The RMAF i.e Malaysian Air Force had sent out a global request for a low cost light combat aircraft (LCA) a couple of years back. It is said that RMAF had expressed interest in HAL’s Tejas LCA back in 2019, post the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace exhibition (LIMA) in Malaysia. As per sources, HAL might respond to this request somewhere ending this quarter, probably September 2021. It is said that the export cost of Tejas LCA will be INR 309 crore excluding charges for additional services to be provided. This puts it somewhere around 40 mil USD plus thos service charges, hence making it one of the cheapest fighters globally. Let’s look into the RMAF LCA program and the possible participants.
About RMAF LCA program
This program was initiated around 2019 with a total of 8 contenders under consideration. It includes HAL LCA Tejas, CAC/PAC JF-17 Thunder, SAAB Gripen, Yakovlev YAK-130, Hongdu JL-10 variant known as L-15 Falcon, Aero L-39NG, KAI F/A-50 Fighting Eagle and Leonardo M-346. As per RMAF plan the requirement is for 36 aircrafts with follow on order of upto 26. RMAF expects 1st jet to enter service by 2025. The requirement for this tender demands the aircraft to be multirole with ability to conduct air to air, air to ground, maritime strike as well as counter insurgency operations. Above all there is one more condition i.e. the aircraft should be economically viable. Considering current pandemic situation and economic conditions, it is more likely that emphasis will be on cost, which will not only involve cheaper rates but probably a line of credit or barter deal too.
RMAF LCA Program Competitors:
We shall be discussing in brief about all competitors and compare how Tejas fares against them.
1. M-346 Master
This twin engine fighter jet powered by 2 x Honeywell F124-GA-200 engines generating thrust of 28kn each was initially developed in partnership between Alenia Aermacchi and Yakolev as YAK/AEM-130. But with partnership broken, both companies pursued their own design with Alenia Aermacchi as M-346 Master and Yakolev going with YAK-130. The Master features Grifo-346 radar with detection range of around 110km and capability to track upto 10 target simultaneously. This aircraft has top speed of around mach 0.9 (but has reached upto 1.2 mach) with ferry range of 2500km, combat radius around 550-600km and service ceiling of 45000ft. It has 7 hardpoints with payload capacity of 3 tons and internal fuel capacity of 2tons. It can be armed with variety of weapons which include IRIS-T CCM, I-Derby BVR, LGBs etc.
Developed from Hondgu JL-10 by Hongdu Aviation Industry Corporation (HAIC), this aircraft will be powered by twin Ivchenko-Progress AI-222-30F engines generating thrust of 49kn each. It will likely feature an AESA radar with range of 110km. It can attain speed of mach 1.4 with ferry range of 3100km and combat radius of 550km. It can fly upto 52000ft and has payload capacity of 3 tonnes on its 9 hardpoints which will include missiles lik PL-10, SD-10, rocket pods, LGBs etc.
This twin engine aircraft is cousin of M-346 Master developed by Yakolev and powered by Ivchenko-Progress AI-222-25 engine with 24.5kn thrust each. It will feature BARS 130 radar with range of >100km. The aircraft can reach mach 0.9 with ferry range of 2100km, combat radius of 550km and service ceiling of 41000ft. It can carry 3 tons of payload on its 9 hardpoints. The weapons will be mostly of Russian orign which may include R73, LGBs and rocket pods.
The aircraft is developed by Aero Vodochody of Czech Republic and is powered by single FJ44-4M turbofan engine generating thrust of 16.9kn. The aircraft fly at 0.6 mach and has a service ceiling of 37,700 ft. It has 5 hard points with total capacity of 1.2 tons. It can carry IR guided CCM, LGBs, rocket pods etc.
5. F/A-50 Fighting Eagle
Korean Aerospace Industry’s F/A-50 Fighting Eagle is powered by GE F404 engine generating 78.7kn thrust. Interestingly it features Israeli EL/M-2032 with range of 150km. However the Malaysian variant might feature Raytheon AESA radar or Samsung Thales AESA radar. F/A-50 can attain top speed of mach 1.5 with range of 1851km and service ceiling of 48000ft. Payload capacity in around 4.5 tons with total 7 hardpoints capable of carrying Aim-9 Sidewinder, AGM-65 Maverick, JDAM, LGBs etc and will be integrated with AIM-120 BVRs. A new EW suite known as EA-50 is being developed for F/A-50, however it currently features Rafael’s Skyshield ECM pods or LIG Nex1’s ALQ200k ECM pod. Removable In-flight refueling probe is being considered and It may also carry Sniper or Litening targeting pods.
