TEJAS MK-2’s upgraded features also make it a technological and industrial bridge to India’s fifth-generation advanced medium combat aircraft effort

In late August 2022, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) accorded full sanction to the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA)’s TEJAS MK-2 fighter project with a fresh allocation of Rs 6,500 crore. Coming some nine months after the Indian Air Force (IAF) endorsed the critical design review (CDR) of the aircraft, the CCS approval was seen as a shot in the arm for the programme which could not have progressed towards prototyping, flight trials and certification with legacy allocations. However, the time taken in according to the fresh allocation and its eventual disbursement (apparently still in process), which themselves follow a tortuous CDR approval process, has meant that the first TEJAS MK-2 prototype will be ‘rolled out’ only in 2024, delayed by over a year.

It is therefore essential that New Delhi does not compound these developmental delays by paring down the minimum order quantity for the TEJAS MK-2, towards which recent statements by the IAF brass indicate. For this will only serve to breed disinterest in the potential supply chain for the project and negatively impact production rates. New Delhi should instead throw even greater weight behind this programme, which is a low-risk high-value proposition for the future of both India’s airpower and its aerospace industry.

If there is one lesson to learn from the TEJAS MK-1 build program, it is that separate and segregated orders only lead to a very slow rate of production, leaving Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) – the lead integrator for the Mk2 as well -- unable to both source and outsource long-lead components. Typically, international suppliers gave very little priority to HAL’s paltry purchase orders, and potential domestic suppliers baulked at making the investments needed to service the same.

Given that, the IAF’s statements till a couple of years ago -- that it had a requirement for 12 TEJAS MK-2 squadrons (some 201 aircraft) -- had struck a welcome note for Indian industry since the potential order size represented sufficient economies of scale to enable better planning and faster delivery schedules. But more recent statements, including those made on the sidelines of Aero India 2023 earlier this month -- to the effect that the IAF was looking at only ‘six squadrons’ -- is likely to dampen the potential supply chain’s enthusiasm for the project which is supposed to start delivering series production units by 2028.

Worse, this would happen at a time when Western governments are stockpiling long lead-time aerospace parts and components (P&C), having learnt their lessons from the Ukraine war and pandemic-era disruptions. In fact, the need of the hour is for HAL to further reduce dependence on foreign sources and develop more domestic suppliers if it is to deliver the TEJAS MK-2 at near the same peak annual rate it has programmed for the TEJAS MK-1A, which is 16 units. Incidentally, the 83 MK-1A order received by HAL in 2021 has allowed it to increase the number of domestic private firms supplying Line Replacement Units (LRUs) and P&C to 410, up from the 344 achieved for the cumulative 40-unit TEJAS MK-1 order. A drawdown in projected TEJAS MK-2 orders would militate against the prospect of greater outsourcing by HAL, impacting the potential rate of production.