Monday, May 15, 2017

India’s Light Combat Aircraft: What does the future have in store?

The Tejas Mk 1 had delivered an agile performance at Aero India 2017 last February. The smallest combat aircraft in its class, it keeps costs down and its small size contributes to its agility — a vital capability for an interceptor. It can turn circles around other larger and less agile aircraft.

However, there is a flip side to its small size. It adversely affects Tejas’ payload and range performance. Thus, in a ground attack role, its performance is, at best, mediocre. It will be able to deliver fewer weapons, and over shorter ranges than any other combat aircraft.

An aerospace industry analyst had once said that the Saab Gripen is about the smallest aircraft that can undertake ground attack as well as air interception missions adequately — a multi-role aircraft. Clearly, Tejas will not do well as a multi-role aircraft. It will be best as a point defence — and not even an area defence — interceptor.

Remember the IAF’s Folland Gnat? It was the smallest combat aircraft of its day to enter service. It could carry little armament beyond its two 30 mm Aden cannon. However, its astonishing agility made it known as the “Sabre Slayer”

Some time back, India had demonstrated two Tejas Mk 1s at the Bahrain air show. Sri Lanka and Egypt were said to have “shown interest.” That is where things rest.

Frankly, that was predictable. It is not even to fourth-generation technology standards, and has a mediocre performance.

By contrast, the Tejas two-seat trainer is almost unique as a supersonic advanced jet trainer and has little competition. Also, it is much less affected by Tejas’ poor payload and range performance. Most air forces in the region have some supersonic fighter aircraft, but the two-seat “type trainer” variant of those fighters are horrendously expensive for conversion training.

Air forces worldwide try to transfer as much training as possible to less expensive aircraft. As an example, the very expensive US F-22s and F-35s do not have two-seat trainer variants. Their pilots are trained on smaller and much less expensive T-38s.

A flyaway cost of only about $20 million has been quoted for the Tejas Mk 1. (Around $100 million for the F-35). Clearly, the trainer will be much cheaper. Also, because of its very small size, its operating and life-cycle costs will be very competitive. It could be a winner in the export market. However, it needs to be developed more vigorously.
15/05/17 Hormuz P Mama/DNA