Winning: The Tejas Tragedy

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February 12, 2021: The Indian Air Force and government have reached a compromise on the dispute over using the locally made Tejas LCA (Light Combat Aircraft). The government will get its way and approved a $6.5 billion purchase of the last 83 Tejas fighters to be built. The air force will accept them, mainly because the government admitted that air force criticisms of the Tejas were accurate and agreed to have an improved Tejas 1A model developed and to address some of the most serious deficiencies of the original Tejas 1. The order will be the last for the original Tejas as a new Tejas 2 is being developed that is supposed to address all of the air force problems with Tejas 1 and is to be ready for service as the last of the Tejas 1As are delivered in the mid-2020s. Because the Tejas 1 was such a well-publicized failure Tejas 2 will receive a new name before it begins production.

The struggle over Tejas 1 came to a head in 2017 when the air force publicly criticized the LCA project and did so using very blunt comparisons with comparable foreign fighters after having an opportunity to try out LCA against two foreign competitors. For example, the LCA has endurance of 59 minutes per sortie versus two hours for the Swedish Gripen Jas-39 or the U.S. F-16. The payload of LCA is three tons versus six tons for Gripen and seven tons for the F-16. Worst of all LCA was found to be less reliable and required twenty hours of maintenance for each flight hour versus six hours for the Gripen and 3.5 hours for the F-16.

The Indian Air Force also noted that only four of 123 production models of the LCA already on order had been delivered and it would be years, if ever, for the all these problems to be fixed. The Gripen and F-16 were being offered as cheaper and more effective substitutes for the LCA. The Indian Air Force backed the foreign fighters but the Indian defense procurement bureaucracy insisted on the LCA and had the backing of the Indian political establishment, which gains votes and legal fund-raising opportunities via this “Buy Indian No Matter What” policy. The politicians seem to feel that as long as Indian maintains its nuclear deterrent (ballistic missiles that can hit Pakistani or Chinese cities with nuclear warheads), backing less effective locally made weapons is worth the ill-will from the military. The air force implied that this policy means that the government is justifying the needless loss of pilots and aircraft because the enemy has superior aircraft. Pakistan, for example, uses the American F-16 while China is buying or building modern fighter designs from Russia and is now developing its own.

The Tejas tragedy is not an isolated case. The army has been forced to use inferior locally made assault weapons and helicopters. Billions are regularly spent on locally developing new missile and ship technologies that don’t work and even if they did, would be less effective and more expensive than foreign designs the army and navy deem essential for India’s defense needs.

A major part of the problem with LCA was the Indian developed Kaveri jet engine. This is another procurement disaster all by itself. The continued delays in delivering Kaveri meant foreign engines had to be obtained. In early 2017 India was once more forced to buy more (99) American F414 jet engines for $8.1 million each. These were for the LCAs on order. The Swedish Gripen also uses the F414. Eventually, most of the LCAs built will be powered by the Kaveri but in the meantime the Indian engine is stuck in development hell. The F414s will substitute only until the Kaveri is ready, which means using the F414 will used for all the LCAs because the Kaveri never seems to be ready. This is a big problem and the Indian Air Force does not want to suffer perpetual shortages of modern fighters because of it. In 2008 the Kaveri was dropped as a necessity for Tejas and in 2010 the Tejas design underwent a major design change with a joint development deal made with a French engine manufacturer. In effect, the French agreed to sell India engine tech for designs already in production in another effort to save Kaveri. India made a similar deal with a British engine manufacturer for the next generation Indian engine and, for the moment, is abandoning the goal of developing all that tech in India. This new Anglo-Indian engine is to be used in Tejas 2. The politicians find expensive imported tech more acceptable than saving money to just import the items it needs and cannot produce yet.

The F414 is not the first effort to get foreign help for the Kaveri mess. Back in 2015 India made arrangements with French engine manufacturer Snecma to provide technical assistance in fixing the Kaveri. That did not work out and more recently another French engine maker, Safran offered to help. Critics in the Indian air force asserted that help from Snecma would not save the ill-fated Kaveri engine program. But the government apparently believes that it is necessary for India to acquire the ability to design and build world class jet engines, whatever the cost. Only a few nations can do this, and India wants to be one of them by any means necessary. Despite decades of effort the Kaveri is still far from ready for production. It is not politically correct to admit that it is political decisions that cause the problems.

