“The Tejas is an old design. It has taken 32 long years to develop! And despite being in development for so long, it isn’t truly indigenous. Its heart, the engine, is of foreign origin. So are its weapons and some avionics. Furthermore, it is so deficient in its performance, that the Indian Air Force (IAF) wants Rafales/Su-30MKIs/F-16s instead.”
Whenever the Tejas achieves some important milestone, these criticisms are repeated ad nauseum, in the popular media, on Twitter, on internet forums, and at bhel-puri stalls in Jhumritalaiyya. It’s infuriating to see an effort of this magnitude, one that has produced many successes, being panned time and again. So I’ve taken the liberty to put together this handy-dandy LCA Tejas mythbusting guide to counter them.
False Argument 1: The Tejas is “late”. It has been under development for 32 years!
The figure is technically true, but deprives the narrative of much-needed context. The Tejas’ origins can indeed be traced back to 1983, when the concept of a Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) was conceived. However, the IAF did not finalise its air staff requirements (ASRs) until 1985 and initial funding did not come through until 1986. The project definition phase — the phase in which technical requirements are defined and a conceptual design prepared did not end until 1988. The final design was completed in 1990. Full funding was issued only in 1993, after which the development of a prototype commenced in earnest. See this list of milestones for reference.
Following several years of delay in the development process — delays that can at least partly be traced back to overly optimistic R&D timeline projections, scope creep, and US sanctions on India following the 1998 nuclear tests — the Tejas had its first flight in 2001. From then, the project proceeded at a pace that is not too different that of comparable fighter aircraft development programmes worldwide. It is slated to achieve final operational clearance (FOC), the stage at which an aircraft is considered fully ready for squadron service, in early 2017; fifteen years from the date of the first flight. At this time, the it is expected to be ready to carry out multiple functions: beyond visual range (BVR) air-to-air combat, short-range dogfighting, and precision ground attack with a variety of guided and unguided weaponry.
That compares well with contemporary fourth-generation fighters like the Eurofighter Typhoon and the JAS-39 Gripen. The first technology demonstrator of what would later be called the Typhoon first flew in 1986. The definitive version with an AESA radar is still not in service today, 30 years down the line. The Tranche-2 version, which can drop precision bombs and fire BVR missiles, wasn’t available until 2008. Another European fighter, the Swedish Gripen-C, with full-spectrum capabilities, started entering service in 2002, also fourteen years after its first flight.
The Tejas is about to FOC with all of these capabilities in late 2016. The fact that ADA managed to achieve similar or better timelines with the Tejas after its first flight, that too without the benefit of half a century of experience in building advanced fighters or the industrial ecosystem that enables such high-technology to proceed swiftly, is an achievement that is not given enough credit.
False Argument 2: Because of the inordinate delays in development, the Tejas is now deficient.
Just because the development was delayed doesn’t mean that the design is the same one from 1983. The IAF updated its requirements quite often and kept demanding additional capabilities throughout the design and development phase. It was a Catch-22 situation: the constant change in requirements kept the design up-to-date, but it also led to several years of delays because of the need to re-design, re-test, and re-certify subsystems after every modification. To the best of the author’s knowledge, the IAF demanded the following modifications pretty late into the program:
- An open avionics architecture.
- Precision bombing capabilities.
- Heavier air-to-air missiles (R-73 vs R-60).
- Internal EW suite that included a self-protection jammer.
- Inflight refueling.
- A more capable radar (LCA Mk-1A).
With these modifications, the Tejas went from being a simple point-defence interceptor to a full-blown (albeit short-legged) multi-role fighter.
False Argument 3: The LCA falls short on several performance parameters like empty weight, range, turn rates, etc. The IAF has allowed 53 concessions/permanent waivers in the design.
Like the 32-year delay, this too is a scary looking quote that paints a false picture of how fighter aircraft programmes work.
First off, it is important to remember that the Tejas can carry out most of the tasks intended of it quite competently. It can fight other aircraft at beyond visual range (when equipped with an AESA radar and Derby/Derby-ER missiles, it could end up becoming the most capable BVR platform in IAF service). The addition of an Israeli helmet-mounted sight coupled to missiles whose seekers have a wide field of view (R-73 and Python IV/V) make it a fearsome dogfighter and compensate for minuscule shortfalls in aerodynamic performance. It can drop laser-guided bombs on ground targets with great precision. It is also very easy to fly. In the words of the IAF, the fighter’s “control harmony is comparable to the best in the world… The intuitive cockpit layout and highly reliable life support systems provide for comfort as well as excellent situational awareness.” There are many such triumphs; too many, in fact, to recount here.
Secondly, every fighter project concludes with specifications that aren’t met, or a few deficiencies in performance. It’s never that big of a roadblock to induction in service. And all said and done, 53 is a very small number as far as design concessions go; a pretty small portion of the entire range of capabilities. Even simpler aircraft (like the C-17) enter service with more deficiencies. These are either compensated with using improvements in other areas to offset performance shortfalls, or accepted in the interest of availability for combat.