6. JF-17 Thunder
This aircraft developed by Chengdu Aircraft Corporation and manufactured under joint venture by Pakistan Aircraft Corporation is powered by Russian RD-93 engines gerenating thrust of 84.4kn, while there are speculations that block 3 will likely feature RD-93MA engine with 92kn thrust. JF-17 currently feature KJ-7 which has range of 105km for fighter sized target, while block 3 will feature KJ-7A AESA radar with range of around 140-170km for fighter sized target. It can achieve top speed of Mach 1.6 with ferry range of 3500km, alleged combat radius of 1350km and service ceiling of 55,500 ft. It has payload capacity of 4.6 tons with total 7 hardpoints capable of carrying PL-9, PL-10, SD-10, C-802 Ashm, CM-102 anti radiation missile, LGBs etc. L-15 is planned for block 3. It can carry ALQ-500P or KG300G Self protection jammer. This aircraft is capable of in-flight refueling and can carry targeting pods.
7. HAL LCA Tejas
LCA Tejas is developed by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and is powered by GE F-404 INS20 engines generating 89kn thrust. It currently features EL/M 2032 with range of 150km, however initial MK1A variant will feature EL/M 2052 AESA with 200km range and later variant will feature Uttam AESA radar with range of 200km against 3sqm target. It can attain top speed of mach 1.6 with ferry range of 3200km,combat radius of 500km and service ceiling of 50,000ft. The payload capacity is in excess of 4.5 tons with total 8 hardpoints capable of carrying R-73, I-Derby, LGBs, SPJ etc. In future it will be integrated with Astra mk1 and mk2, ASRAAM, SAAW, CAT system, Rudram series missiles and has been showcased with Brahmos NG at Aero India. It has integrated electronic counter measure suite and a pod based Electronic warfare suite of Israeli orign. This aircraft is capable of in-flight refueling and can carry a targeting pod.
8. JAS-39 Gripen
Developed by SAAB Aerospace, Gripen is powered by single Volvo RM12 engine generating 80.5kn of thrust. It currently features PS-05/A radar with range of 160-170km. however E/F variant will feature Raven ES-05 Gan based AESA radar. It can achieve top speed of Mach 2 with ferry range of 3200km and combat radius of 800km. The E/F variant powered by GE RM16 engine with thrust of 98kn will provide ferry range of 4000km and combat radius of 1500km. The payload capacity is 5.3 tons with 8 hardpoints (10 for E/F) capable of carrying, ASRAAM, IRIS-T, AIM-120, Meteor, LGBs, RBS15 ashm, etc. It carries ALQ-TLS ECM pod. It is capable of in-flight refueling and can carry targeting and reconnaissance pod.
RMAF LCA Program: LCA Tejas V/S rest
If we consider the requirement set by RMAF, it is likely that Yak-130, M-346 and L-39NG are not in race since these are not even supersonic jets. Coming to Gripen, it is the most potent of the competitors but it also the most expensive. Gripen E/F is costing fortunes to Brazil with the signed initial deal for $5.7 bil for 36 jets which has escalated to an estimated $9bil, even though it offers things like GAN based AESA, Wide Area display, etc. The cost factor will be a big no for RMAF even at $6 bil for 36 jets. And if we consider C/D version, they too are costlier than other competitors and also don’t offer any cutting edge advantage over the other fighters. This leaves RMAF with JF-17, L-15B, Tejas and F/A-50.
Coming to L-15B, the aircraft in its current form has largely limited capabilities which will need extensive modifications (which is not an issue with the Chinese) that will increase program cost. Other than that will RMAF prefer a twin engine jet for LCA role is to be seen, considering the higher operating costs of twin engine fighters. The real competition is considered by most to be between F/A-50, Tejas and JF-17. While other 2 have seen few export success, Tejas is relatively new in trying to spread its wings in the export market by taking part not only in the RMAF LCA tender, but in the US Navy LIFT tender too.
JF-17 in current form costs $25-30 mil unit price, however it doesn’t include the associated cost of spares and logistics other than weapons. For example Nigeria is estimated to have ordered 3 JF-17 for $184mil, that puts the unit cost at $60mil. Above all this, the block 3 cost will shoot up considerably with many additions, so it will be interesting to see what price Pakistan actually offers. Another interesting point to note is that the biggest USP of JF-17 B3 is PL-15 super BVR missile with alleged range of 400km. In reality such range is impossible to obtain against fighters, the realistic estimate by many is at 250km for fighter sized aircraft. But question is what use such range will offer to Malaysia when JF-17 radar range is only 170km. Also RMAF doesn’t have any AWACS support which can theoretically (practically only tested by US) guide the missile to target at such ranges.
JF-17 currently doesn’t feature any Helmet mounted Display (said to be integrated in Block 3) and has only 3-axis FBW. It is powered by RD-93 engine which is a cousin of RD-33 engine used in Malaysian Mig-29, with which the latter had a not so good experience. Another problem that will crop around JF-17 will be financing the deal, Pakistan doesn’t have a deep pocket to provide line of credit or do a palm oil barter as speculated in this deal. In this case maybe China comes in, but it is to be seen whether they will be pushing their own L-15B or will support the JV of JF-17.
