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South Asia , Aircraft and Anti-Aircraft

Why the HAL Tejas MK2 Fighter Could Well Save India From Reliance on Costly U.S., French and Swedish Multirole Platforms

November 13th - 2017

While India's frontline air superiority fighter fleet is among the most advanced and capable in the world, with the country fielding around 300 of the highly potent Su-30MKI air superiority platforms, its supporting light multirole fighter fleet is in relative terms far less capable. The country has long relied on a fleet of 250 second generation MiG-21 fighters - as well as around 70 early model MiG-29 and 45 French Mirage 2000 fighters. Seeking to expand its multirole fleet, India first sought to acquire 126 of the more advanced Dassault Rafale fighters. With these fighters coming with a phenomenal price tag, arguable far above their worth when compared to more capable and heavier fighters such as the F-22 and Su-35, the Rafale order was cut down to just 36 fighters. Considering that the French platform has had little export success, and that France has resorted to effectively paying potential clients to buy the fighter, this may well be in India’s best interests. 36 Rafale fighters alone alone cost the country a staggering $8.8 billion - a price hard to justify considering the capabilities of the Rafale relative to far more advanced platforms such as the Su-35, J-20 and F-22.

India has, since reducing its Rafale order, sought to enhance its multirole fleet by initiating a Make in India single engine fighter competition - for which Sweden's Saab Gripen and America's F-16 were leading competitors to provide the country with around 115 single engine fighters. Both of these Western fighters were marketed at high prices however, though still far more cost effective than the Rafale. Both nations also proved highly reluctant to transfer technology to India as part of the deal. The Make in India fighter may well be cancelled as a result - as both contenders may be considered unsatisfactory.

India may well be able avoid importing costly Western fighters from countries imposing difficult terms altogether by investing in its own fourth generation multirole fighter program. While an advanced air superiority platform such as the Su-30MKI is well beyond India's technological capabilities to develop, as is a fifth generation light fighter such as the F-35 or J-31, developing a fourth generation light fighter - possibly based on the stalling HAL Tejas program - remains a less complex task. Pakistan and Taiwan have both developed their own fourth generation light fighters successfully - the JF-17 Thunder and Ching Kuo respectively - to lessen their dependence on the U.S. made F-16. India's far larger defence budget and greater domestic market means it should well be able to develop its own equivalent to the F-16 and Gripen domestically. With Russia having developed the advanced 4+ generation MiG-35 and Israel having put great effort into developing the Lavi fourth generation fighter, both of these Indian military partners could well provide critical technological assistance for its fighter program. Alternatively, Taiwan remains a potentially highly promising prospective partner which could offer critical assistance to the Tejas program from its own experience.

It remains strongly in India's interests, both for its finances and to enhance the independence of its military, for the country to devote resources towards developing its Tejas into an effective platform equivalent to the F-16. While India sought to co produce fighters with Sweden or the United States, a domestic fighter could be entirely manufactured domestically - in line with Prime Minister Modi's Make in India initiative. While the Tejas MK1 may well prove insufficient for this task due to its relatively poor capabilities, the cancelled Tejas MK2 program has more potential to meet India's defense needs. Reviving the more promising Tejas MK2 program could well save India from having to make costly foreign acquisitions while giving the country a more modern light multirole platform to modernise its fleet of multirole fighters.

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