The Tejas fighter jet: Assessing limitations and challenges

Despite ambitions for self-reliance, India’s Tejas fighter jet faces operational hurdles—poor serviceability, limited capabilities, and technical issues.

The Tejas is India’s indigenously developed light combat aircraft, designed to modernize the Indian Air Force’s ageing fleet of fighter jets. The delta-wing, single-engine multirole fighter was conceived in the 1980s as part of the Light Combat Aircraft program to replace the nation’s MiG-21 fighters.

Developed by the Aeronautical Development Agency in collaboration with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, the Tejas represents India’s quest for self-reliance in defence aviation. It achieved initial operational clearance in 2011 after decades of design, development and testing. The first Tejas squadron, the “Flying Daggers,” became operational in 2016, ushering in a new era for the Indian Air Force.

Currently, three Tejas variants are in production – the Mark 1, Mark 1A, and a trainer model. With orders for over 120 aircraft already placed, the Air Force ultimately plans to induct over 300 Tejas fighters across multiple improved versions, including the advanced Mark 2 slated for rollout by 2026. As the domestically manufactured content continues increasing, the Tejas symbolizes India’s growing capabilities in cutting-edge aerospace design and production.

The latest crash of the Indian Tejas fighter jet 

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On 12th March 2024, An Indian Air Force Tejas light combat aircraft went down in an accident during a training flight over Jaisalmer, Rajasthan.

India’s indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft program suffered a major setback today with its first-ever crash incident after an impressive safety record of over 10,000 accident-free sorties across 23 years.The crashed aircraft, believed to be in its Final Operational Configuration, belonged to the Second LCA Tejas Squadron, No. 18 Flying Bullets, and went down during an operational training sortie in Jaisalmer. Though the pilot ejected safely, the mishap marks a significant blow to the Tejas program which had maintained an unblemished safety track record until now.

Visuals from the incident show the aircraft’s landing gear deployed, indicating the crash may have occurred during takeoff or an attempted emergency landing. The lack of visible smoke or engine noise in the footage raises questions about potential causes like unresponsive controls prompting ejection, an electrical failure, or an engine flameout leading to loss of power.

The Indian Air Force has swiftly constituted a Court of Inquiry to investigate the accident’s circumstances and determine its root cause. This first-ever crash casts a shadow on the Tejas’ decade-long journey. It will demand a thorough probe to identify any underlying issues impacting the aircraft’s airworthiness and flight safety.

In a terse statement, the Indian Air Force confirmed that one of its Tejas aircraft met with an accident in Jaisalmer today while on an operational training sortie. The pilot ejected successfully and survived the incident.


Operational and Technical Obstacles in the Tejas Fighter Jet Program

Despite being inducted into the Indian Air Force around seven years ago, the Tejas fighter jet program has struggled with a range of operational and technical hurdles since its inception. Even after entering service, the aircraft continues to be plagued by several crucial issues that undermine its full capabilities and potential. The path to fully operationalizing the indigenously developed Tejas has been beset by numerous challenges and obstacles throughout its development.

While the Tejas fighter jet represents an ambitious indigenous program for India, it continues to face significant operational challenges and limitations even years after its induction into the Indian Air Force. One major issue is poor serviceability rates, with a large number of Tejas aircraft unavailable for training and operations for extended periods, impacting IAF’s readiness. The aircraft’s relatively small size leads to restricted range and payload capacity, requiring frequent stops during long flights and exposing vulnerabilities.

Moreover, the Tejas lags behind contemporary fighters in terms of advanced weapons and systems integration, compromising its combat effectiveness. When its capabilities are weighed against costs, the Tejas emerges as an expensive platform that has exceeded initial budgets by a wide margin due to recurring delays and overruns.

The high costs not only deter potential exports due to pricing pressures but also raise doubts over large-scale induction by the IAF itself. Given the cost-benefit disparity, stakeholders are increasingly wary of committing resources to the program.

While an ambitious endeavour, substantial upgrades and enhancements appear necessary for the Tejas to emerge as a truly viable and cost-effective option in the modern aerospace market, overcoming its operational deficiencies is crucial to ensure the program’s long-term sustainability and success.

