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Military 101: HAL’s Tejas Light Fighter Jets – Reflecting On OTB’s Unfair Criticism

RMAF HAL Tejas

I have always appreciated Syed Akbar Ali’s posts in his blog “OutSyed The Box” (OTB) as being critical and something to ponder on when it comes to national politics and economy but when it comes to military-related matters, you may want to hold back your horses. His latest post unfairly attacks India’s HAL Tejas which is being considered by RMAF for the light combat aircraft requirements. Image source: Twitter / Wikipedia.

Syed Akbar Ali’s Post

I refer to his blog post dated 13th February 2022 titled “Tentera Laut India Tolak Pesawat Tejas Buatan India. Apakah TUDM Pula Ingin Beli Tejas?” which translates to “Indian Navy Rejected Indian Made Tejas, So Why RMAF Want To Buy Tejas?”

I have made several posts about the Light Combat Aircraft or LCA which the RMAF is planning to buy.

Here is one more. Please read my comments below / Sila baca komen saya di bawah.

I saw the following YouTube video which says that the RMAF / TUDM may be buying the Indian “Tejas” Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) for US$50 Million a piece (RM210 Million each). The video suggests that Malaysia may be buying 18 of these Tejas jets for a total of US$900 million or RM3.8 BILLION.

The fact is the Indian Navy itself has rejected the Tejas aircraft. The news below is FIVE years old, from 2017. Meaning until today the Indian Navy still has not bought the Tejas jet. The Tejas jet is presently operated only by the Indian Air Force. No other country in the world has bought or plans to buy the Tejas.

Here is the Indian newspaper The Hindu about the Indian Navy rejecting the Tejas jets:

“After declaring the naval version of the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas unfit for operating from aircraft carriers in its “present form,” the Indian Navy has launched a global hunt for a carrier-based multi-role fighter aircraft.”

Here is another YouTube video which lists some of the many problems faced by the Tejas jet.

My comments :

Threat No 1 : Why should Malaysia even consider buying a jet fighter that took over 35 years to develop (from 1983)? And India is not recognised as a manufacturer of fighter jets. They just do not have the technological capacity. In 70 years the Tejas is only the second “Made-in-India” jet fighter.

Both (the previous ‘Gnat’ and now the Tejas) had limited success or were unpopular with the Indians themselves. I do not know if the RMAF is also considering the Turkish jet. The Turkish jet is not operational yet – still in its development phase.

Threat No 2 : Why would anyone pay US$50 million (RM210 million) for a 2nd rate, never bought by anyone Indian jet? In Malaysia we always pay Rolls Royce prices for 2nd rate and 3rd rate products. Or we pay way above market prices for products and services. Imported cars are sold here for much higher than the world market prices.

For example the Toyota Camry sells in the USA for about RM126,000. Here in Malaysia the Camry starts at around RM188,000 – which is almost 50% higher than in the USA. What does this mean? This means we are really, really stupid. Bodoh macam nak mampus.

We always get cheated by the cronies and the crooks who control the APs, licenses, permits and whatever.

Back to buying weapons – in Malaysia we also pay billions of Ringgit for ‘asap’ or ‘smoke’. A good example was that RM6.0 BILLION paid for those SIX Navy ships which have disappeared into thin air. RM6 Billion gone but no ships were delivered.

What did they do? They re-ordered FOUR more ships from China for another RM1.2 Billion. More taxpayers money spent. Then in 2016 we paid about RM322 million Ringgit for six MD350 helicopters that were also not delivered. The latest news says they will be delivered in March 2022.
(https://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2022/01/15/malaysia-takes-delivery-of-long-delayed-md-530g-helicopters).

If we are going to pay RM210 Million of taxpayers money for one fighter jet then there are other options available for us. The Chinese JF17 is an equally or more formidable jet fighter at a much lower price. The future of military technology is China – not India, not the USA, UK or Europe.

(Source: OutSyed The Box)

Unfortunately, there is no way for commenters to reply to OTB’s post as the comments have been disabled and soon the above will be deleted as his standard modus operandi. However, I find his simply reasonings and criticism is unfair to the Indians and many of the points he made had not been explained properly. Let’s relook at his points against some of the facts that have been publically published.

F-14 Tomcat AIM-54 Phoenix USN Aircraft Carrier RMAF

The Americans got it right with the massive, twin-engine F-14 Tomcat that was in operation from 1974 to 2006 and carried the medium-range Mach 5 AIM-54 Phoenix anti-ship missile. The movie “Top Gun” then elevated this strike jet into a legend. Image source: Wikipedia / US Navy

Indian Navy & Tejas

The requirements of the Indian Navy and Malaysian’s RMAF for the Tejas are totally different as they operate from a different platform and scope. Let’s focus on the Indian Navy’s requirement since OTB use it as an example to highlight that Malaysia should not buy Tejas.

