New Delhi: India can scale up production of the indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft to meet operational requirements and export orders, defence ministry officials say, claiming that delays in deliveries are now a thing of the past.
The single-engine Tejas fighter is already the frontrunner to bag a Malaysian order for 18 light twin-seat fighter trainers despite strong competition from Chinese JF-17, South Korean FA-50 and Russian MiG-35 and Yak-130 jets. “Moreover, there are also inquiries about the fighter from Argentina, Egypt and the Philippines, among others,” a senior official told TOI.
The current production rate of Tejas by defence PSU Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) is eight aircraft per year but “additional capacity is now available” to enhance it. “It is not difficult,” the official said.
The plan is to progressively scale up the production rate to 16 Tejas per year for deliveries of the 73 “improved” Mark-1A fighters and 10 trainers to the IAF, which are slated to begin in February 2024 and end by February 2029. The Rs 46,898 crore contract for these 83 Tejas was inked with HAL in February 2021.
“The production rate can even be increased to 24 aircraft per year if they are export orders or the IAF needs more. If there are confirmed orders, investments can be made to install additional jigs and fixtures,” another official said. The Cabinet Committee on Security had last month also approved the over Rs 9,000 crore development of a much more capable and powerful Mark-2 version of the Tejas, which will be followed by another mega project for an ambitious fifth-generation stealth fighter, as was then reported by TOI.
The slow production rate of the Tejas, which is now also being armed with the French `Hammer’ air-to-ground precision-guided munitions like Rafale fighter jets, has been a major lingering concern over the years.
The two IAF Tejas squadrons, the “Flying Daggers” and “Flying Bullets” at Sulur, have till now inducted only 30 of the original order for 40 Tejas Mark-1 fighters, which were all slated for delivery by December 2016 under two contracts worth Rs 8,802 crore inked earlier. “Deliveries are now picking up. The first of the eight trainers in the original 40 Tejas is ready. All of the eight trainers will be delivered before the deliveries of the next 83 jets begin in February 2024,” the official said.
“Tejas is a very cost-effective aircraft,” he added. The IAF desperately needs these 123 Tejas to add to the strength of its fighter squadrons, which is down to just 32 (each has 16-18 jets) when at least 42 are required for the requisite deterrence against the “collusive threat” from China and Pakistan.
The Tejas Mark-1A fighters will have 43 “improvements” over the Mark-1 jets. They include AESA (active electronically scanned array) radars to replace existing mechanically-steered radars, air-to-air refuelling, long-range BVR (beyond visual range) missiles and advanced electronic warfare to jam enemy radars and missiles, though the majority of them are designed to improve maintenance. Indigenous content of the jets will also progressively reach 60% by the end of the deliveries. There is acknowledgement in the Indian defence establishment, which has a pronounced `Make in India’ thrust now, that the country cannot ill-afford to keep on buying expensive foreign fighters. While the 36 omni-role Rafale jets are very advanced and capable, they cost a whopping Rs 59,000 crore.