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India will debut Twin-Seat LCA Tejas at Langkawi Air Show in Malaysia

Many experts consider the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), though not yet fully developed, already far deadlier than its opposite number – the JF-17 Thunder fighter, developed by China and built in Pakistan. Now Malaysia too is endorsing the Tejas’ quality by shifting interest from the Sino-Pakistani to the Indian fighter. Last year, Kuala Lumpur was discussing a deal with Pakistan to buy the JF-17. But now, the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) is signalling strong interest in the Tejas.

Business Standard learns that Kuala Lumpur has asked New Delhi to send a Tejas fighter to the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition 2019 (LIMA’19) – Malaysia’s premier defence exhibition – being held from March 26-30. It is believed that Malaysia’s defence minister is keen to fly in the Tejas.

Malaysia is reportedly keen on buying about 30 light fighters. If it selects the Tejas and wants delivery early, it would get the fighter in the “final operational clearance” (FOC) configuration, which was accorded on December 31.

Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), which builds the Tejas, prices the current version at Rs 200 crore ($28.5 million). This may be slightly costlier than the JF-17 Thunder, which is priced at about $25 million, but the Tejas offers better performance.

Surpassing the workmanlike JF-17 Thunder, the Tejas incorporates four state-of-the-art technologies: It has an unstable design and a sophisticated quadruplex digital flight control system. Second, it is built largely of light composite materials, allowing the fighter to carry more weaponry. Third, it has a sophisticated glass cockpit and microprocessor-based utility controls, with systems like fuel controlled by computers. Finally, its American GE F-404IN engine is superior to the JF-17’s Russian RD-93.

Besides Malaysia, a West Asian emirate has expressed interest in the Tejas fighter, as well as the Rudra – a weaponised version of HAL’s Dhruv advanced light helicopter. It is learnt that the Tejas and the Rudra will be sent soon to West Asia for evaluation.

Contacted for confirmation, HAL chief R Madhavan declined to identify prospective customers, but stated: “There is significant overseas interest in buying the Tejas light fighter. HAL is pursuing imminent opportunities in South-east and West Asia.”

Unfortunately, HAL will be deploying one of its older, prototype Tejas fighters to Langkawi and West Asia, rather than one of the new aircraft it has series-built for the Indian Air Force (IAF). A twin-seat fighter is essential for prospective customers to be taken for a spin. But since the IAF has delayed in finalising the configuration of the twin-seat Tejas, the only ones existing are two HAL prototypes built years ago.

“We will ferry one Tejas to Malaysia in March and show it at Langkawi. We know how to do this, having already participated in the Bahrain International Air Show (BIAS),” says a senior official from HAL, which will again spearhead the effort.

In 2016, HAL had moved a team of two Tejas fighters, three pilots and a maintenance team to Bahrain. The Tejas fighters flew over 2,500 kilometres in three days: from Bangalore to Jamnagar, then to Muscat and on to Bahrain the final day. The IAF flew the maintenance team and spares on one of its giant C-17 Globemaster III aircraft.

India-Malaysia defence ties are solidifying. The Malaysian air force already flies the Sukhoi-30MKM, which is modelled on the IAF’s Sukhoi-30MKI. This makes for interoperability between the two air forces. In August, on the way back to India from Exercise Pitch Black – a multi-national air exercise in Australia – the IAF contingent stopped over in Malaysia to carry out a bilateral exercise with the RMAF.

“The RMAF crew flew in the IAF’s Sukhoi-30MKI and IAF crew got an opportunity to fly in RMAF Sukhoi-30MKM aircraft. This was the first time that both the forces had come together and undertook flying operations,” announced our defence ministry on August 23.

Malaysia’s switch to the Tejas fighter would be a second disappointment to Pakistan, after Sri Lanka earlier backed away from the JF-17 after first expressing interest. Last April, a senior Pakistani defence ministry official had announced Malaysia’s interest in buying the JF-17. Then, in November, Pakistani media at the IDEAS 2018 defence exhibition in Karachi reported “keen interest” in the JF-17 by a Malaysian delegation, headed by RMAF chief General Dato Effendi.

The JF-17 Thunder is a single-engine, lightweight, multi-purpose combat aircraft that was developed jointly by the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Corporation of China and Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, Kamra. In contrast to the IAF’s laborious induction of the Tejas, the JF-17 first flew in August 2003 and entered service in March 2007. The Pakistan Air Force currently flies five squadrons of the JF-17, with another five on the way.

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