It is a well-known fact that any aircraft operating from an aircraft carrier needs to meet several key criteria. It is not a matter of plug & play. I remember reading the US requirements when they wanted to phase out the deadly but ageing F-14 Tomcat which has been the pride and key defender of the carrier group.

Firstly aircraft must have a twin engine for the plane to safely fly back to the carrier in case one of the engines had problems. Secondly, the frame of the aircraft must be extremely sturdy to meet the controlled crash landing on carrier decks. This is one reason, F-18 Hornets are now the key stay of the carrier battle groups.

Tejas are single-engine planes so obviously, they will not meet the requirements of the Navy from the very start. A single-engine also means a lower thrust requirement for aircraft carrier deck operations. And there are more:-

Tejas Naval had three hurdles to surmount :

1. Stronger under-carriage to withstand hard landings on the flight deck of a carrier.
2. Flight Control System to navigate through turbulent oceanic weather.
3. It needs to sufficiently slow down for a carrier landing which means it would require extra surfaces on its wings.

Now LCA Tejas was already underpowered, so putting on more weight by means of a heavier under-carriage accentuates the problem. Secondly, the combat radius of Naval Tejas of around 500 km is not sufficient to exert power from a carrier. Thirdly anti-ship missiles are quite heavy and in addition, a naval aircraft has to carry some air to air missiles as well to thwart any challenge in the air. Naval Tejas it was found by the Indian Navy couldn’t carry a full complement of weapons.

(Source; Quora)

The lightweight Tejas was clearly not meant to take up a critical role as the Navy’s naval aircraft as it is only single-engine which is more suited to the Indian Air Force. However, the Navy has tested the landing and taking off exercises with the Tejas which means the land-based Tejas can land on their aircraft carriers to refuel during naval battles. HAL Tejas also serves as the platform for a twin-engine aircraft carrier-based fighter which HAL is already developing.

RMAF requirement on the other hand is to procure light combat aircraft that will replace the ageing British made Hawk 200 and to use it as training aircraft but one which has a secondary role in the same manner as Hawk 100 & Hawk 200. The Indian Air Force is doing the same with the Tejas replacing their old MiG-21 Bison which has been a firm frontline fighter for years.

RMAF TUDM F-5E Freedom Fighter Tejas

The granddad of the battle-proven and successful F/A-19 Hornet, the nimble F-5 traces its origin to the development that started in the 1950s. The RMAF procured these supersonic fighters in 1975 more than 20 years after the development started. Did we say that it was an old plane and a waste of taxpayers money? Image source: Wikipedia

35 Years Development

It is incorrect to say that HAL Tejas Mk1 (RMAF likely to get Mk 1A) itself have been in development for the past 35 years.

In actual fact, the Indian Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) program has been in place since the 1980s and had undergone numerous requirement changes due to the changes of the threat from both Pakistan and China which India have gone to war with. It was clear that the mainstay frontline MiG-21 will not be able to face newer generation fighters namely the US-made F-16 which Pakistan Air Force operated.

Further various systems such as radar, engine, airframe ad other components to be installed in the LCA to be developed ground up by the Indians themselves so to ensure manufacturing independence and this definitely takes time for them to train, set up the logistics and developed the base components.

Unlike the Chinese who openly reverse engineer the hardware even from their strongest supporter, the Russians, Indians is not known for espionage and reverse engineering. They instead form partnerships with both Western and Russian defence contractors and in some instances, it has been a great success.

One such example is the development of the BrahMos missiles which is now the fastest cruise missile in the world at Mach 4 (their v2 will reach Mach 8).

Both are highly capable aircraft in their own right but the development, rollout, and upgrade trajectory have been more consistent for the J-10, with the HAL aircraft slightly lagging, bogged by delays and criticism.

The J-10 and the Tejas symbolize the painstaking techno-industrial effort of both nations, both first taking flight just three years apart. The J-10 first flew in 1998 and the Tejas in 2001.

However, the J-10 was a heavily redesigned, modified, and reverse-engineered version of the scrapped Israeli Lavi program, saving the Chinese in coming up with an airframe ground up. The Lavi itself had to be shelved by the Israelis under pressure from the US.

The LCA on the other hand merely received assistance from Dassault in the late 1980s, with the rest of the development undertaken by India’s state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) itself, ground up, facing severe technology denials.

