On January 13, 2021, PM Modi-led Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) gave the green signal for procurement of 83 Light Combat Aircraft, TEJAS MK-IA for a deal whose cumulative value would be around Rs 48,000 crore. And though it is certainly not the first major domestic defence deal for domestic companies, given a large array of missiles are already made in India, it is certainly the biggest, wherein India’s state-owned aircraft manufacturer Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) would play the role of lead systems integrator and synchronize the work of around 500-odd Indian companies, along with foreign vendors, who would work simultaneously to develop different components that would eventually be integrated in HAL facilities to bring out a potent combat aircraft and would herald the first step of India towards self-sufficiency in combat craft development.

Ending The Paradox: Can Launch Mission To Mars But Struggles To Build A Combat Craft

For long, India has been a paradoxical enigma to the world, for being a country with one of the most efficient, innovative and nimble footed space agencies of the world, namely ISRO, and which has to its credit the launch of hundreds of satellites, mission to moon and mars, and yet the country had for decades struggled to develop a combat craft that can match the globally competitive ones.

The deal for 83 TEJAS MK-1A would perhaps change all of that and is a reflection of the faith that IAF now has on this platform, which originally, though was aimed at replacing the ageing fleet of IAF’s MiG-21’s, but in terms of capabilities is far more competent than the ubiquitous MiG-21, and has the capacity to emerge, through its derivatives, as a key backbone of IAF in decades to come. The signing of the deal that would most probably happen at the Aero India show next month, would also boost the developmental work for TEJAS MK II being undertaken by ADA, HAL and DRDO.

How TEJAS MK-IA Fares Better Than TEJAS MK-I

Incidentally, this proposal for acquisition of 83 TEJAS is the third tranche of order for HAL. Previously HAL had already got orders for production of 40 TEJAS MK-I in two tranches that it is now executing, albeit with considerable time overrun. The TEJAS MK-IA comes with major improvements over the baseline TEJAS MK-I version.

Among the key features of the 43 improvements that TEJAS MK-IA would have, include an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) fire control radar, which would substitute the manually scanned radar, and an Electronic Warfare (EW) suite, both of which has been ordered from IAI/Elta Systems of Israel. The deal for ELM-2052 fire control radars and ELL-8222WB (wide band) self-protection jamming pods, with IAI/Elta Systems were signed in 2018. This apart, the MK-IA versions would come with air-refuelling capabilities, ability to fire Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missiles and above all, a far better maintainability architecture with an improved turnaround time that was sorely lacking in the baseline MK- I versions.

IAF’s Modernisation Over The Last Half A Decade

Amidst a major stand-off with China that has been going on for more than six months now, apart from Indian Army, IAF too has been playing a key role in not just providing the logistical support through massive airlifting capability of its strategic and tactical air transport planes such as C-17, IL-76, C-130 Chinooks and AN-32, but also in the realm of surveillance and air patrolling by its fighter aircrafts, it has played a stellar role in keeping Chinese ambitions at bay.

A glance at IAF’s force multiplying fleet augmentation program over the last few years would reveal that after a decade-long neglect that inflicted it with depleting squadron strengths and rising obsolescence, the turnaround for IAF started happening since around 2015 when PM Modi-led NDA government signed deals with Boeing of US for 22 Apache AH-64 combat helicopters and 15 Chinook CH-47 tactical transport helicopters for around $3 billion.

This was followed by signing of the Rs 59,000 crore deal with Dassault of France, in 2016, for delivery of 36 Dassault Rafale Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) directly from France. The Rafale platforms come with a potent package of missiles and bombs that includes air-launched cruise missiles namely Scalp with a range of more than 300 km, Meteor Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missiles with a range beyond 100 km and Hammer precision guided munitions.

Designed to operate even from high altitude bases because of its cold start capability, and ability to take off with more than nine tons of weapons payload, Rafales give a major booster to IAF’s combat prowess. The Rafale deal was followed by India signing the deal with Russia for five S-400 Triumf air defence systems for a whopping $5.4 billion.

To be operated by IAF, S-400 Triumf packs a punch to IAF’s air defence capabilities. Also, in 2019, Indian Government approved seven more Akash Surface to Air Missile (SAM) squadrons for IAF.

Post Balakot air strike, Government of India also ordered $700 million worth R-73 and R-77 missiles from Russia and as per reports, another deal of Rs 300 crore for 100 more Spice 2000 Bombs, with Mark 84 warheads, from Rafael of Israel. The Defence Acquisition Council has cleared proposal for six more AWACS for IAF.