Again, I shall go back to the Eurofighter Typhoon to illustrate my point. Remember I mentioned that it first flew in 1986? Twenty-two years later, it couldn’t independently drop a laser-guided bomb on a target with any precision. Basic BVR combat capability was not available until Tranche 2 models were procured in 2008, 14 years after the first flight. Even in close air combat, its capabilities were decidedly limited. The helmet mounted sight (HMS) — a system that allows the pilot to cue weapons onto an enemy aircraft by simply turning his head and offers a quantum jump in dogfighting capabilities — did not enter service until 2010.
The F-35 was hobbled by similar issues (and terrible program management) for several years. It didn’t begin to turn a corner until 2012 or so, after which it began rapidly demonstrating some of the capabilities that were expected of it.
The companies running these projects were aero giants with decades of experience behind them. How then does one expect the ADA, which has never developed a fighter in its entire existence, to deliver a more capable product while experiencing fewer failures?
Thirdly, the IAF itself works with deficient designs all the time. The Gnat and Su-7, both hobbled by short ranges and limited payloads, were procured in large numbers. The MiG-21, when initially inducted, was underwhelming. Its range was limited and its missiles didn’t work. The Bison is still riddled with issues. The Jaguar had a deficient nav-attack suite. It was practically useless in the long range strike role until the IAF and HAL developed and implemented the DARIN upgrades. The MiG-27’s navigation system never performed satisfactorily, and its reliability was terrible. But none of this troubled the IAF. Why then is the LCA failing to achieve a handful design parameters something to raise a huge hue and cry about?
False Argument 4(a): The LCA isn’t really indigenous. Many of its subsystems are of foreign origin.
But many more of its critical subsystems are of Indian origin too! The first one that comes to mind is the carbon-fibre composite airframe. It is a very high-end product that reduces weight (thus permitting the carriage of a substantial external payload), aids maintenance, brings down manufacturing time, and so on. The fact that some of the technology involved in its manufacture has been exported to Airbus is a testament to its success.
Another example is the digital fly-by-wire (FBW) system, developed from scratch by ADA scientists in India after their work, notes, and equipment was impounded by Lockheed Martin in 1998. No country on earth, not one, has developed such a complex system and gotten it to work perfectly on the first try. It works so well that when it was first tested on an F-16XL in the US (this was before the nuclear tests) it improved the test-bed’s handling qualities in several flight regimes. There is a reason the Tejas’ test pilots call the aircraft a pleasure to fly.
There are many other examples. The avionics. The mission computers. The navigation equipment, displays, and human-machine interface. The EW systems. This stuff isn’t trivial by any yardstick.
Now coming to the foreign components aboard the aircraft. With the exception of the Americans, and to an extent the Russians, every country has used foreign subsystems extensively in its aircraft designs. The Gripen has an American engine, a British airframe design, Swiss carbon-fibre, an Italian radar, an American flight control system, a cockpit with critical components purchased from Britain, and so on. This in spite of the Swedes having an industrial base that is far more advanced than India’s and extensive experience developing cold-war fighters such as the Draken and Gripen. The Rafale and Typhoon both use American ejection seats. Their flight control system uses actuators from Moog, an American company. The Russians were buying Damocles pods for the Su-35s before the French stopped military exports after they invaded Crimea. Nearly every Chinese fighter in service today uses a Russian engine, a Russian ejection seat, and a slew of Russian weaponry. If these aircraft all qualify as “indigenous”, then surely the Tejas does too?
The choice that Indian design agencies faced was quite stark: should they have tried to build every little component in-house, thus reinventing the wheel at every step? Or used technologies/sub-systems available easily in the market in the initial stages and then made an attempt to indigenise over the life-cycle of the product? It’s obvious that the latter was the more sensible path to take.
In the final analysis, the Tejas is an aircraft that has been designed by Indians in India, and is tailored to Indian requirements. If that doesn’t make it indigenous, I don’t know what does.
False Argument 4(b): Okay, I get that. But the aircraft’s very heart, its engine, is fully imported! Surely it’s an utter failure on that front?
Yes and no. It has had a very protracted development cycle, and for good reason. A jet engine is arguably represents the pinnacle of modern technology, making it the most challenging system in the world to develop from scratch. It has to produce ungodly amounts of power for its size and operate at the very edge of what physics allows. The GE F404 — which ended up replacing the Kaveri on the LCA — weighs just a shade over 1000 kg and develops close to 80 kN of wet thrust. Assuming that it propels the LCA to Mach 0.9 at sea level (1,100 km/h), it’s developing about 24,400 kW or 32,700 hp. That’s 32 hp per kg. In contrast, a Formula-1 car engine generates “only” 8 or 9 hp per kg, and it’s about as far as one can get with piston engines.