(Source: Eurasian Times)

Let’s look at an example – the US-made F/A-18 Hornet which is the mainstay of the US Air Force and Navy attack fighter jets. The program for the F/A-18 Hornet actually started in the 1960s with the basic going to the F-5E which is then enlarged and improved to come up with the YF-17 prototype which then is developed into the F/A-18 as we see it now.

The first operational flight was in March 1979 which was more than 40 years ago. And mind you that Northrop has been in the aircraft manufacturing sector since the 1930s. If RMAF today buy the additional F/A-18 Hornet to the existing 8 planes, do we go and criticise RMAF for buying a 43-year-old plane?

It is the same case with the Tejas. The Indian Air Force formed the first operational Tejas Mk1 squadron in July 2011 with Tejas Mk1A upgrades set to be operational in 2023-2024 with 40 plus improvements and Tejas Mk2 coming into operations around the same time.

JF-17 RMAF Chinese Jet Fighter Pakistan

The JF-17 obviously may be seen as a cheaper alternative considering that it is an evolution from China’s own Chengdu-7 (which itself is a shameless copycat of the Russian’s MiG-21) and Chengdu-10 with Pakistan’s participation & money as a joint defence partner. Image source: Shimin Gu@Wikipedia.

Are HAL Tejas Too Expensive?

OTB says that it is too expensive for RMAF to pay RM210 million for each of the Tejas aircraft. RMAF’s requirement is to procure 36 light combat aircraft for RM7 billion. In actual fact, India is believed to be priced at USD42 million (RM175 million) per plane and certainly, the procurement will also include spare parts, weapons and other support details.

Comparatively, the Philippines bought the Korean made FA-50 light attack aircraft for about USD35 million (around RM146 million each). If this is the sole comparison, then yes, the Tejas is on the high side of the cost.

OTB suggested Chinese made JF-17 as the cheaper alternative to HAL Tejas but interestingly the Chinese quoted USD50 million (RM210 million) per plane to the Argentinians which now caused the Argentinians to seriously consider HAL Tejas.

Citing recent news published in various Chinese outlets, the Indian site claims that during the negotiations, Argentina suddenly expressed that the JF-17 is too expensive and pressured China to reduce the price, otherwise the South American country is likely to end up acquiring the LCA Tejas fighter jets from India.

In response, China said: the performance of the JF-17 fighter is absolutely worthy of its 50 million dollar price tag.

In contrast, India would be interested in offering its Tejas Mk1A, which its mass production just began for the Indian Air Force.

The Tejas is a lightweight, multi-role fighter in the same category as the JF-17 Thunder. In its most current variant, the Mk1A is a 4.5 Gen weapon system, equivalent to the Thunder Block III.

Another important advantage of the Indian model is that it was designed with an open software architecture, which allows the installation of weapons and pods of Israeli, Russian, European, or Indian origin.

To all this, we would have to add a very competitive price of 42 million dollars per unit for the Tejas Mk1A.

(Source: Aviaci Online)

The sale of JF-17 to Nigeria is USD60 million (RM250 million) per plane including missiles. So in essence, one cannot say that the Chinese JF-17 aircraft will be a cheaper alternative for RMAF.

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When Pakistan went to war with India, the US refused to help India as India remained neutral between the US and Soviets. Pakistan on the other hand was close to the US & Britain and got full military support. When things were not going well in the war for India and US showed her middle finger to India, the Soviet Union then gladly stepped in and offered MiG-21 with full transfer of technology making MiG-21 the first supersonic jet in the Indian Air Force (IAF). Despite a poor safety record, MiG-21 Bison remained an important interceptor in IAF with Russian made military hardware in other military branches. 

No Country Have Bought Tejas

Once again, one needs to look at the history of the Indian LCA program – it is meant to replace the Indian Air Force’s ageing MiG-21 Bison which will face the newer US-made F-16 Falcon from Pakistan.

There is no intention for the Indian Government to look at the export market when there is not enough to go for their own Air Force’s needs given that there are about 840 MiG-21 Bison to be replaced (at the peak it was 874 MiG-21 in inventory).

Thus the objective of LCA was for India’s own use and not for the export market. Further, it will also take time for other subsidiary Indian defence contractors to build up their R&D for the various components for the HAL Tejas. It will not prudent to put a plane that yet is yet to meet the main objectives of LCA and is still in the early development of the component into the open market.

Only starting from 2021, the Indian Government have started to look at the export market considering that both HAL and the other defence contractors have come up with more mature products that have already entered active service and are set to improve substantially the existing products from the airframe, engine and avionics.

