by Lindsay Hughes


It was reported earlier this year that the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) is interested in acquiring up to thirty Tejas fighter aircraft from India. If that is correct, it would boost New Delhi’s efforts to become a net exporter of military systems, rather than one of the world’s largest importers of weapons systems and other military technology. Despite that report and others like it, however, a closer examination of the issue reveals a more nuanced situation.

It is testament to India’s aircraft designers that the Tejas is seen by experts as being superior to Pakistan’s JF-17 “Thunder” fighter in several metrics, despite the Indian aircraft not being fully developed as yet. The Tejas features an unstable design, is built from composite materials that give it a weight advantage over its Pakistani counterpart, it boasts a sophisticated digital flight control system and has a glass flight panel. Most importantly, arguably, it is powered by a General Electric GE F-404IN engine, which was more or less designed for the Tejas and is more reliable than the

JF-17’s Russian-designed and Chinese-built Klimov RD-93 engine. While the Pakistani fighter has a price advantage – $35 million compared to $40 million per Tejas – that difference is so small as to be negligible. The effect of the price differential is further diminished by the greater reliability of the American engine in the Tejas.

The Tejas also suffers from serious disadvantages, however. As alluded to above, it is still not fully developed, having an unstable design despite having been in development for around thirty years now. The GE engine was only acquired after the manufacturer of the Tejas, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), was unable to build a reliable engine for the aircraft; its “Kaveri” engine failing after several years of development.

This could potentially see exports of the Tejas curtailed, due to end-user conditions placed upon HAL by GE. Also, if the Indian Air Force (IAF) chooses to purchase the Tejas, HAL would be hard-pressed to fulfil the order, due to production capacity issues, let alone attempt to fulfil export orders. The IAF is hardly enamoured of the Tejas, however, preferring to purchase fighter aircraft from Russia, Europe and even the United States. Should the IAF finally purchase a foreign fighter, assuming it eventually does, to make up the shortfall in the number of squadrons it fields, it would deal the sales of the Tejas a body blow.

HAL is preparing to present the Tejas at the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace 2019 (LIMA 19) exhibition in March this year, due mainly to Malaysia’s interest in the fighter. Kuala Lumpur, which had evinced interest in the JF-17, just as it did with many other Chinese projects during the Najib Razak Administration’s rule, turned its attention towards the Tejas when Dr Mahathir Mohammed returned to power last year.

It is possible, even likely, that the Razak government opted for the Chinese-built aircraft with minimal forethought, just as it did with China to support Chinese-funded projects in Malaysia. Despite this, HAL will be aware that it would be unwise to base its hopes of a sale to the RMAF purely on a change of government in Malaysia. It will also, less than ideally, need to provide one of its earlier prototype Tejas twin-seater aircraft at LIMA 19, no recent twin-seater having been built.

It is difficult to see how India could persuade Malaysia or the RMAF to purchase the Tejas fighter at this stage, no matter its future potential. Any success in that endeavour would be testament to its aircraft designers – and equally to its sales teams.