What does it take to generate so much power? One needs critical components like turbine blade assemblies that see inlet temperatures of 1,400°C or so while being subject to extreme forces. A back-of-the envelope calculation using rectally extracted figures tells me that a single high pressure turbine blade weighing 50 gm, and rotating at 16,000 RPM at the end of a 500 mm diameter disk, will be subject to a centrifugal force of about 3,500 kgf. Imagine two Honda Civics hanging off a tiny blade that is about as large as two of your fingers held together. There is a transverse load component as well; the 80 kN of thrust is distributed over the turbine blades.
In order to sustain such loads, exotic materials and precision manufacturing techniques are required. Steel melts at about 1400°C, and starts rapidly losing strength at less than 500°C, so it’s obviously not an option. Modern engines instead use nickel-based superalloys. Moreover, the material can’t simply be cast or forged or machined into shape. The blade has to be produced via directional solidification or grown out of a single crystal in what looks more like a lab than a production shop. The shape, too, is very intricate. There are internal channels that route cold air taken from the compressor to the surface of the blade to keep it cool.
The fan, compressor, combustor, gearbox assemblies, bearings … they’re just as complex. And they all have to be precision manufactured to ensure that microscopic imbalances don’t end up leading to excessive vibrations that could end up destroying the engine and the aircraft while in flight. Then there are requirements like safety, fuel efficiency, minimum total technical life, and reliability that add multiple layers of complexity to the design.
Now imagine the magnitude of effort required to develop something like this, with practically zero infrastructure and very little in terms of a pre-existing knowledge base. And with skinflint bureaucrats refusing to approve requests for funding, test equipment, or manufacturing tools without documentation being submitted in triplicate and subject to audit after audit.
Now let us talk costs. The GTRE spent Rs. 2,000 crore, or approximately $640 million in equivalent US dollars (with all the exchange rate and inflation variations that happened between 1989 and now taken into account), on developing the Kaveri. This seems like a lot, until you see that advanced nations spend billions on such programmes, and they almost never develop clean-sheet designs. They are always building on existing knowledge and existing designs.
Jeff Immelt, the CEO of GE says, “If you could make something with 60 people in a garage, GE shouldn’t be doing it. But if you make a jet engine, there’s only like one and a half people in the world that can make a jet engine. And we are really good at that. If you want to compete with that, you’ve got to put yourself on a wayback machine and go back 25 years and invest $1 billion here for 25 years and then maybe, just maybe [emphasis mine], you’re going to be able to compete with us.”
Think about that for a second. It requires 25 years. And a billion dollars. And then too, you’re more likely to fail than succeed.
The Chinese have been pouring money and espionage resources into their jet engine development efforts (they have budgeted 300 billion yuan — about 45 billion in today’s US dollars — over the next 20 years on engine programs alone), and are still facing significant hurdles. Why do people feel that India would get significant results by spending just a few thousand crores?
There are civilian spin-offs too. For example, Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL) now uses the investment casting technology developed by GTRE for manufacturing blades for gas turbines used in power generation.
False Argument 5: In a globalised world, there is no point re-inventing the wheel. The IAF should simply dump it and buy the Gripen/F-16/MiG-35
What is true for cell phones or cars isn’t true for military equipment. In the long run, in peace and in war, the IAF would be best served by fielding fighters designed and built in India. That’s the only way it will equip itself with a large fleet on a (relatively) small budget. There are other advantages to developing the technology in-house: less dependence on foreign suppliers, leading to increased strategic independence. Creation of a stronger local economy and industrial ecosystem. The freedom to tinker with the design and optimise it to suit local requirements without running afoul of IP agreements with the OEM. Spin-offs in the civilian world. And so on and so forth. And if going indigenous is indeed the way forward, then the IAF will have to live with fielding under-performing/problematic designs at the beginning. It will have to make peace with the fact that aerospace R&D is a slow, painful process that is fraught with risk.
That’s how practically everyone else did it. The Chinese did not seek out the latest and greatest toy because their initial designs (Q-5, JH-7, J-8, J-10) failed to match up to what the US, Japan, and India fielded. If the J-10B and J-20 are flying today, it is only because the PLAAF and PLAN flew inferior aircraft for decades while their industrial capabilities matured. As it is, the Tejas program’s achievements have been quite impressive: the country has developed a fourth-generation fighter that is as good as the Gripen-C from scratch. It uses more home-grown technology than the Gripen does; including such critical subsystems like the digital flight control system, the composite airframe, a large portion of the avionics, etc. Many of these have been applied to the IAF’s legacy aircraft as upgrade packages. To throw it all away because of a handful of challenges here and there or because Lockheed or Boeing are offering to transfer their manufacturing lines to India would be incredibly, utterly stupid. If the Tejas is cancelled, we will have a repeat of the same thirty-year saga the next time India tries to build her own fighter.