Identification, Friend or Foe (IFF) system and a digital map generator. The aircraft will have indigenous On-board Oxygen Generation System (OBOGS) developed by DRDO’s Defence Bio-Engineering and Electro Medical Laboratory (DEBEL). The expanded weapon suite will include the Astra BVRAAM and ASRAAM. The production variant will have a dual-rack pylon with weapon systems integration. The variant is expected to begin production in 2023–24. As per commitment, delivery of the aircraft to the IAF would start from March 2024. To better accommodate the pilots, the cockpit floor is being re-shaped. The technician’s access to aircraft systems is being improved and this would also help reduce turnaround time. HAL had already outsourced 25 percent of the work share to the private sector. Private suppliers of line-replaceable units have also increased from 344 to 410 during the Tejas Mark 1A development.
Tejas Mark 2
The Tejas Mark 2 is a single-engine, close-coupled canard delta wing Multi-role Medium Weight Fighter (MWF). The aircraft is larger and heavier (17.5 tonne class). Apart from other design changes, the Tejas Mark 2 will have the more powerful General Electric F414 INS6 engine. It will have an increased payload carrying capacity and have more external hard-points and will carry more internal fuel. It will also have improved combat range.
The aircraft will have few commonalities with Tejas Mark 1A, but will heavily imbibe technologies being developed for Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) programme. This will include radar cross-section-reducing measures so as to allow a degree of frontal stealth. It is also planned to selectively use radar-absorbent material coating. Utilising extra fuselage space, larger twisted air-intake ducts have been introduced for GE F414 INS6 engine. The cockpit is totally redesigned. An Infrared Search and Track (IRST) system is integrated.
The aircraft will have a Missile Approach Warning System (MAWS). It will have an improved AESA radar and night vision goggles-compatible glass cockpit. A wide touch-sensitive panoramic display screen will dominate the cockpit. There will be a wide-angle holographic head-up display. The Hands-On-Throttle-And-Stick (HOTAS) arrangement is being retained. The Mark 2 will have indigenous software-defined radio-based tactical data-link for secure communication and network-centric warfare capabilities supported by the IAF’s AFNet digital information grid. It will feature the indigenous ILSS-OBOGS. The Defence Institute of Advanced Technology (DIAT) is developing aircraft Health and Usage Monitoring Systems (HUMS).
ADA completed its critical design review on November 15, 2021, with a total of 20 sub-systems for the aircraft cleared by the IAF for production. Metal cutting had started earlier in February 2021. HAL had begun work using internal funding. On September 01, 2022, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) cleared Rs 10,000 crore for Tejas Mark 2 project that includes prototype development and flight testing. The Mark 2 is expected to be rolled out by end 2022. High speed taxi trials will start in early 2023. The first flight of Tejas Mark 2 is expected to be in late 2023.Limited series production will begin from 2025. The entire development process will be completed by 2027, with full scale mass production commencing from 2030. The Tejas Mark 2 should become available for operations from 2028. The fighter is meant to replace the IAF’s fleets of the SEPECAT Jaguar, Dassault Mirage 2000 and Mikoyan MiG-29. The IAF will initially have six squadrons (120 aircraft), but in the long run, numbers will go up to over 200. From 62 percent in Tejas Mark 1A, the plan is to touch the 70 percent in indigenisation for the Mark 2.
Basic Airframe Parameters
The Mark 1 is 13.2m long, has a wingspan of 8.2m and height of 4.4m. The Mark 2 is longer at 14.60m, has larger wingspan of 8.50m and taller at 4.86m. Interestingly, the Mark 2 figures are quite close to the Mirage 2000, which is 14.3 metres in overall length, 9.1 metres in wingspan and 5.2 metres in height. The Mark 1 wing area is 38.4 sq m The same for Mark 2 is 44, and Mirage 2000 is 41. The Mark 1’s empty weight is 6,560kg compared to 7,850kg of the Mark 2 and 7,500kg of Mirage 2000. The maximum take-off weight for Mark 1 is 13,500kg, and 17,500kg for Mark 2 and 17,000kg for Mirage 2000.
The Tejas Mark 2 is powered by the GE-F414 INS6 engine with a thrust estimated at 98kN with afterburner, compared to the 95.1kN of M53-P2 of Mirage 2000, the aircraft it will replace. The GE F414 engine will be replaced once an Indian power-plant is available. The internal fuel capacity will increase from 2,458kg of Mark1 to 3,400kg and payload capacity from 5,300kg to 6,500kg and will allow it to carry more weapons with a longer range. The Mirage 2000 can of course carry larger internal fuel at 3,950kg perhaps because of large delta-wing form. The Mark 1 had eight external hard-points (six under-wing, one each under-fuselage and beneath the port-side intake trunk for targeting pods). The Mark 2 will have 11 hard-points including two on wing-tips and would carry total of 6,500kg. The Mirage 2000 has nine hard-points, four under-wing and five under-fuselage, with a capacity of 6,300kg. The Mark 2’s flight performance parameters include a combat range which is comparable to the Mirage 2000. The Mark 2 will be better than the Mirage 2000 in Thrust/Weight ratio. Clearly, the LCA Mk2 will be a formidable MWF and more than apt replacement for the Mirage 2000 and other aircraft.
