The LCA program is gradually gaining traction with one squadron fully operational, the second one coming up, a large order of 83 more fighters, an upgraded Mk2 variant called the MWF & now with a possibility of being exported to South Asian & African Countries. HAL has already stated that the OEM is planning to set up bases in four countries (Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia & Sri Lanka) to push exports as maintenance facilities & logistics bases are key to sell the products and ensure comprehensive after-sales services.
In a significant move, Malaysia has shown interest in the LCA program. Next month (May 2021), an evaluation team comprising of Royal Malaysian Air Force pilots are arriving in Bangalore to fly & assess the LCA Tejas as well as HAL’s manufacturing facility.
Malaysia is keen on replacing its rusty MiG-29s & F-5s with a light aircraft & the LCA Tejas along with Sino-Pak JF-17 & the Korean FA-50 are the prime contenders. Barring the time when the Tejas was offered to Bangladesh, this is practically the first time when a foreign nation is interested to buy the Indian aircraft & is setting its foot on Indian soil to evaluate the same. If selected, India will be partially paid with palm oil in exchange of the fighters. As stated by CMD HAL, Mr. R. Madhavan at Aero India 2021, the Tejas will have a vanilla price tag of 309 Crore for the single seater & 280 Crore for the twin seat trainer. There will be some additional cost for training, infrastructure, spare parts & logistics. This affordability coupled with the western engine reliability, low cost of ownership, high availability will make the LCA a lucrative option for the Royal Malaysian Air Force.
What might make things difficult for the Tejas getting selected are the competitors. The JF-17 also stands a chance especially if Malaysia decides to weigh in the initial cost of the fighter more than the performance & capabilities as the JF-17 has a price tag of 25-30 million USD (190 – 220 Crore INR) against 300 Crore for the Tejas. The JF-17 managed to keep the cost down due to all metal construction (against composite construction of Tejas), re-engineered RD-93 engines, run-of-the-mill manufacturing processes with no regard to the stringent aviation grade quality. What works against the JF-17 is even though the JF-17 is cheaper to buy, the overall life cycle costs will skyrocket as the aircraft requires frequent maintenance due to the factors mentioned above. Another contributing factor against the Sino-Pak fighter is that it uses a variant of the same RD-33 engines that are used in the MiG-29, the fighter Malaysia is trying to replace. These engines are infamous for very low MTBO (Mean time Between Overhaul) & requires heavy maintenance & ground support.
When we compare the real life scenario, all the eight participating Tejas aircraft in Exercise Gagan Shakti could churn 6 sorties per day. On the other hand, 40% of the JF-17 fleet in Pakistan is grounded due cracks in the metal fuselage as of today. However, if the JF-17 is selected for Malaysia instead of Tejas, it’ll solely be based on cost grounds & the fact that the JF-17 has been exported before to Myanmar (9 units) & Nigeria (3 units).
Tejas does face a stiff competition from the Korean FA-50 light fighter. Both the aircraft use the same ultra-reliable F404 engine, have same weights & are equipped with modern avionics. What particularly works well for the FA-50 is that the aircraft is in service with Malaysia’s neighbours like Indonesia (14 aircraft), Philippines (12 aircraft) & Thailand (12 aircraft). If Malaysia selects the FA-50 it’ll be due to the already established supply chain of spare parts in the region, trust factor of an already established & proven platform & commonality of aircraft with friendly forces. What works against the FA-50 is that the aircraft is basically an advanced jet trainer turned combat aircraft. It was originally built as T-50 lead in fighter trainer. With gradual upgrades, the platform was equipped with combat capabilities. On the other hand, the Tejas was built a fighter aircraft from scratch, something that Malaysia needs to replace the old but ferocious MiG-29s.
The points which work in the favour of LCA Tejas is a reliable American engine, which is the same engine used in F/A-18 Hornet already in service with Malaysia. This will simplify logistics & training on the engines. Other factors in favour of the Tejas are availability of logistics base in Malaysia in near future, better performance of Tejas over JF-17 & FA-50, integrated BVR (ASTRA) & WVR (ASRAAM) missiles as well as Radar, higher availability & expenditure of less funds due to the barter option Palm oil in the deal.
The Royal Malaysian Air Force will do a comparative evaluation of all the three options & come to a conclusion by 2021 end or early 2022. Malaysia is not the only country that is interested in the LCA program.
Tejas was first offered to Bangladesh which is another rising economy in the South Asian region. Bangladesh Air Force Chief Masihuzzaman Serniabat also had a demo flight on the twin seat Tejas Trainer and was quite impressed with it. Having Bangladesh looped in as a military partner of India will help to restrain the Chinese Influence in the region.
Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF) also got live hands on experience on the Tejas Aircraft when the Indian Air Force & the Indian Navy participated in the 70th Anniversary of the SLAF in March 2021. Sri Lankan pilots flew independent sorties on the Tejas aircraft & praised the performance & capabilities of the machine.
Singapore is another nation which has shown interest on the platform. Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen even took a 30 minute demo flight on the twin seater Tejas Trainer in 2017 & called it as “very very capable”. However, Singapore traditionally operates US origin fighters like the F-15E Strike Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon & even ordered the F-35B. Due to the heavy political benefits of operating US hardware & Singapore being not so big nation to take a chance against its allyship with US, chances of Tejas getting into their hands in less.
Egypt is one of those few countries which have come out of the cartel of religious brotherhood & has shown interest in the Tejas LIFT (Lead in Flight Trainer) programme. The Egyptian Air Force is very strong (numerically) & operates a wide array of fighters from different countries. These include the American F-16, French Rafale, Mirage 2000, Mirage 5 & even the Russian MiG-29 & Su-35. Considering the growing bilateral relationship between Egypt & India, Tejas LIFT variant has a good chance of being ordered by Egypt.
While the aircraft gives great export opportunities to India, some underlying issues remain undaunted. The production capacity of LCA Tejas is going to be 16 aircraft per annum which is just enough to suffice the requirement of the Indian Air Force. Any additional order from foreign military will require the set-up of additional assembly line which can generate higher production capacity. The Su-30MKI production line at HAL Nashik will run dry & can be used for in case any export orders of the LCA Tejas are placed. Else the major assemblies have to be outsourced & HAL will only have to act as the lead integrator.
Challenges & opportunities both lie with HAL & the defence market a whole when it comes to the export of critical military hardware like the Tejas fighter, Rudra attack helicopter, Rustom Drone, radar systems, missiles etc. Overcoming these challenges & grabbing more opportunities is a part of moving towards being a strong defence manufacturer as well as exporter.
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