Dong Feng EQ2050 Humvee Jeep China Military

That is not the US Humvee that you see in the image above but a shameless copy of it made by the Chinese and then sold to 3rd world countries as Chinese designed military hardware. Image source: Wikipedia / Shadman Samee from Dhaka, Bangladesh

Youtube Referred in OTB

OTB referred to the Youtube video below to highlight that Tejas is a bad plane and have a lot of problems. Not surprisingly the title of the video is “HAL Tejas | One of the most problematic aircraft programmes of our times”.

But then again watch the video to the end to understand why the Indian’s aircraft program run slower and more problematic compared to the ones by Chinese and Koreans. The facts are very mentioned in the said video. The narrator in the video even went on to say that Tejas is not a bad aircraft.

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You need to remember that India has had the underdog status from the 1950s to the 1990s considering the US had always supported Pakistan which is why Pakistan can easily get the F-16 fighter jets whilst India have to do with ageing Russian fighter jets and before that, old British jets. Indian have to do everything from the ground up compared to the Chinese who blatantly and openly reverse engineer Russian & Western military hardware.

Korean and Japanese defence industries work closely with US defence contractors which explains that their military hardware is basically locally made military hardware based on US existing military hardware. One fine example is the Japanese’s Mitsubishi F-2 multi-role fighter which is basically a localised version of US-made F-16 and the Korean’s K1 main battle tank which is a localised version of the US-made M1A1 Abraham MBT.

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Is JF-17 Better Plane For RMAF?

Let’s look at the specifications of both planes and there are some areas that both planes have the edge over the other.

SpecificationJF-17 (China- Pakistan)HAL Tejas (India)
Crew1 or 21 or 2
Length (m)14.9314.60
Wingspan (m)9.448.50
Height (m)4.774.86
Empty weight (kg)6,5867,850
Max takeoff weight (kg)12,38417,500
Powerplant1 × Russian made Klimov RD-93 afterburning turbofan with DEEC, 49.4 kN (11,100 lbf) thrust dry, 84.4 kN (19,000 lbf) with afterburner

Note: Service life span 2200 hrs for RD-33
1 × US made General Electric F414-GE-INS6EPE after burning turbofan. (Indigenous 110KN Engine to be used in future), 58.5 kN (13,200 lbf) thrust dry, 98 kN (22,000 lbf) with afterburner

Note: Service life span 4000 hrs for standard F414
Maximum speed (km/h)1,9102,385
Maximum speed (Mach)1.61.8
Cruise speed (km/h)1,3591,974
Range (km)1,3202,500
Combat range (km)8001500
Service ceiling (m)16,92017,300
Thrust/weight0.950.89
Guns1 × 23 mm GSh-23-2 twin-barrel Russian made autocannon or 1 × 30 mm GSh-30-2 Russian made twin-barrel autocannon1 x 30 mm (1.2 in) GSh-30-1 Russian made single barrel autocannon
Hardpoints713

However, the bigger question is whether RMAF should go for the Chinese-Pakistan made JF-17 instead of HAL Tejas just because China is known for futuristic technology development as argued by OTB. There is an interesting analysis on this very question in this article that appeared in April 2021:-

Compared to JF-17, Tejas has a combat edge with its more potent engine, radar system, and electronic warfare suite, and not to forget the Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missile capability according to IAF experts talking to the EurAsian Times.

JF-17 also comes with a Russian engine, about which Malaysia’s experience has not been good when it comes to serviceability. The country also operates the Russian MiG-29s with similar engines, which are said to require significant after-sales support and maintenance.

However, Tejas is powered by a General Electric F404 engine, also used in Malaysia’s F/A-18s, which has delivered satisfying performance.

With Kuala Lumpur engaged in maritime border disputes with Beijing, there’s are chances that the country could prefer the Indian or even Korean fighters over that of Pakistan. Malaysia and China have been locked in a tense standoff in the South China sea over exploration rights, with Chinese naval vessels repeatedly harassing the former’s exploration and drilling ships and other sea assets.

Experts say that Kuala Lumpur takes the Chinese threat very seriously, and this could be a major factor in deciding the top contender for its combat aircraft procurement deal. This could explain why Malaysia has been keen on spending more time studying India’s Tejas, with a team heading again for India in the coming few months.

The purchase of the JF-17s would bind Malaysia with the Chinese weapons while the FA-50 or LCA Tejas would give them access to ‘trusted’ Western technology, despite being of Korean and Indian origin.

