With the Royal Malaysian Air Force now considering purchasing 30 TEJAS jets (it previously favoured the Chinese MiG-21 clone the CAC FC-1 Xiaolong or JF-17 Thunder), the Malay government had requested the Indian-built jet attends the show this March. Two TEJAS fighter jets have already landed in Langkawi on 23-Mar-2019 for the event.

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. Last year, Kuala Lumpur was discussing a deal with Pakistan to buy the JF-17. But now, the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) is signalling strong interest in the TEJAS. Malaysia’s switch to TEJAS would be a second disappointment to Pakistan, after Sri Lanka earlier backed away from the JF-17 after first expressing interest.

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 cockpit. Most importantly, 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 as the turbofan for the fighter is imported from the United States. 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 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 sale of the TEJAS a body blow.

HAL is preparing to present the TEJAS 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 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.

IDN thanks Mr. Lindsay Hughes, Research Analyst, Indian Ocean Research Program at FDI for this article. Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of IDN