By end of 2021, Russia will start delivery of S-400 units and by middle of 2022, Dassault would complete the delivery of remaining Rafales, eight of which have already arrived in India while another seven are being used in France by IAf for pilot training. The focus then would shift on India’s proposed acquisition of 114 medium combat jets for which the RFI has already been issued. The focus would also be on India’s acquisition of 21 MiG-29s from Russia and additional production of 12 Su-30MKI in India.

However, it would be interesting to see as to whether India opts for acquisition of more Rafales, once the delivery is completed of the present order. As per reports, the follow-on orders for more Rafales in same configuration would cost India much less since India has already paid for India-specific enhancements.

With French Government offering to shift at least 70% of the Rafale assembly line to India, the possibility of India opting for more Rafales to be made in India in future cannot be ruled out. That would be a major booster not just for IAF but also for the ‘Make in India’ policy.

What Next After TEJAS Deal Is Signed?

The CCS clearance for 83 TEJAS MK-IA is expected to be followed by another major deal clearance in the months to come. As per reports, Indian Government is also set to clear the acquisition of 56 C-295 transport aircraft for IAF. This deal has been hanging in balance for quite some time, and when cleared, 16 of the crafts would be made in Spain while the rest would be made in India by the Tatas, which would be another major boost for ‘Make in India’ program of PM Modi. However, the focus right now would be on the signing of the deal for 83 TEJAS MK-IA. The possibility of clearance of another supplementary deal for 15 Light Combat Helicopters (LCH) also remains high.

HAL Now Would Have To Deliver: No Ifs And Buts

The onus now therefore is on HAL to deliver. It can no longer take excuses of not having sufficient orders in its order book. It will have to deliver the TEJAS MK-IA, and deliver on time without the associated irritations of time overrun, cost overrun and deficiency in quality. For India, the problem has not as much been with the prototypes developed by DRDO or other agencies, but with consistency of quality when that product is put into series production by state-owned enterprises. Time and cost overrun coupled with questions on quality have been a norm than an exception. But with the private sector breathing down its neck, India’s state-owned enterprises do no longer have any choice but to deliver cutting edge products or else be left behind in the race.

Developing A Resilient Aerospace Supply Chain

A key aspect of PM Modi’s Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan has been to develop a resilient supply chain within the country for both components and sub-components. The Light Combat Aircraft program would be a huge boost for development of that supply chain in the aerospace sector. Already, for the executing offset obligations for Rafale deal, Dassault and its tier-1 vendors like Safran, Thales and MBDA have been collaborating with around 100 odd Indian companies for development of components and spare parts. Many of them may also be part of the TEJAS MK-IA production project.

ISRO has for long set the template and created a seamless collaborative approach with several Indian private sector companies for its space programs. Given India’s industrial proficiency, it should not have been a major problem for India to develop a vibrant domestic aerospace and defence industry. If there were policy lacunae that inhibited their progress in the past, then most of them have now been addressed.

Major Big-Ticket Programs Awaiting Under 'Make In India' Policy

In the coming months and years, some more big-ticket defence deals would see the light of the day, including the deal for Advanced Towed Artillery Gun Systems (ATAGS) in which DRDO is partnering Bharat Forge and TATA Power SED, Project 75I submarines, AK-103 rifles, Naval Utility Helicopters and armed drones.

In most of these cases, Indian private sectors would be playing a key role. With India opting for ban on import of 101 defence items, the TEJAS MK IA would invariably be a test case for India’s domestic production resilience.

Politics Must Stay Away From India's Aerospace Development & Military Preparedness Program

In the run up to the general elections in 2019, a vicious campaign was started by India’s leading opposition party on India opting for direct acquisition of 36 Rafale jets from France. Rahul Gandhi had stated, “The strategy of the government is to weaken HAL, do not give it money and destroy India’s strategic capability and give a gift to Anil Ambani.”

Eventually the fake allegations on Anil Ambani getting contracts to make Rafale were nullified as India was directly buying from France and not a single one was being made here by anyone. Also, Anil Ambani-owned Reliance Defence got a mere three per cent of Rs 30,000 crore offset contracts of Rafale deal. Yet political disinformation campaigns continued but did not help Congress win 2019 elections. It got routed.

Now with HAL getting the largest aerospace contract from Government of India, what would Rahul Gandhi say? Would he retract his statement that Government of India is weakening HAL? Had for decades, successive India Governments not kept Indian private sector at bay and allowed PSUs to imbibe themselves in complacency, India would not have ended up with seventy per cent dependence on imports for defence requirements. Now PM Modi-led NDA government is changing all of that and Indian private sector must be encouraged. The Defence PSUs know that they would now have to perform, or just perish.