HAL Tejas : India’s long quest for “Self Reliance” in fighter aircrafts
On 13th Jan 2021, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) finally cleared the purchase of 83 Tejas MK1A fighters. Which finally brought to fruition a program which had started back in 1983. However India’s quest for an indigenous fighter aircraft goes way back as the 1950’s to the HAL “HF-24 Marut”. In fact, the Marut was the first jet engine powered fighter aircraft tested and productionized by any Asian country.
HAL HF-24 Marut
To provide some context, after Independence we were heavily reliant on western countries for aircrafts. Between 1947–62 , India would go on and acquire 230 Vampires (License produced in India from U.K.), 104 Ouragon (French), 182 Hunters (U.K.), 80 Canberras (U.K.), 110 Mysteres (France) and U.S made 55 Fairchild Packets (Indian Soviet Military Review by P.R Chari). Thus, a need was felt in 1955, to develop a supersonic multirole fighter aircraft made and designed in India which would be suitable for high altitude interception and low level ground attack. However, to expect that we could develop such a fighter in India, without any requisite expertise or the Industrial base needed for such a development was audacious to say the least. Thus, we went overseas looking for talent and were successful in roping in German engineer Dr Kurt Tank to build the fighter aircraft for India after his stint in Argentina. The fighter would be named the HF-24 Marut and would soon take its first flight in 1961, entering production by 1967. It would also give a very impressive account of itself in the 1971 war. However, the Marut would never live up to its full potential.
Lack of a suitable Engine
While the fighter was being designed, it was based around the expected availability of a 3700 kgf or 36KN afterburning Bristol Siddeley (later Rolls Royce) Orpheus engine which the British planned to develop, the company reportedly asked the Indian government for £1,500,000 to develop the engine, which was further reduced down to £ 300,000. The government however rejected this offer along with another offer from Snecma for the Atar 9 turbojet used by Mirage 3 and Mirage 5 (Self Reliance and Self Sufficiency: Experience of the India Aircraft Industry by Ravindra Tomar). This short sighted and myopic decision would eventually plague the program forever. We instead decided to buy six Tumansky RD-9F engines from the Soviets in 1961 which had powered the Mig-19, RD-9F had the required thrust needed for the Marut, however it was rejected on technical grounds. Without a suitable engine, we had to power the fighter with the underpowered Orpheus 703 engine which the IAF was using on the Folland Gnat. Originally designed to be a supersonic fighter with a speed of Mach 2 , the best the Marut could achieve was 0.93 Mach owing to the Orpheus engines. We would subsequently try to put the Brandner E-300 engine on the fighter but even that didn’t work. By the 1970’s, a few more opportunities presented itself however we just couldn’t work out a suitable engine. Subsequently, with the induction of fighters like the Jaguar and Mig-23/27, the Marut program had an untimely end. The reason for bringing up the Marut and its troubles with finding a suitable engine is because we would commit a similar mistake during the Tejas program.
Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Program
In early 1980’s there was a realization that the Mig-21 fleet would be nearing retirement by the mid 1990’s, therefore there was a need to find a suitable low cost replacement for the Mig-21. This gave genesis to the LCA program as we know it. The ASR (Air staff requirement) for the program listed out an indigenous aircraft with fly by wire flight control systems, multi-mode pulse doppler radar and an afterburning turbofan engine developed in India. Just like the Marut program these requirements were very ambitious as none of these technologies were present in India. We must also consider that there was a huge technological gap which had developed between from the time India developed the Marut in the early 1960’s to the time we decided to go ahead with the LCA program. Similar to the Marut Program, we set very ambitious expectations on the program without the requisite expertise or the Industrial base for such a program. Also, without a foreign OEM partner as part of the development would also contribute to delays we would have in the Tejas program.
In hindsight, our approach when the program initially started was correct, as we did approach foreign OEMs for help. We initially got design inputs from MBB (Germany) , Dassault (France) , BAE (U.K.) and Dornier (Germany) before finally choosing to go ahead with Dassault. This was also the time , we had just inducted the Mirage 2000 from Dassault ( an aircraft much loved by the IAF) and that might have influenced our decision. Ericsson from Sweden was approached to help in development of the Radar. Also, realizing that we do not have a suitable engine, we approached the west and initially the engine for the Tejas was supposed to be the Turbo Union RB-199 which had powered the Panavia Tornado, subsequently as relations with the United States warmed up, a political decision was taken to replace the RB-199 with the American GE-404 engine ( The Indian Arms Industry: A lumbering Giant ? by Amit Gupta 1990). Dassault also offered to collaborate with India for the FBW technology which they were also developing for the Rafale at the time, however again a decision was taken to get the same from Martin Marietta Control Systems (USA). Air Marshal Philip Rajkumar points out in his book, that this particular decision over the FBW would eventually result in Dassault walking out of the project. Without the technical expertise of an experienced manufacturer like Dassault, it would eventually add over a decade to the development of the Tejas. Therefore, had Dassault still been a development Partner, its possible that we could have had the Tejas by the end of the 1990’s. This is also important to note, as after Pokhran-II tests, the Americans would sanction us and further delay the development of the Tejas, whereas the French actually supported India on its decision.
