Two months ago the Indian Air Force (IAF) operationalized its second squadron of the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), an indigenous fighter jet that initially sought to replace the Mig-21. The Tejas comes as a cost effective option for the IAF that is well suited for close air support to troops, along with other missions. Amid China’s growing assertiveness on the border and in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), the incorporation of the Tejas may be part of India’s efforts to build its conventional deterrence posture against China—particularly given the recent successful landing of the naval version of the Tejas on an Indian aircraft carrier. However, the Tejas may also prove to be a challenge for Pakistan in future, particularly keeping in mind how the Tejas may fit within the operational needs of India’s implicit Cold Start Doctrine. With a renewed focus on the role of conventional deterrence on the Subcontinent, it is crucial to examine the potential multi-purpose role of the Tejas fighter and how it may fit within India’s conventional deterrence posture in the region.
Developing the Tejas
India’s aim to build an indigenous fighter jet dates back to the 1980s in an effort to replace the ageing frontline fighter, the Mig-21. New Delhi was also looking to establish a domestic aviation manufacturing industry, which could also be used as part of a commercial industry for the export of military grade aircraft equipment. In 1984, the Indian government set up the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), which had a collaborative approach with the manufacturing handed over to Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). In 2001, an early version of the Tejas aircraft became India’s first indigenous aircraft to be airborne in over 40 years.
The incorporation of the Tejas may be part of India’s efforts to build its conventional deterrence posture against China—particularly given the recent successful landing of the naval version of the Tejas on an Indian aircraft carrier. However, the Tejas may also prove to be a challenge for Pakistan in future, particularly keeping in mind how the Tejas may fit within the operational needs of India’s implicit Cold Start Doctrine.
In 2016, The IAF inducted two Tejas and the aircraft achieved final operational clearance three years later in 2019—meaning it could be deployed in combat operations. The expanded production of the Tejas by HAL has also found space within the Make in India initiative of the Modi government. It has the added benefit of being lower cost and having low maintainability requirements—with the Ministry of Defense recently moving ahead with a deal for the purchasing 83 of the more advanced Mark IA Tejas.
The Tejas fighter comes with several additional operational benefits for the IAF. On the technical front, the compound delta-wing platform significantly reduces the weight of the aircraft, while the aircraft’s blended wing body provides it with greater speed and maneuverability. Additionally, there are three hardpoints under each of the wing and one under fuselage providing it with a total of seven hardpoints to carry weapons. The Tejas can carry air-to-air missiles and air-to-surface missiles as well as anti-ship missiles and unguided rockets. With a naval variant as well, the Tejas is a multipurpose aircraft for Indian Armed Forces. The IAF also plans to incorporate the future variant of Mark II Tejas by 2026, dubbed as being a 4.5 generation fighter with a GE 414 engine is reported to have a longer range and deeper strike capabilities.
The Tejas and Conventional Deterrence
In early January 2020, the Indian Navy landed the naval variant of the Tejas on the INS Vikramaditya aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea, while it operationalized the two squadrons of the indigenous fighter in the South at its air force station in Tamil Nadu in May. The choice of these two locations could be potentially signaling the relevance of the Tejas for missions against China and Pakistan. In regards to potential maritime signaling, while China may able to cordon off an Indian threat especially in the Indian ocean, Pakistan would have to put all the cards on the table to respond to an Indian naval threat. Although, the recent move to start construction of MILGEM-class ships to be jointly built by Turkey and Pakistan equipped for a variety of missions may be an effort to bolster Pakistan’s naval role in the IOR. A year earlier in August 2019, the Indian Chief of Air Staff had stressed the need for a speedy induction of the Tejas aircraft, while emphasizing the growing importance of the IOR for India’s security. Reportedly, however, the Navy would be waiting for the Mark II version of the Tejas and not inducting the Mark I.
The induction of Tejas may also factor into land-based operations. India’s recent clash with China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and subsequent build of troops and air patrols, highlights the land-based nature of the threat posed by China. The Mark I/IA variant will at most be able to provide close air support but even for that initially, the IAF would be hesitant to deploy it without first going through rigorous trials in the region.
In regard to India’s posture vis-à-vis Pakistan, conventional deterrence and modernizing the IAF has gained attention after Balakot and the subsequent aerial dogfight between the IAF and Pakistan Airforce (PAF). For Pakistan, however, the Tejas can also be viewed in how it fits within India’s Cold Start Doctrine (CSD)—a conventional, limited-war strategy meant as a response to a terror attack and infiltrate Pakistan’s territory with multiple Integrated Battle Groups (IBGs) and hold territory to later be used for negotiations while remaining under the nuclear threshold. The role of the IAF would be to provide close, coordinated air support to the Indian Army. As some analysts have noted, to effectiveness of CSD will be gauged by whether the Indian Army could conduct a coordinated deep strike with close air support for each of the IBGs. With a high sortie rate and potential role of providing close air support the Tejas is a step towards meeting more of the operational requirements of CSD.
Pakistan aims to induct 50 JF-17s (Block III) by 2024, whereas India seeks to start testing the Mark II version of Tejas by 2022 and begin incorporating it into the IAF by 2026.
However, despite reaffirmations of CSD by Chief of Army Staff General Bipin Rawat in 2017, there is still uncertainty about whether India would have the will or operational capability to employ Cold Start. In this type of operation, the IAF would have to gain air superiority over Pakistan—a possibility that at present appears challenging due to Pakistan’s effective counter measures which it has employed specifically to deny air superiority to the IAF.
The India-Pakistan Conventional Build-up
While the procurement process to have the Tejas incorporated into the IAF will take time, it is important to look at how the Tejas fits in with broader conventional build-up on the Subcontinent. In response to India’s conventional acquisitions, Pakistan is looking to add to its own capabilities. The Block III variant of the Pakistan-China jointly developed JF-17 made its first flight earlier this year. This version of the JF-17 is said to include a new missile approach warning system and—according to some reports—could be equipped more advanced PL-15 missiles, which are longer-range than the Meteor air-to-air missiles on the Rafale fighter jet that arrived in India on July 29. Pakistan aims to induct 50 Block III JF-17s by 2024, whereas India seeks to start testing the Mark II version of Tejas by 2022 and begin incorporating it into the IAF by 2026.
With India and Pakistan relations on a downward spiral in recent years, and with a focus on air power after Balakot, it will be important to watch how each country reads the others conventional force build-up. Given that India has shifted its focus to build and improve its indigenous fighter and Pakistan seeks to stock up on its existing fleet of JF-17s—with a recent report by Chinese Aviation News claiming that China has been expediting production in 2020—the situation poses an alarming threat to the peace and stability of the South Asian region as conventional escalation under the nuclear umbrella may be a component of future crises. The inherent interest in solidifying the indigenous conventional postures by both the states further underscores a broader accelerated arms buildup, which dampens the possibility of diplomatic discussion of outstanding disputes that hamper the peace of the Subcontinent.
Image 2: Rajnath Singh via Twitter