Sunday, June 23, 2024

Will Tejas MK2 Finally Take-Off At Aero India 2023?

By Aritra Banerjee 

The Tejas Mk2, expected to be unveiled at Aero India 2023, is going to replace the ageing fleets of MiG-29, Mirage-2000 and Jaguars in the Indian Air Force (IAF). The Defence Research and Development Organisation’s (DRDO) timeline envisions the aircraft’s first flight to take off by December 2024. By 2027, at least four prototypes are expected to be built, and the fighter jets are expected to join the IAF before the end of this decade. 

The Mk2 variant of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) has an external fuel capacity of 4,700 kg, boosting its range to 3,000 km. The aircraft also features 11 hardpoints and can carry up to 6.5 tonnes of weapons. Additionally, it includes an onboard oxygen generating system (OBOGS), a part of the aircraft’s life support system which converts the air inside the aircraft into breathable oxygen. This enables the aircraft to fly at high altitudes without the need for heavy oxygen tanks, which can be heavy and bulky, reducing the aircraft’s overall performance. Mk2’s OBOGS allows for a longer endurance compared to Mk1. 

The aircraft can integrate a variety of weapons, including those from Russia, France, and western countries, as well as those developed indigenously by India’s DRDO, too. The variant also features widened wings and can carry the Scalp bomb, weighing around 1,350 kg. The Mk2 is maintenance friendly and has a range of 570 km, and can quickly change roles, with an air-to-air configuration allowing for a 30-minute take-off and 45 minutes for the air to ground. It will be powered by a more powerful GE-F414-INS6 engine.

The development of this more potent version of the LCA was seen as good news by the IAF. The service has been grappling with a shortage of fighter squadrons, and new jets are welcome. It is also seen as a boost for atmanirbharta. 

Issues With The Tejas Program

However, the Tejas program has faced significant criticisms, with the most notable being the prolonged development timelines and the reliance on imported engines for the LCA MK1 and MK2. Currently, both LCA MK1 and MK2 rely on engines from the US. Despite efforts to accelerate the development of an indigenous, high-powered engine, industry experts predict that it is unlikely for India to achieve this goal by the end of the decade. 

A veteran IAF test pilot told IADB that the LCA program began as a technology demonstrator, with the first two models being labelled TD1 and TD2. According to them, the aircraft was intended to be redesigned to meet the Air Staff Requirements (ASR), but instead, the IAF and Indian Navy were pressured to accept the prototypes, which were renamed PT1 and PT2. Significant funding was directed into the program and pre-orders were placed. The retired test pilot, however, said that the responsibility of the shortcomings lay on the shoulders of Aeronautical Development Establishment and not Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. This is because the former is the designing agency for Tejas. 

Like the Mk1 variant, the Mk2 will also be relying on an engine that is not indigenously produced. This brings to the fore another major point of criticism: the stalled development of the Kaveri Engine that was supposed to power the LCA. The Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE), the prime design agency for the Kaveri engine, has yet to develop a single aero-engine since its inception in the early 1950s.

Expectations From Aero India 2023

Despite a record of delays, and no official announcement about the unveiling of the variant so far, there is a great deal of buzz around the Tejas Mk2 making an appearance at India’s largest airshow– Aero India 2023. These expectations have gone up further since the 74th Republic Day Parade, where the IAF’s tableau showcased this upcoming fighter jet. 

At the airshow, more detailed specifications of the long-awaited aircraft, estimated timeframe of rollout, current status, and other such information is likely to be revealed. 

The Pathway Ahead

The Indian government has made the direction of its policies on defence-related imports clear. The intent to encourage self-reliance and a military-industrial complex in the country have been much spoken about as well. Not only has work on radars, indigenous weapons, displays, and other tools begun simultaneously, it has also seen a substantial degree of success. India is also looking at South and Southeast Asian nations that could be a potential export marketplace for this warplane. 

In addition, the runway ahead must also consider marketing the Tejas- a fairly advanced and cheap platform- alongside the BrahMos missiles. The latter have already seen success with the $375 million Philippines deal. The first step in this direction will be the IAF inducting the platform as a show of confidence in it.

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