Update: Defense News reports that, while India has decided to hold test flights of the F-16 Block 70 and JAS 39E, a decision is not expected until 2019 at the earliest.
At 2017’s Paris Air Show, Lockheed Martin and Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL) announced a partnership to jointly produce F-16 Block 70s in India. While the deal is still being considered by the American and Indian governments, Lockheed officials expressed optimism that the Trump administration would grant approval. Despite Trump’s push for American manufacturing, the F-16 has no real future unless India supplies a large order; plus, some of the parts for the Indian F-16s would still be manufactured in the US anyways, so the net job impact of the deal would be positive.
The F-16 will now compete against Saab’s JAS 39E Gripen for the opportunity to supply the hundreds of aircraft needed to shore up India’s crumbling air force. Dassault’s Rafale was originally chosen to fill the gap, but negotiations regarding production in India stalled and the deal was capped at 36 aircraft, all to be made in France.
Like Lockheed, Saab has agreed to set up a production line in India should it be awarded the contract. Both aircraft are relatively light single-engine jets equipped with modern avionics and capable of carrying the latest munitions. While cheaper than 5th-generation aircraft such as the F-35, the F-16 Block 70 and Gripen E offer superior performance to true budget offerings such as the Pakistani JF-17 and South Korean FA-50.
Whichever plane is chosen will help replace a large portion of India’s aging aircraft, many of which are Soviet-designed. A good portion of them are obsolete, especially compared to the jets flown by India’s main regional adversaries China and Pakistan. Adding to the pressure, the MiG-21, which forms a significant portion of India’s fleet, is a remarkably dangerous aircraft to fly — more than half of India’s 872 MiG-21s have been lost in accidents. With Indian aircraft rapidly reaching the end of their useful lives, the effort to find a replacement is becoming increasingly urgent.
But it was not India’s original plan to adopt a foreign design. In 1988, the Indian government formally defined a project with the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) to produce a modern fighter jet that could supplant the MiG-21 — already rather dated at that point — with a modern, all-Indian alternative. Thus began the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) program, which yielded an aircraft now known as the Tejas (meaning “radiant” in English).
The Tejas was envisioned as a light, Indian-made aircraft featuring an indigenous turbofan and radar. It has a single engine and features a tailless delta wing configuration with relaxed stability for enhanced agility. To minimize weight, carbon fiber and aluminum alloys comprise a significant portion of the airframe. The Tejas has a relatively light payload, around 8,000lb for the Mark I aircraft, compared to almost 18,000lb for the single-engine F-16.
From the outset, the Tejas LCA was an ambitious project. Jet engines, in particular, are some of the most challenging military components to produce — only a small handful of American, European, Russian, and Chinese companies are capable of manufacturing modern military turbofan engines, and even fewer are on the cutting edge. Unsurprisingly, the Tejas’s indigenous Kaveri turbofan experienced severe delays during development, necessitating the use of General Electric F404 engines which have difficulties producing the necessary thrust. The radar also overran its budget, so India enlisted the help of Israeli firm Elta.
Such developmental issues, combined with an embargo of India in the early 2000s, have significantly delayed the Tejas’s introduction. As a result, the aircraft has received quite a thrashing in the media, with outlets in India and the rest of the world harshly criticizing the program. For example, a retired Indian Air Marshal, M Matheswaran, called the Tejas “a very short-range aircraft which has no relevance in today’s war fighting scenarios.”
However, depictions of the program as an abject failure are misleading. First of all, the Indian Air Force is indeed ordering the Tejas — over 100 will be delivered by the mid 2020s, a figure which will surely increase when the more-capable Block II is ready for primetime. And, while the Tejas’s development cycle has been long, the Eurofighter Typhoon and F-35 Lightning II also took many decades to develop and experienced numerous difficulties. India is looking to Saab and Lockheed Martin not because the Tejas is unworkable but because it is lagging in some areas and has not been proven. Given the Indian Air Force’s urgent need for a reliable single-engine aircraft to replace the MiG-21, it makes sense to procure some JAS-39s or F-16s in India to serve alongside the Tejas and reduce the impact of any further delays to the LCA program.
Despite the teething difficulties, India is by no means ready to abandon the military aircraft industry. In fact, the government is already developing the high-end, fifth-generation Sukhoi/HAL Perspective Multirole Fighter (PMF) with Russia and has plans for a smaller fifth-generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) as well. With HAL certain to incorporate the lessons learned during the Tejas saga into these two new programs, it is reasonable to assume that the LCA program may prove a good (if at times embarrassing) investment.