The Tejas fighter’s role in war - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Saturday 28 December 2013

The Tejas fighter’s role in war

By Ajai Shukla
HAL, Bangalore
Business Standard, 29th Dec 13

On December 20, the Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA) obtained Initial Operational Clearance (IOC), entering the Indian Air Force (IAF) fleet where regular air force pilots will fly it. After 28 years of development, the Tejas is on course to obtain its Final Operational Clearance (FOC) by end-2014, clearing it for full combat. Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) is building forty Tejas fighters for two IAF squadrons.

Questions are rightly raised about what combat role the Tejas could play, given that its specifications were framed decades ago. Sceptics argue that a fighter so light, with such a short operating range, would have little role in an aerial battlefield where bigger, heavily armed fighters call the shots.

Tejas’ capabilities

An evaluation of the Tejas’ combat capability must consider its flying performance, its avionics and the weapon load it carries. At IOC, it already flies at Mach 1.6 (2,000 kmph); operates up to 15,000 metres (50,000 feet); and carries 3,500 kg of mission payload, including weapons and sensors. Its combat radius is 300-350 km, which would be extended next year through in-flight refuelling. By FOC next year, this performance would be enhanced.

The Tejas has been designed as a multi-role fighter. It can engage enemy aircraft with the R-73 short-range air-to-air missile (SRAAM); by FOC next year, more potent air-to-air missiles, probably the Israeli Derby and Python, would be integrated. Against ground targets, the Tejas carries conventional and laser-guided bombs. Next year, it will have an integral 23 millimetre Gasha cannon.

The Tejas’ avionics --- radar, laser and inertial navigation system --- enhances the accuracy of these weapons. Its highly rated Elta EL/M-2032 multi-mode radar provides multi-role capability, allowing the pilot to fire air-to-air missiles at enemy aircraft; and also bomb ground targets with a highly accurate navigation-attack system. The pilot operates his weapons through a head-up display (HUD), or through a helmet-mounted sighting system (HMSS) by merely looking at a target. Experienced fighter pilots say the Tejas is the IAF’s most “pilot friendly” fighter.

Although it is one of the world’s lightest fighters, the Tejas’ weapons load of 3,500 kg compares well with most IAF fighters, including the Mirage-2000, Jaguar, upgraded MiG-27 and the MiG-21. Depending on the mission --- strike, photoreconnaissance, or air defence --- its eight hard points can carry missiles, bombs, fuel drop tanks or a targeting pod. It can bomb targets and fire missiles as accurately as the Sukhoi-30MKI. The latter scores mainly in its longer range and bigger weapons load, both stemming from its much larger size.

The Tejas’ capability is best known to the air force and navy test pilots in the National Flight Test Centre, who have tested it in 2,400 flights. They claim it may be more versatile than the MiG-29 (primarily built for air-to-air combat); the MiG-27 and the Jaguar (both oriented to ground strike); and all variants of the MiG-21, including the multi-role BISON.

The Tejas’ likely adversary, the Pakistan Air Force’s F-16 fighter, has a slightly larger flight envelope, but the Tejas’ superior avionics give it a combat edge over the PAF’s older F-16A/Bs (currently being upgraded in Turkey); and superior to their new JF-17 Thunder light fighter, co-developed with China. Only the PAF’s 18 new F-16C/D Block 52 fighters, flying since 2010-11 from Jacobabad, may be a match for the Tejas.

Said an NFTC test pilot during the IOC ceremony on December 20: “As a multi-role fighter, the Tejas is at least the equal of the IAF’s upgraded Mirage-2000. It can more than hold its own in our operational scenario.”

Battlefield employment

The IAF’s operational plans earlier had strike aircraft like Jaguars or MiG-27s attacking ground targets, while air defence fighters like the MiG-29 covered them from enemy aircraft. Now mission-specific aircraft are giving way to multi-role fighters, which can do both jobs. This doctrinal shift stemmed from the Mirage-2000, the IAF’s first multi-role fighter, which was inducted in the mid-1980s. The Mirage-2000 inspired the Tejas in both role and design.