While the initial batches of engines were to come from GE , a decision was taken to build an indigenous engine called “Kaveri” which would be lead by Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE) with an initial budget of just 382 crores (most jet engines programs require billions of dollars), we also set approximately 7 years as the planned completion date. Now, with such a small allocation of funds with zero expertise in building Jet engines, we should have known better and gone in for a collaboration. Did we not learn from the Marut Program ? Now, let us be clear, no one would give up the IP to their engines, however countries would be willing to collaborate on a new engine if you are willing to put up the money. I guess a case did exist to approach either Snecma or RR for an engine collaboration back in the 80’s. We must not forget that we were using Adour MK811 Rolls Royce Turbomeca engines in our Jaguar and the M53 on the recently inducted Mirage 2000.
Though, I’m inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to the government, as that was the India of the 1980’s, when finding partners for high end technology was difficult. Unlike today, when RR and Safran are willing to partner with India.
For over 30 years, We huffed and puffed, but unfortunately couldn’t get the Kaveri engine productionized as it still was not able to meet the complete thrust requirements. Is the Kaveri program a failure? The verdict is still not out on that. We will have to wait. Though, some sense seems to be finally prevailing within the government, as they are finally considering to go in for a joint development with a foreign OEM ( Safran or RR) to develop a fighter jet engine. Alas, If we ever want to see an indigenous engine that works, a collaboration with Safran or RR is the only way we will see it.( Just my opinion)
Likewise, a similar story followed our radar development. With its development getting delayed, we went in for an Israeli Radar as a stop gap arrangement till our indigenous radars were developed. Though, there is encouraging news that the indigenous development of an AESA radar is finally taking shape and we might see the later batches of Tejas MK1A with an indigenous AESA radar.
Now, I completely support all our indigenous programs for the engine , radar , FBW etc. However, linking it to the Tejas program might explain the time it took to get the fighter operational. Maybe, the aim should have been to get the Tejas operational first to maintain our squadron strength and then carry out these sub-system programs as a parallel development.
This is also an important question to ask as it is because of the delay in induction of the Tejas that we first had to upgrade our Mig-21 fleet to the Bison standard and then a fleet wide upgrade of all our fighter platforms, and not to mention the genesis of the MMRCA program is also linked with the Tejas Program.
Lessons from JF-17
It is curious to note that JF17 program started more than a decade after our LCA program but the Pakistani’s were able to get it operational before we could.
So what did they get right ?
Firstly, they were quick to realize that they can’t build a fighter aircraft alone and thus decided to partner with the Chinese.
Secondly, the realization that they neither had the expertise or the resources to develop the sub systems which go into a fighter aircraft like the Radar , Engine , Missiles etc. Thus, from the beginning, they relied on the Chinese and Russians to support on the sub systems. Completely eliminating the need to develop these in-house.
Thirdly, a strong focus on inducting the fighter as quickly as possible to meet their immediate operational requirements even if the fighter did not meet all the requirements of their Air force. So even if the Block 1 Jf-17 was underwhelming when first inducted, they have been able to make up the ground with the latest Block 3 variant of the fighter.
Why I strongly support the Tejas Program
Even though it has taken up over 3 decades, I’m a strong supporter of the Tejas and all other indigenous programs. I just can’t understand the venom people spew towards the Tejas. Thankfully, a lot of the fallacies around the Tejas have already been debunked by some analysts. My verdict is that its a great fighter and has a lot of potential not just for the IAF but also in the export market. At the same time, we must also acknowledge that the future of the Indian Airforce lies is Indigenous development as we literally cannot survive on imports
People also forget that the Tejas was supposed to be a replacement for the Mig-21. So, is it better than the Mig-21? Of course it is!
Mig-21 is a capable dog fighter and an interceptor. But the Tejas is a multi role 4th generation fighter. I would have the Tejas over the Mig 21 any day.
Also, at $43 million dollars, it is one of the most affordable fighters with its capabilities out there. There exists no fighter which gives the bang for the buck that we get from the Tejas . Period!
Need any proof on why imports won’t work?
Its down to pure economics. Lets take the IAF, who have declared that it needs to maintain a fleet of 42 squadrons of fighter aircrafts ( preferably all 4th /5th generation). Depending on how you calculate the number of fighters in a squadron this would roughly translate to close to 700 fighter aircrafts. We would also need 250+ trainers , 1000+ helicopters, 250+ transport aircraft etc.
This alone translates to over 2000+ aircrafts, and it does not even include the hundreds of drones which we will need in the future. Can we import 2000+ units of imported platforms? Are we serious? Have we forgotten the fortune we paid to get the Rafale?
India is not a small island nation in the middle of nowhere who can survive on getting a small fleet of platform via imports. Our geography is our reality, we have 2 big adversaries in the neighborhood who are very hostile to India. We need to have a powerful armed forces equipped with the best of weaponry and that too in huge numbers to guard our skies, land borders and seas.
I will rest my case by also pointing out the long term gains of having a robust indigenous program. We need not look far. Just look at the ALH Dhruv, a program which also started in the 1980’s and had a lot of problems to begin with and was very much criticized. But we persisted, and because of the learnings from the Dhruv, we were subsequently able to develop the RUDRA, LCH, LUH and are well on our way to develop the IMRH
Likewise, with the learnings from the MK1 program , we were able to develop the MK1A . MK2 is now on the anvil and we are now even confident of pulling of the AMCA and TEDBF in quick time.
If we want to go ahead with the MMRCA and buy more Rafale, I have absolutely no problem with that, however do not stop the indigenous programs. It will be a tragedy if we stop at the prototyping stage and do not productionize these fighters. These indigenous programs desperately need big orders from the IAF which will also facilitate in its exports.
Lets put our money where our mouth is, Make in India all the way!!!