In a clear sign that it may not be interested in acquiring either the Swedish made Gripen E/F fighter or the American made F-16 Block 70IN, both of which were on offer to the Indian Air Force, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman today said her government has decided to back a heavily upgraded and revised variant of the home-built Tejas Light Combat Aircraft.
According to Ms Sitharaman, monetary “provisions for Tejas Mk-2 are being made,” making it absolutely clear that “we are not ditching” the Tejas. Significantly, when asked whether the government now believed the next-generation variant of the Tejas would be as capable as the Gripen and F-16, Ms Sitharaman responded positively stating that this would be a reality once a series of modifications were carried out.
Two years ago, the government had announced that it was looking to acquire a single-engine jet fighter to supplement the Tejas jet. This fighter would be somewhat less capable than the Air Force’s Sukhoi-30s and Rafales (36 of which have been ordered from Dassault of France) but would be larger and more capable than the Tejas Mk-1 jet being manufactured in Bangalore presently. The two front-runner to this single-engine deal were seen to be Sweden’s SAAB with its Gripen E/F fighter and the US aerospace major Lockheed Martin with its F-16 Block 70IN jet.
The government has already announced that it is going ahead with the purchase of 83 Tejas jets in a contract worth more than Rs. 33,000 crore. These include the Tejas Mk-1, the initial variant of the jet, a handful of which have entered squadron service with the Indian Air Force and the more capable Tejas Mk-1A which is in the process of being developed. Significantly, the Defence Minister has now made it clear that the government is working to ensure that the “per year manufacturing capability of Tejas must increase.” According to Ms Sitharaman, “We want them to produce much more”, a reflection of the present manufacturing facilities of the jet where only approximately six can be built per year by Hindustan Aeronautics. Hindustan Aeronautics, which manufacturers the Tejas is looking to utilise a second Tejas production line while outsourcing components of the fighter to private manufacturers to reduce the time taken to build each fighter.
The Tejas, Ms Sitharaman indicated, will continue to be developed for the Indian Navy. Earlier, the Indian Navy Chief Admiral Sunil Lanba had indicated that the jet, in its present state, was not capable of embarking operations onboard India’s aircraft carriers, the INS Vikramaditya or the INS Vikrant which is yet to be commissioned.
Indicating that the Tejas fighter had serious export potential, Ms Sitharaman said “countries are talking about Tejas, not just Indian markets.” Recently, the Air Force Chiefs of France and the United States both flew rear-seat on trainer variant of the Tejas fighters.
In February, sources within the Defence Ministry had indicated that India was no longer interested in a class of single-engine fighter other than the Tejas and had asked the Indian Air Force to revise its requirements to also include multi-engine fighters. There is, presently, no clarity on the shape of this acquisition and whether a deal for another multi-role fighter jet will at all progress.
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