Although several major air forces like France, Germany and the US are still inducting or ordering fourth-generation fighters, their capabilities and threats are distinct from India’s

On 13 January 2021, the Cabinet Committee on Security finally cleared the long-pending acquisition of 73 improved TEJAS Light Combat Aircraft MK-1A fighters along with ten TEJAS MK-1 trainers. This Rs 45,696 crore (US$ 6.25 billion) program marks a rare high point for the beleaguered thirty-year program, which has suffered through significant development and production delays, and seen no new orders since the Indian Air Force committed to inducting forty aircraft back in 2005.

The TEJAS MK-1A variant dates back to 2015, when the IAF, unhappy with the state of the program, agreed to an upgraded TEJAS that would improve on the TEJAS MK-1 that had just achieved Initial Operating Capability (IOC), by adding a new electronically-scanned active array radar, updated avionics, electronic warfare capability, all accompanied by only minor structural changes. This would, at least on paper, be delivered more quickly and cheaply than a comprehensive redesign around a new engine and aerodynamic configuration, which would result in effectively an all-new jet (the TEJAS MK-2).

The MK-1A program was given formal sanction by the MoD’s Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) in November 2016 at a projected cost of Rs 50,000 crore, the essential first step toward an actual contract. After the TEJAS MK-1 achieved Final Operating Capability (FOC), albeit with certain waivers in 2019, the procurement of the improved MK-1A became all but certain. In March 2020, the DAC approved a revised figure of Rs 37,000 crore (US$ 5.05 billion) for 83 TEJAS MK-1A.

Death By Taxes

One of the discrepancies immediately highlighted after the MoD’s announcement was the approximately Rs 8,600 crore (US$ 1.17 billion) difference between what the CCS cleared and the figure approved by the DAC last year. The headline price immediately led to a chorus of disbelief about what appeared to be an average cost of Rs 548 crore (US$ 75 million) per aircraft, resulting in unwarranted comparisons with more capable aircraft such as the Su-30MKI. Lack of transparency in defence spending only damages institutional credibility, in addition to hurting the sales prospects of the TEJAS beyond its domestic customer.

What should have been made clear up front was that the contract also includes a large fixed cost component, including development expenditures as well as a Performance Based Logistics (PBL) arrangement. The unit price of the TEJAS MK-1A under the present deal is some Rs 384 crore (US$ 52.5 million). The escalation from the March 2020 figure is accounted for mainly by variations in foreign currency exchange rates, as well as 18 percent in taxes.

HAL’s Game To Lose

In its announcement, the Defence Ministry was keen to highlight that this is the first procurement under the ‘Buy (Indian-Indigenously Designed, Developed and Manufactured)’ category, starting at an indigenous content of 50 percent, with a plan to increase that to 60 percent by the end of the program. Beyond the obvious fillip to the fortunes of state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), the MoD also played up benefits to “about 500 Indian companies, including MSMEs” that are part of the industrial ecosystem for the TEJAS MK-1A.

After years of insinuation, some subtle and some not, that the IAF was lacking in commitment to the indigenous TEJAS program, this order, the largest single procurement of modern combat aircraft in the last thirty years (by value as well as quantity) firmly inverts the conversation. Even the Su-30MKI, presently the most numerous in-service fighter with a total of 272 aircraft ordered over the years, was contracted in small batches of 30-40 aircraft at a time.

The ball is now in HAL’s court to deliver on time and as promised. It is worth noting for the record the DPSU’s TEJAS order book and production record thus far. Until this month, HAL was to produce two batches of TEJAS MK-1 — one IOC batch of 16 single-seat fighters and four trainers, and one FOC batch of 16 fighters and four trainers. For various reasons, the two batches of fighters are being produced back to back, and will be followed by the combined eight trainers from both lots, built to a single unified (FOC) standard. The 16 IOC aircraft made their first flights between October 2014 and March 2019. This makes for an average build rate of about 3.5 aircraft per year, although technically no TEJASs were flown in 2015, while six were built in 2018. A year after the final IOC jet had flown, the first FOC Tejas flew in March 2020, allowing for the raising of a second TEJAS squadron co-located with the first and sharing its resources. The rest of the year 2020 was, for obvious reasons, a difficult one. Beyond pandemic-related slowdowns, the build rate suffered as HAL had to work to resolve certain outstanding issues related to design and production of the airframes.

Nevertheless, with an installed capacity of between eight and twelve aircraft annually, HAL has never built TEJASs at the maximum possible rate. In the past, the small order book of 40 jets and consequential supply chain difficulties were used to explain the glacial pace of production, but these arguments fail to account for the fact that delivery rates are contractual and that HAL’s own performance in 2018 shows that a high build rate is indeed possible — the issue is clearly in maintaining a consistent output.

None of these arguments hold water any longer. HAL’s TEJAS backlog has ballooned, and now stands at 105 aircraft across variants — 14 FOC jets, eight trainers from the first order, 10 from the most recent order, and the 73 MK-1A fighters themselves. In fact, the nature of the MK-1A contract actually buys HAL significant breathing room in the form of the 10 trainers. These aircraft are identical to the eight already under contract, and production will likely be planned in such a way that the trainers are delivered first, even if it means actual MK-1A fighters roll out later. This should help minimise the impact of any development delays, as well as create something of a buffer to allow for a high initial production rate, which would quickly ramp up to the planned 16 aircraft per year. With the first MK-1As likely to be delivered around 2024-25, and accounting for a slightly reduced output early in the production run before reaching a steady 16 deliveries per year, the final MK-1As will be inducted sometime around 2029-2030.

The Fifth Generation Conundrum

This delivery timeline leads to a question centred on the IAF’s plans for the next generation of combat aircraft. Although a number of major air forces around the world are still inducting or ordering fourth-generation fighters, including France, Germany, and even the USA with a recent order for improved F-15EXs, their capabilities and threats are distinct from India’s. European air forces are not likely to face combat against enemy fifth generation aircraft any time soon, and even if they were, there are already F-35s in service with NATO and European air forces that most certainly will operate together. The USA is facing down China’s rapidly modernising and expanding air force and has large numbers of its own fifth generation F-22s and F-35s for this, in addition to the fourth-generation recapitalisation underway with the F-15EX and Super Hornet Block III. Even in Asia, Japan and Korea were quick to secure a lead on induction of fifth generation fighters, while simultaneously standing up their own domestic programs to serve longer term needs. India is unique among countries that faces a rapidly advancing fifth generation adversary in the PLAAF, yet has nothing comparable to field against it for at least a decade, if not longer.

There has already been some debate on whether there is any value in inducting new fourth-generation platforms such as the TEJAS MK-1A and MK-2 as late as 2030, and given the head start that China’s PLAAF has in this area, the issue does have merit. Nevertheless, fourth-generation platforms such as the TEJAS MK-1A and MK-2 are essential stepping stones to the eventual development and fielding of a fifth generation capability. The capability gap opening up as a result of slow progress on the domestic front is a reality the Air Force will have to live with, and adopt creative solutions to mitigate weaknesses until a credible fifth generation counter to the PLAAF can be deployed.