The Tejas fighter jet also struggles with an array of critical technical issues that cast doubts on its overall performance, safety and combat credibility. At its core lies the challenge with the GE F404 engines powering the aircraft. These engines have faced recurring problems like overheating and flameouts, leading to significant program delays and raising safety concerns during flight operations.

Additionally, the Tejas has struggled with seamlessly integrating new weapon systems into its avionics and software architecture – a capability crucial for maintaining combat relevance against evolving aerial threats. Compounding these issues are structural deficiencies with the airframe itself, which raise questions about the aircraft’s airworthiness and ability to withstand high-intensity operations over its service lifespan.

In essence, these myriad technical problems don’t just derail program timelines but fundamentally undermine the Tejas’ capabilities as a modern multi-role fighter jet. Overcoming these shortcomings is vital for establishing credibility in the highly competitive global aerospace market.

The recent crash incident underscores the importance of addressing the program’s shortcomings with urgency and precision. Addressing the Tejas’ operational deficiencies, including poor serviceability rates, limited range and payload capacity, and integration issues, is imperative for ensuring its viability in both domestic and international markets. Additionally, resolving technical issues related to engine reliability, avionics, and airframe integrity is crucial for bolstering the aircraft’s combat credibility and long-term sustainability.


Issues with HAL

While HAL’s track record boasts an impressive array of aircraft, including iconic models like the MiG-21 and the modern Sukhoi-30, the company’s evolution has not always been synonymous with progress. Despite its stature as a manufacturing behemoth, concerns linger regarding the organisation’s ability to keep pace with technological advancements and cultivate a workforce equipped with the requisite skills for the challenges ahead.

At the crux of HAL’s predicament lies a palpable absence of decisive leadership and strategic direction. Without a clear roadmap delineating the trajectory of India’s aerospace industry, HAL finds itself navigating turbulent skies, perpetually at risk of being overtaken by competitors on the global stage.

The repercussions of HAL’s stagnation are acutely felt within the corridors of the Indian Air Force, where a dearth of indigenous aircraft compounds existing challenges stemming from an inadequate fleet size. As geopolitical dynamics evolve and regional security imperatives undergo constant flux, the imperative for a robust and self-reliant aerospace sector becomes increasingly apparent.

In the face of these challenges, the onus falls squarely on policymakers and industry stakeholders to chart a course correction for HAL and the broader aerospace ecosystem. The imperative lies not merely in rectifying past missteps but in fostering an environment conducive to innovation, collaboration, and sustained growth.

The nation’s premier defence establishments, including the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), and Ordnance Factories, have failed to deliver on their promises, leaving the country’s military capabilities sorely lacking.

The saga of attempting to develop a modern tank and a world-class fighter jet is fraught with tales of false promises and inflated claims by DRDO and HAL. These endeavours, which demand years of dedicated effort and substantial investment, have fallen short of expectations, languishing in a perpetual cycle of prototyping without achieving true operational readiness.

Our Beloved LCA!

A glaring example of this is the case of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas program. Despite ambitious plans and substantial funding, progress has been sluggish at best. While a significant number of LCAs have been ordered, the pace of development and delivery has been lacklustre, with delays and uncertainties plaguing the project.

The contract signed with HAL for the supply of 83 LCA-Mk1A fighters, touted as a more capable variant, offers a glimmer of hope. However, the timeline for delivery remains murky, with HAL failing to provide a concrete schedule. Moreover, the LCA’s reliance on imported components, including crucial precision-guided munitions and air-to-air missiles, underscores India’s continued dependence on foreign suppliers for key defence capabilities.

Furthermore, the absence of integral electronic countermeasure systems and the persistent lack of an indigenous aero-engine further dampen the prospects of the LCA program. Without these essential components, the operational effectiveness and longevity of the LCA fleet are called into question, raising doubts about its utility in the long run.

The challenges facing the LCA program extend beyond the Air Force, with the status of the Naval Variant LCA program and the Tactical Electronic Warfare Development Establishment (TEDBF) project remaining uncertain. The absence of a clear roadmap for these initiatives raises concerns about India’s ability to maintain a credible naval aviation capability in the years to come.

(Views expressed in the article are of author’s own and do not reflect the editorial stance of Business Upturn)