Still JF-17 block 3 offers a very decent capability with its PL-9and PL10 CCM, SD-10 and PL-15 BVR, C-802 ashm and KJ-7A AESA radar.
Philippines ordered 12 F/A 50 for $421 mil back in 2014 at around $35mil per unit and likely with associated cost. But this was the cost back in 2014 which will be subjected to inflation. Other than that the F/A-50 which Philippines ordered doesn’t have AESA radar, which is still being developed for it. Also that deal did not include AIM-120 BVRs and targeting pods. F/A- 50 also doesn’t offer any Helmet Mounted Display or Cruise missile or anti-shipping capability. So including any of the above capability will add to cost. However South Korea might offer line of credit for its jets which is a plus point, also F/A-50 will find some spares and weapons commonality with its F/A-18 hornet fleet. Korea will have to add few capabilities like Cruise missile and replace all current Israeli system onboard to make it a competitive offer for Malaysia.
About Tejas Mk1A
Tejas Mk1A has costed $78 mil per unit, but this includes GST. Without GST it will cost somewhere around $65 mil per unit which includes associated cost too. Unit cost of aircraft is around $45mil which is on higher side as compared to its competitors, but those excludes systems like HMD, AESA radar etc. When you include those in both competitors cost will be comparative. The issue with Tejas is use of multiple Israeli systems onboard like radar, BVR, EW suite and HMD, which needs to be replaced as Malaysia maybe averse to having Israeli systems onboard. There is no issue with radar and BVR as HAL will be integrating indigenous systems like Uttam AESA radar and Astra mk1/mk2. It is to be seen whether indigenous HMD and EW suite, which is under development, will be available within the stipulated time or HAL has to team up with some western company to offer these.
Even though cost remains on a higher side than other 2 competitors, it also offers many advantages over them. Most importantly Tejas will allow integration of both western and eastern system (barring Chinese), which means weapons from its fleet of hornet as well as Su-30 may find commonality with Tejas. Also there will be limited logistical commonality between hornet and Tejas engine. Another issue is Tejas currently doesn’t carry any cruise missile but it will feature CATS hunter for the role in future even if Brahmos NG is not integrated.
Infact CATS platforms will offer what no other competitors can offer that is swarm drone system called CATS Alpha-S. Other than that Tejas offers better RCS and TWR than others. Its BVR capability is on par with competitors with Astra Mk2 and may also integrate wide area display, if demanded. Another advantage that lies with Tejas is that India may offer either line of credit or a barter deal against Malaysian palm oil, of which India was largest importer, a deal which Malaysia is looking for as per speculations.
|Particulars/ Aircrafts||M-346 Master||L-15B||YAK-130||L-39NG||F/A-50 Fighting Eagle||JF-17 Thunder||Tejas||JAS-39 Gripen|
|Manufacturer||Alenia Aermacchi||HAIC||Yakolev||Aero Vodochody||KAI||PAC/CAC||HAL||SAAB|
|Engine||2*F124-GA200||2*AL-222-30F||2*AL-222-25||1*FJ44-4M||GE F-404||RD-93/ RD-93MA||GE F-404 INS20||RM-12/ RM-16|
|Thrust||28kn each||49kn each||24.5kn each||16.9kn||78.7kn||84.4kn/92kn||89kn||80.5kn/98kn|
|Max Speed (in mach)||0.9||1.4||0.9||0.6||1.5||1.6||1.6||2|
|Ferry Range (in km)||2500||3100||2100||2600||3700||3500||3200||3200|
|Combat radius(in km)||550||550||550||500*||600*||600*||500||800|
|Service Ceiling (in ft)||45000||52000||41000||37700||48000||55500||50000||50000/ 52000|
|Payload Capacity||3 tons||3 tons||1.2 tons||3 tons||3.7 tons||4.6 tons||4.5 tons||5.3 tons|
|Radar (current)||Grifo-346||X-band PESA||BARS 130||N||E L/M-2032||KJ-7||E L/M-2032||PS -5/A|
|Range ( figher target)||110km||110km||100+km||–||150||105||150||160|
|Radar (future)||same||X-Band AESA||same||possible||Raython/Samsung Thales AESA||KJ-7A||E L/M-2052/Uttam||Raven ES-05|
|Range ( figher target)||–||N/A||–||–||N/A||140-170km||200km/200km||N/A|
|Cuise/ashm missile||N||N||N||N||KEPD 350K-2′||C-802||CATS Hunter’/Rudram’||RBS-15|
|Targetting pod||N||N||N||N||Sniper/Litening||WMD-7||Litening/SIVA’||Litening/Thales DJR|
*=Estimated ; ‘ = Planned
RMAF LCA Program: Verdict
Now it is to be seen which aircraft will RMAF eventually choose, and it will definitely have political influence. In the end, does Tejas really have a chance? Definitely it does, but RMAF will determine its requirements, will likely tradeoff some capabilities for cost based on threat perception. They will likely tilt towards the political inclination of their country’s leadership, than choose a jet which might fit the bill.