When work began on the Kaveri, in the mid-1980s, it was believed that the LCA would be ready for flight testing by 1990. A long list of technical delays put off that first flight until 2001. Corners had to be cut to make this happen, for the LCA was originally designed to use the Indian built Kaveri engine and the engine was not ready. For a jet fighter the engine is the most complex component and the Kaveri made that painfully obvious. Fortunately, there was an American engine, the GE F404 that fit the LCA, and could be used as a stop-gap. Initially India bought 30 of the F404s just to keep the LCA going. The F414 is a more recent model of the F404 and has 15 percent more thrust and was used for the latest version of LCA, which was supposed to get an improved Kaveri engine.

It wasn’t until 2017 that LCA was ready, or declared ready, to enter mass production. At that point six prototypes and sixteen pre-production models were flying. Mass production of at least 20 aircraft a year was to begin, no matter what, in 2017. Or at least that was the plan. The reality was that the Indian firm (HAL) manufacturing LCA could only produce eight a year and when that became a public scandal it was announced that other Indian firms were being brought in to help out. But even with a second plant, annual production would only be 16 aircraft a year by 2019. Meanwhile the air force pointed out that they had received development and production models of the LCA over the years and none of them performed as promised while the Gripen and especially the F-16 had extensive success with users, including neighboring Pakistan.

The Indian effort to design, develop, and manufacture its own "lightweight fighter" turned into a major and persistent disaster. It was a valuable and very expensive learning experience. Meanwhile, the 1970s era American F-16 had become the premier "lightweight fighter" in service and began joining squadrons about the time India came up with the LCA project. Both the earlier models of the F-16 and the LCA weigh about 12-13 tons. But the F-16 is a high-performance aircraft, with a proven combat record, while the LCA is sort of an improved Mirage/MiG-21 type design. LCA is, on paper, not too shabby and cheap, at about half the cost of an F-16. Also, for all this time, money, and grief India has made its aviation industry a bit more capable and mature. But not yet competitive with Western or Chinese firms.

For all this, India only planned to buy 200-300 LCA 1s, mainly to replace its aging MiG-21s, plus more if the navy could be persuaded to make the LCA works on carriers. Export prospects were dim, given all the competition out there, especially with all the cheap, second-hand F-16s on the market. The delays led the air force to look around for a hundred or so new aircraft, or even used F-16s, to fill the gap between elderly MiG-21s falling apart and the arrival of the new LCAs. The air force did believe that, in a decade or two a replacement for the LCA will probably be a more competitive, and timely, aircraft. That is what the LCA 2 is supposed to be.

The Indian Navy quickly (in 2014) rejected the LCA as a carrier-based aircraft. The navy bought some and they were a very obvious failure when tested on a carrier. The navy LCAs were to be navalized with stronger landing gear, a tail hook, and different cockpit electronics. That wasn’t enough and the navy refused to take the Tejas under any conditions. The navy did agree to test the improved Tejas 1A and seriously consider the Tejas 2.

The Tejas 1A has better electronics, including an AESA radar and a modern “glass cockpit”. There are also better defensive electronics and the ability to carry an ECM (electronic countermeasures) pod. There is also a superior fire control system. Modifications were made to the airframe to improve maneuverability. Tejas 1A had inflight refueling to help with the short endurance of Tejas 1.

Tejas 2 is a 17.5-ton aircraft compared to 13.5 tons for Tejas 1. While Tejas 1 can carry 5.3 tons of weapons, Tejas two can carry 6.5 tons. Tejas 2 has a top speed of Mach 2 compared to Mach 1.6. Tejas 2 has three times the combat range and more than twice the endurance. Some basic changes in the airframe, compared to similar Tejas 1, make Tejas 2 more maneuverable. An effort is being made to reduce the maintenance times required for Tejas 2.

 


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