$5.31 billion deal for 83 Tejas jets, puts 114 jet prog on backburner

IDD explainer

India’s decision to procure an additional 83 single-engined indigenous Tejas fighter jets for Rs 38,800 crore ($ 5.31 Biillion), indicates a slowing down of the existing programme inviting  global biggies to make another 114 fighter jets.

On March 18, the Indian Ministry of Defence announced that the Defence Acquisition Council headed by Minister Rajnath Singh “paved the way for procurement of 83 of the more advanced Mark 1A version of the aircraft ( Tejas).”

The moves takes the number of Tejas jets on order to 123 jets –in three variants, all powered by a General Electric engine. So far 20 have been made and 103 are expected to be produced over the next 6-7 years.

A Tejas in flight

India aims to be self reliant and see the additional purchase of Tejas as a major boost to ‘Make in India’ as the aircraft is indigenously designed, developed and manufactured with participation of several local vendors.

The 114 jet bid and its twists

In April 2018 India had floated a global request for information (RFI) seeking responses for the 114 fighter jet project. The RFI ( read it here) is first step in the Indian tendering process and in these two years — the next step called the request for proposal (RFP) — has not been initiated. This will be kick-started when the Ministry does an ‘acceptance of necessity’ (AON) following which an RFP is issued asking the vendors to respond with technical and commercial bids.

Seven global plane makers have sent in their proposals for the RFI but the project – expected to be some $ 12-13 billion with weapons and associated  packages —  is on the backburner for now, sources in the Ministry Defence indicate. The next step of the programme, the RFP, may not be done for another year.

In the race for this tender are the Lockheed Martin’s F-21, Boeing’s F/A-18IN, Eurofighter Typhoon, French Dassault’s Rafale, Swedish Saab’s Gripen and Russian MiG-35 and the Sukhoi 35.

The selected foreign OEM will tie-up with a selected Indian strategic partner (SP). The foreign manufacturer who will win the bid for making the 114 fighter jets under the SP Model will be the obvious partner for the AMCA. The RFI for the 114 jets mandates Transfer of Technology (ToT) to Indian partner. The foreign company winning the tender could be the automatic choice for AMCA and will get due weightage.

A decision on 114 jets will hinge upon how India plans to pace the manufacturing of the next locally made fighter jets – the Tejas Mark 2, also called the medium weight fighter and the advanced medium combat aircraft (AMCA). Both require foreign engines and the AMCA needs some outside design support too.

IAF is looking at multiple options

The IAF needs some 150-170 jets by 2030. Besides the 103 Tejas – 83  ordered on March 18 and the pending 20 on order of the previous variant. Indian Air Force Chief, Air Chief Marshall RKS Bhadauria  made it clear at press conference in October last year that the IAF would be buying 21 additional MiG-29 fighters that are lying ready built in Russia. “We are going to go in for 21 MiG-29, which has already been informed (to Moscow),” he said. IAF has some 60 MiG-29’s

 “We are moving towards ordering 12 more Sukhoi-30s. Whether we need some more in lieu of aircraft that are going to get phased out from 2025 onwards… we will have to take a look later. But at the moment, 12 is what is being followed up straightaway,” said Bhadauria. The IAF already had 272 Sukhoi on order.

Multiple reasons that will hold back the 114 jets deal

Apart from buying of more MiG 29 and Sukhoi-30 from Russia, the  IAF is looking to start inducting the Rafale fighter jets starting April this in the IAF fleet. The first ones of the 36 Rafale are expected from France.

The French-made multi-role Rafale fighters (Photo credit Dassault Aviation)

The 36 Rafale;  21  of the MiG 29; 12 of the Sukhoi 30 and 103 of the Tejas , collectively add  up to 172 jets.

The other deciding factor will be India’s push to have indigenous planes. In its projection for the future, the IAF says it needs 170 (ten squadrons) Tejas Mark II – the Medium weight fighter or the MWF. A first test-flight is slated in 2022. The Tejas Mark 1 has all up weight of 13.5 tonnes, including 7 tonnes of payload. The MWF is the next class with an expected all up weight of 17 tonne, including 8.5- 9 tonnes of payload.

The Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and the IAF have designed it to have an engine of 98 Kilonewton (kN) thrust. The US giant General Electric, has supplied ADA with Eight of the F414-INS6 engines which generate 98kN, however, the company also has the  F414 Enhanced Engine which can generate 116 kN.  Both the engines have same dimensions.

The IAF has also said that it will want two squadrons (some 35 in number) of the 25-tonne weight class AMCA to kick-off the project with same 98 kN engine as used in the MWF with the possibility of using a 125 Kn engine in the latter versions. The final numbers of the AMCA are still not known

Will the 114 jet tender be widened ?

With these numbers lined up, the Ministry of Defence could actually spin around the 114 tender and ask the bidders to make upgraded bids which could meet wider requirements like MWF and AMCA.

Realistically the first AMCA should be inducted by 2028. The Chinese have already tested their ‘J-20’ and claim it to be 5th Gen. The F-22 Raptor from the US is established and truly tested 5th gen fighter while the Sukhoi-57 is yet to commence production.

The AMCA is being designed and developed indigenously has now gone into the detail design phase (DDP) which is expected to be completed by 2021. The AMCA will be a fifth generation stealth fighter jet and expected to form the principal fighting arm of the country’s air power. 

The Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and scientists of Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) are now finding solutions to a number of next-generation technologies that need to be proven in the aircraft which promises to propel India into the next league.

The project definition phase (PDP) has been done, the ADA, which also designed the  Tejas, is spearheading the AMCA mission. New Delhi is in talks with a foreign partner to develop an engine with a higher thrust. Safran, Rolls Royce and off course the GE are in race for this.

The plan is to build four prototypes and fly the first one before 2025, which is five years from now.  The feasibility study for the AMCA began in 2009 with an initial funding of Rs 90 crore. In 2017, about Rs 400 crore were allocated for the detail design phase (DDP).

AMCA has been designed with multi-disciplinary approach. Various labs of the DRDO are doing R&D on materials, paints and structures. Separate studies are under way on flight control, avionics, aerodynamics, composite structure and general systems like brakes, hydraulics and fuels systems.

The teams are also working on the super-cruise abilities that give aircraft capability to fly at supersonic speeds without the afterburner.

Passive sensors, internal weapon bay, advanced integrated avionics, next-generation active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, 360-degree enhanced situation awareness, integrated vehicle monitoring system (IVHM), serpentine air intake, infrared search and track (IRST), missile approach warning system (MAWS) and diverterless supersonic intake (DSI) are some of the features being claimed by Indian scientists that will make AMCA a powerful fighting machine.

A model of AMCA on display at def-expo 2020

The AMCA team is going on two major ways of making the plane stealthier. One is geometric stealth and other is material stealth. In geometric stealth, the shape of the aircraft is designed at such angles so as to deflect away maximum radar waves thereby minimising its radar cross section. In material stealth, radar-absorbing materials are used in making the aircraft which will absorb the radio waves thus reducing the radar footprint. The AMCA will initially be based on geometric stealth, we can look at material stealth at a later stage.

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