All the Tejas variants will have the world renowned 1×30 mm Russian GSh-30-1 gun. The IAF has years of operational experience of using and maintaining this gun on all Russian aircraft including the Su-30 MKI. A large number of Indian and foreign armaments are planned to be integrated on the different Tejas variants. The choice of weapons is dictated by operational capability requirements and the existing large stocking for other fleets. The Mark 1 is planned to have the Russian S-8 rocket pods. The Air-to-Air Missile (AAM) that could be integrated are theR-73, I-Derby/ER, Python-5, ASRAAM, Astra Mark 1 and R-77. The long list of possible air-to-surface missiles includes Kh-59ME, Kh-59L, Kh-59T, AASM-Hammer and the BrahMos-NG ALCM. The integration may be selectively done. The indigenous Rudram-1 Anti-Radiation Missile (ARM) is planned. The anti-ship missiles could be the Russian Kh-35 and Kh-59MK. The Precision-Guided Munitions (PGM) options are the Spice, Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM), HSLD-100/250/450/500, DRDO Glide Bombs, DRDO SAAW, Tactical Advanced Range Augmentation (TARA). The Laser-guided bombs could be KAB-1500L, GBU-16 Paveway II, Sudarshan or the Griffin LGB. The Cluster Munition RBK-500 and a variety of unguided bombs weigh from 100kg to 500kg. BDL Chaff/Flare Counter Measure Dispensing System (CMDS), DARE Targeting pod and Rafael Litening III are also planned.
The larger LCA Mark 2 will be able to carry a few larger armaments. The MICA and Meteor missile are planned. So are future variants of Astra and NG-CCM. Air-to-surface missiles could include BrahMos-NG ALCM, LRLACM, Storm Shadow and Crystal Maze. CATS ALFA as part of MUMT would be integrated. DARE Unified Electronic Warfare Suite (UEWS) and Dual Colour Missile Approach Warning System (DCMAWS) are also planned.
Operational Deployment History
The first Tejas Squadron No 45 Squadron IAF (Flying Daggers) became operational in July 2016, at Sulur Air Force Station near Coimbatore. The 18 Squadron (Flying Bullets) was the second Tejas Mark 1 unit formed at Sulur on May 27, 2020. The Tejas Mark 1 made its international debut on January 21, 2016, at the fourth Bahrain International Air Show and in April 2018, the entire fleet of Tejas Mark 1 aircraft participated in the IAF’s major exercise called ‘Gagan Shakti’. The Tejas Mark 1 aircraft were deployed at forward bases for both air defence and precision strike roles. In 2019, six Tejas fighter jets participated in the Vayu Shakti air power demonstration where it demonstrated its ‘swing role’ capability. The squadron pilots are very happy with the DASH IV HMDS that enables slewing the high off-bore-sight close combat missiles such as Python-5 and R-73.
Post Galwan skirmish on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in mid-August 2020, the No 45 Squadron was tasked for its first operational deployment near the border. On April 27, 2021, Tejas Mark 1 successfully test fired the Python-5 missile and also validated enhanced capability of I-Derby Extended Range (ER) BVR missile. Both missiles scored direct hits on targets during the trial.
The Naval LCA (N-LCA) programme began in 2003. The Naval prototype NP-1 was to be a two-seat and the NP-2 the single-seat, both based on Tejas Mark 1. Single-seat prototypes were to be based on the Tejas Mark 2 design. The NP-1 made its first flight in April 2012. It had a stronger landing gear to absorb the larger forces during carrier take-off and arrested recovery. The Naval LCA had a nose droop to provide improved view for carrier landings. In addition to the elevons, the Naval LCA had wing Leading – Edge Vortex Controllers (LEVCON), control surfaces that extend from the wing-root leading edge which could be deflected to a downward angle or an upward angle to increase lift and reduce airspeed during approach.
The first ski-jump assisted take-off from the Shore-Based Test Facility (SBTF) at INS Hansa, Goa, was made in December 2014. The naval variant has a distinctive flight control law mode which allows hands-free take-off. In December 2016, the Indian Navy (IN) opted out of the programme because of technical reasons that included inadequate thrust/weight ratio and preference for twin engine aircraft. But HAL/ADA continued the N-LCA development. In 2019, the N-LCA carried out the first arrested landing at the SBTF in daytime and later at night. In January 2020, the N-LCA carried out its first arrested landing and ski-jump assisted take-off from the aircraft-carrier INS Vikramaditya. In July 2020, the DRDO announced that the plan to develop the original LCA Mark 2 Navy had been dropped.
Potential Foreign Operators
India plans to export the Tejas for which HAL is in preliminary talks with several countries. HAL will give full service support including offer to set up logistic facilities. Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam are possible customers. Argentina has also indicated interest. In some cases, the Sino-Pak JF-17 is also a contender. Sales to Argentina have the complexity of UK-imposed arms sanctions on the country. The LCA uses British-origin components including the aerial-refuelling probe and the quartz radome, both supplied by Cobham Limited as also the Martin-Baker ejection seat. These issues are being resolved.