(Source: Eurasian Times)

Seriously, we may have a cheaper, cutting edge fighter at hand but what good it will do against the Chinese military if the Chinese decide to hold back spare parts and missiles. Further, they know in and out of the plane design which exposes it to countermeasures.

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It is unfair to use HAL Tejas Mk1 as the basis for comparison against the Chinese-Pakistan made JF-17 as its shortcomings are well known within the Indian Air Force which pushed for the upgrade of the HAL Tejas to Mk1A and also Mk2 which will make Tejas a very potent aircraft to contend with. Malaysia should insist on Mk1A if they are willing to take Tejas as the next light combat aircraft within RMAF.

Final Say

As I mentioned in my previous blog in relation to the RMAF’s search for the next light combat aircraft, there are other factors that just the aircraft specifications and the aircraft price namely:-

Reason 1 – Flexible Payment Options

The Indians are willing to consider contra trade for the planes for RMAF with Malaysian palm oil and we already know that on record, India is our largest purchaser of Malaysian palm oil. That means Malaysia can save hard currency and optimise our natural resources toward a better defence package for RMAF from the Indians.

At this point, it is difficult to estimate the overall cost to RMAF to procure their new light attack combat fighters but it needs to be within RMAF’s budget of RM7 billion (some quote RMAF’s budget as RM8 billion).

Still, it is not small money to spend especially with the terrible financial management of the current government. So, any offer to sell these jets for RMAF in a non-cash option should be taken seriously.

Reason 2 – MRO Centre in Malaysia

The Indians are willing to set up Maintenance, Refurbishment dan Overhaul centre in Malaysia for the RMAF and in the same manner how HAL was managing the maintenance for Russian made fighter jets. Having an MRO centre in Malaysia would shorten the RMAF’s fleet maintenance lifecycle and also build the capabilities of RMAF and RMAF’s external contractor’s technicians.

Further, as the Indian Air Force also operates Sukhoi 30MKI which is comparable with RMAF own Sukhoi 30MKM, a closer relationship with HAL may resolve the lack of spare parts with the Russians. By the way, HAL is also involved with the upgrade of IAF’s MiG 29 which may open new opportunities to upgrade RMAF’s MiG-29 which was retired back in 2017 due to a lack of spare parts.

Reason 3 – HAL Tejas Continous Improvement

Most of the criticisms with HAL Tejas for RMAF is on the Mark I model which is incidentally the first operating version with the IAF. It is obvious that these shortcomings need to be resolved before it is delivered to RMAF.

The same problem was highlighted by IAF and this pushed HAL to roll out Mark IA which has about 40 major improvements. It is clear that Mark 2 will have even more improvements based on the gaps identified with Mark I & Mark IA and this is the version that RMAF should consider seriously.

Reason 4 – Less Israeli Defence Components

One of the key components of KAI-FA50 and also HAL Tejas is the ELM 2052 fire control radar which is derived from Israel and since Malaysia does not have a diplomatic relationship with Israel may prove a pain in the neck for RMAF when it comes to upgrading and replacement of parts.

To work around this constraint, the Indians will likely offer their self-development Uttam fire control radar which will be fitted to IAF’s Tejas.

Reason 5 – Matured Indian Defence Industry

Considering that India is always facing active military intrusion and attacks from Pakistan and China at all levels, it has developed a good and sustainable defence industry that has provides a good range of defence products from main battle tanks, helicopters, fighter jets, naval crafts, personal weapons, army vehicles, radar equipment and missiles including the famous BrahMos cruise missiles.

Further, Indian defence companies have active defence manufacturing partnerships with the Israelis, Russians and the US-based defence companies which allow them to license the technology into their own indigenous defence products.

Malaysian defence companies will greatly gain from being defence partners with the Indians in this manner considering RMAF need to upgrade many of our ageing fighter jets and procure new ones all of which the Indians can provide under the RMAF’s inventory.

Reason 6 – Going Beyond Jet Fighters

A close relationship by RMAF with the Indians goes beyond the procurement of light attack combat fighters as India is the only country in the vicinity that can effectively counter the Chinese on air and sea.

The Indian Navy is rather unchallengeable in the Indian Ocean with 10 destroyers of which many are stealth guided-missile destroyers, 13 frigates mostly with guided-missile capability, 16 conventionally powered attack submarines, 23 corvettes and 10 large offshore patrol vessels.

The Indian fleet is generally modern and well equipped. We will need the Indians if RMAF and RMN are going to face off the Chinese aircraft and ships in the South China Sea.

In conclusion, RMAF should go for HAL Tejas or alternatively Korean made FA-50 but certainly not the Chinese made JF-17.

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