Today, the IAF controls the aerial battle from airborne early warning and command (AEW&C) aircraft like the Phalcon, a giant radar mounted on a transport aircraft. Flying over the battle space and scanning 400 kilometres on all sides, the AEW&C identifies enemy aircraft and, over a secure datalink, allocates fighters from nearby bases to tackle the intruders. The AEW&C also orders up fighters to strike ground targets in the land battle.

“Tejas light fighters, located at forward airbases like Pathankot, Ambala, Sirsa or Jodhpur are ideal for missions in the vicinity of the border. They are close at hand and react quickly. Being far cheaper, they can be bought and used in larger numbers, saturating the enemy’s radar picture and complicating his decision-making,” says a senior former IAF planner.

“With an AEW&C guiding the Tejas directly to the target, it does not need a long operating range; and its combination of Elta-2032 radar and air-to-air missiles, are lethal against most contemporary fighters.”

Employing the Tejas for the tactical battle would allow the IAF’s heavy, multi-role fighters like the Su-30MKI and Rafale to be focused on targets deep inside enemy territory, which are beyond the range of the Tejas --- such as major air bases, military headquarters and strategic infrastructure. These fighters, which carry far more fuel and weapons, can take off from bases deep inside India, bomb targets deep inside enemy territory, and also shoot down enemy fighters.

Yet, heavy fighters have their downsides. Maintenance is complex, with half the Su-30MKI fleet usually unavailable for operations. Enemy radar picks up the heavy fighters more easily; the Tejas is smaller, and also stealthier, being largely fabricated from composite materials. Moreover, the loss of a Sukhoi-30 is a Rs 400 crore blow; a Tejas will probably costs one-third of that.

Many IAF planners advocate a balanced air force, with a mix of light and heavy fighters. Light fighters like the Tejas would respond to the tactical battle, while heavier fighters, with their longer range and greater strike power, could tackle more strategic targets.

The light fighter has a long tradition in the IAF. On December 17, Defence Minister AK Antony told parliament that 254 MiG-21s --- or 12 squadrons worth --- still remain in service. The Tejas provides an effective replacement for those obsolescent machines. HAL’s new assembly line in HAL Bangalore plans to build 8 Tejas Mark I fighters annually, stepping up capacity to 16 fighters per year. If the IAF absorbs HAL’s entire production capacity, it would have 3-4 squadrons of Mark I fighters; after which the Mark II would start rolling off the line. Creating 12 Tejas squadrons to replace the MiG-21 would retain a balanced air force, and also galvanise the aerospace production eco-system needed for developing the IAF’s future fighters.

(Tomorrow: HAL's new high-tech Tejas assembly line takes shape)


  1. good details and a great article overall !

  2. A light fighter can never be replaced for defense, a good mix is essential for out AF or for any for that matter. Idealy there have to be more light fighters than med or heavy, take a look at others, PAF has light fighter heavy inventory owing to shallower landmass and a lower budget. F16 was a light fighter and still is in most areas, Americans have improved it to medium capability by better engines and weapons, this is the way Tejas should upgrade, it can easily be upgraded to higher power, load and abilities like the f16 viper

  3. Sir great information. Good to know that Tejas is comparable to F-16. How much stealthy Tejas will be after FOC? Being a light aircraft, can it be better than Rafale.

  4. From now onwards skeptics who deride the Tejas should be investigated for possible links to hostile foreign governments.

  5. Thank you Colonel Shukla for a well balanced and informatie article. If Tejas is indeed so good, I must congratulate DRDO and IAF for the patience and collaboration in developing it. I am sure that Mk II will soon be out and many countries in the world would want to import it for their air force.
    You recently covered Naval ships and sumarines under development in India. Please cover some of the ongoing projects for Army as well.

  6. Now, IAF must do these very very important things:

    1 Station 2 Tejas units i.e. SP1 and SP2 at Kabul Air Force Base, Afghanistan.

    2 After some training, transfer them to Afghan Air Force for free. Till then, it can be manned by IAF pilots.

    3 Do the same for other nations like Sudan, Vietnam, Venezuela, Peru etc. Early Tejas units like LSPs can be transferred on Lease-basis.

    3 At each & every Air Show like Farnborough, Paris Air Show, Seoul etc. 2 IAF jockeys must be compulsorily sent to display Tejas' acrobatics.

    4 Start basing Tejas squadrons across frontline bases in Jaisalmer, Ambala and Arunachal Pradesh. The Sulur nonsense must be the first and last.