Australia is looking for replacement of its BAE Hawk 127 trainer fleet. HAL had offered the Tejas in its Lead in Fighter Trainer (LIFT) configuration. Egypt also needs around 70 LCA two-seater aircraft to replace its 100 Chinese-made Hongdu JL-8 trainers. In March 2019, the HAL Tejas made its international debut at the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition (LIMA). Malaysia needs LCAs to augment their existing MiG-29 fighter fleet. In June 2021, Malaysia formally released a tender for the supply of 18 light combat-aircraft as the Fighter Lead In Trainer-Light Combat Aircraft (FLIT/LCA). The Request for Proposal (RFP) has been issued for nine different contenders. In July 2022, HAL announced that Malaysia had picked the Tejas to replace its MiG-29s and the negotiations were in the final stage.
Sri Lanka has shown interest in the Tejas to replace its aging fleets of IAI Kfir and Chengdu J-7 aircraft. But due to its financial state, it has postponed any such purchase. The United Arab Emirates had also evinced interest in 2018, but nothing has moved forward as on date. In December 2020, in response to a Request for Information (RFI) from the United States Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), HAL offered the LCA as LIFT for their initiative to replace T-45 Goshawk trainer aircraft. The US is perhaps looking for an aircraft with slower landing speed.
Other Possible LCA Variants
Supersonic Omni-Role Trainer (SPORT) aircraft is supposed to be a two-seater LIFT aircraft based on LCA Trainer Mark 1 for export purposes. Twin-Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF) is a totally different programme based on the requirements of the Indian Navy. The aircraft will operate from INS Vikrant and INS Vishal and is expected to replace the current MiG-29K fleet in service. The Indian MoD approved the TEDBF project in June 2020. In Aero India 2021, a mock-up of the TEDBF was displayed. The aircraft is expected to start flight tests in 2026.Omni Role Combat Aircraft (ORCA) was meant to be a variant of the TEDBF for the IAF. With LCA MWF go ahead, the IAF has shown no interest in ORCA.
CATS MAX will be the main component of HAL Combat Air Teaming System (CATS). It will be a Tejas Mark 1A twin-seater modified with CATS interface to act as the mothership. It will have a pilot and a Weapon System Officer (WSO) who will be controlling the CATS.
Confirmed Orders and Production Rate
The IAF ordered 40 LCA Mark 1 comprising 16 Mark1 IOC and 16 Mark1 FOC single-seat aircraft and eight Mark1 FOC twin-seat trainers. First LCA Mark 1 was handed over to the IAF in January 2015. The first LCA squadron was formed at Bengaluru on July 01, 2016. It moved to Sulur in July 2018. 30 Mark 1 including four two-seat versions had been inducted by September 2022. HAL had promised to supply the remaining six to eight LCA-FOC aircraft by December 2022, subject to certain crucial systems are delivered from Israel on time. HAL plans to deliver four more trainers this year.
All of the total 18 trainers ordered will be delivered by 2024. It can be seen that since first aircraft delivery, it would take HAL eight years to deliver around 36 aircraft. The production rate is obviously slow. The Covid-19 might have also added to the problem. The HAL has had two production lines of eight aircraft each for some time. It is reported that the third line is also operational now. Effectively, HAL must now produce at least 18 to 20 aircraft a year. Logistic supply chains for some items may not be fully in place. Also, there has been a proposal to allow the private sector to begin a production line of eight aircraft. This would allow the HAL to concentrate on LCA Mark 2 and AMCA development. There is no clarity on this aspect yet. 83 LCA Mark 1A aircraft were ordered by the IAF in February 2021. These include 73 single-seat aircraft and 10 Mk1 FOC trainers. The delivery timeframe is 2024-2028. Apart from the current commitment of 110-120 Tejas Mark 2 aircraft that will form six squadrons in the IAF, the government expects additional order of 210 aircraft.
The IAF continues to be at an all-time low of 30 fighter squadrons. The MiG-21 accidents and loss of crew lives have been seeing adverse public reaction. Operationally, both the Western and Northern borders are live with forces sitting eye-ball-to-eye-ball with adversaries. The security establishment is talking of a three-front war, two with China and one with Pakistan. China is pulling ahead in aerospace. Pakistan may also increase its squadron strength from current 19 to 22. Phasing out of the MiG Bison fleet has already been delayed a few times. The RFP for the acquisition of 114 new fighters that are to be imported has still not been sent out.
The IAF urgently needs fighters; the production of the LCA must go up. The private sector must be brought in. India is the only country operating Jaguars. The Mirage 2000, Jaguar and MiG-29 combat aircraft will also start becoming due for replacement soon. The LCA Mark 2 will be a 4.5 generation fighter. The plan is to imbibe some fifth generation technologies including limited stealth. We need to think ahead. The Tejas Mark 2 must match up to those timelines. The aircraft project management must get the national attention at the highest level. Time to act is now, lest we get left far behind.