    5 Cancel FGFA. Concentrate on AMCA.

    Over & Out.

  7. Two more things:

    6 If Ra-fail negotiations fail, or don't proceed for too long, then cut the order by half. Order more Tejas Mk.2 units instead.

    Let Tejas Mk.2 take over the MRCA's role, atleast partially.

    7 Firmly insist on 16+ units per year. No less. If HAL can't do it, then invite private sector cos like Reliance, Tata, L&T, Godrej & Boyce, Walchandnagar etc. etc. to devlop new assembly lines for Tejas.

    If HAL's Union Leader howls in protest, cancel HAL's entire order.

  8. Good article. Any airbforce needs a balance of heavy and light aircraft. As it is with the planned twin engined 272 SU-30 s and some 120+ rafales, the running cost of IAF will increase compared to past. we need to plan about 200-300 light fighters in airforce having air to,air refuelling.

  9. Interesting article, Col. Shukla !
    Would you know if the Tejas would have BVR (beyond visual range) capabilities, and if the PAF and the PLA have it?

  10. Thank you for your great review. You may be too optimistic but Tejas capability cannot be underrated.

    Tejas critics are mostly Americans and Pakistanis. American analysts hate this plane, because in a single stroke it has negated 40 years of development of F-16 fighter's latest model. America's Indian born analyst writing in "Strategy Page" last week was least hopeful of Tejas success. He rather laughed at all the negatives with the Tejas developments and its flying and combat ability.

    Pakistan is rightly concerned at all military and air force developments in India. They have been pushing their Chinese made fighter which is far less capable than Tejas to the Gulf countries at $25 million a piece. At $35 million a piece Tejas is pricey, although Tejas is a lot more technological advanced and more capable. In Gulf countries price is not the issue.

    So far the little Gulf states have not said yes to Pakistani fighter. They are concerned about Chinese capability to build a state of the art fighter (forget Chinese official propaganda). They do not like the Russian engines in it. US is opposing all that could go wrong with the Pakistani design, Chinese manufacture and Russian engines. Indian Tejas have Indian design and composite material, American Engine and Israeli, Indian & French avionics. Tejas is also about 50% stealthier than Pakistani design. Hence for $10 million more the Gulf countries get a better plane.

    Forget its light weight character. Its composite material makes it lighter. If Aluminum or Titanium was used, it would add two to three more tons to its weight.

    In today's dog fights and ground attack, stealth and light weight is more valuable than heavy F-14 or F-15 (each at about 30 tons).

    Remember 1965 air battles with Pakistan; the light weight Indian Gnat jet fighter were chasing American F-104 (Starfighters) and F-86 (Sabres). In many cases Gnats brought them down. Of-course, Americans refused to accept the outcome of Sabre/Starfighter - Gnat air combats and stuck to the false Pakistani version that no Starfighters or sabres were brought down by Gnats. (India lost subsonic Vampires, Hunters and Mysteres on ground attack missions in 1965. The air to air battles were different story in 1965).

  11. Hi Ajai, are you sure the EL/M-2032 radar is on the Tejas? Original plans were for employing a mix of HAL/DRDO developed MMR hardware with Israeli signal processors and software. In fact at Aero India, ADA posters were showing the same radar hardware.

  12. Really superb article. this will answer all the doubting peoples about teja capabilities.

  13. 16 planes per year highly doubtful, Maybe 8-10 planes per year more realistic. Sad to say deadline or promises to do this and that by HAL must be take with very big pinch of salt. All this talk of mark II Tejas is utter nonsense for county sake get the mark I inducted into air force fist.

  14. A good read.
    The Tejas will one day be the guardians of the Indian skies.
    Reminds me of "Independence Day". The multitude of light and fast alien craft shooting out of the mother ship, destroying all in its path. Tejas should be so too. ;)

  15. A very encouraging piece.....

  16. A prorata fighter!!!!


  17. A very well written piece, would be a red letter day in our history when we go for FOC and then commissioing of the first sqn.
    But here I feel HAL is letting the nation down by the abysmally low production rates. I do not think the MoD/IAF would have objected to HAL getting its production line ready in time to produce at least 8-10 fighters in the first year itself.


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