Tejas: A Fighter Plane 33 Years In the Making
In the early 1980s, there was a plan to build India’s first fighter aircraft, under the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) program. After innumerous technological and process roadblocks, and possibly governmental delays, the LCA, named Tejas (‘radiant’), was inducted into the Indian Air Force a few days ago.
Being in love with fighter planes since I was a toddler, I couldn’t resist the urge to compare our indigenous baby with the best of the world. I am sharing some glaring shortcomings, in the hope that its next versions surpass the best in the world.
Before I get to it, let me take another moment to drool at her in the picture above. Isn’t she just beautiful?!
Ok, back to business, I’ll start with picking three of my favorite fighter planes in the world. They are the USAF F-22 “Raptor“, the USAF F-35 “Lightning” and the SU-37 “Flanker” (or Flanker-F).
Image: F-22, F-35 and the SU-37
While it isn’t a fair comparison, pitting the new kid on the block with veterans, that is just what I am going to do. Let’s see how the Tejas compares.
Speed and Service Ceiling:
Comparing specifications of the Tejas with those of the above three, the Raptor’s top speed is Mach 2.25, with a service ceiling of over 65,000 feet. The Lightning’s is a slow Mach 1.61 with a service ceiling of 50,000 feet. The Flanker’s is a whopping Mach 2.35 with a service ceiling a little over 59,000 feet. In comparison, our Tejas has a respectable top speed of Mach 1.8 with a service ceiling of 50,000 feet.
The Raptor has a flying range of approximately 2,960 kms, the Lightning, 2,220 kms, the Flanker, a cool 3,300 kms. The Tejas has a 3,000 km range. Not bad for the new kid.
The Raptor and the Lightning are stealth fighters. However, contrary to some misleading news articles in the last few days, which said the Tejas was a stealth fighter, it is not one. Specifications of the Tejas do boast of some stealth features such as its inherent small physical form, leading to a comparatively smaller radar signature, and radar-absorbent coatings and body composites and some design modifications which further reduce its radar impression.
However, given that its weapons are external, and the fact that its body design isn’t at sharp angles to deflect radar, it would still make it easy to spot the jet, unless with primitive radar equipment.
Recent, fifth-generation fighters, and even some earlier jets include features which allow for better angles of attack. For instance, the Raptor has thrust-vectoring nozzles, as well as horizontal stabilizers at the back, which allow for a 60° angle of attack. The Lightning, despite the seemingly maneuverable appearance, thrust vectoring nozzle and lift fan (see image below), has a 50° angle of attack.
Image: The F-35’s thrust vectoring nozzle and lift fan – source
The Flanker, with thrust vectoring engines and beautifully designed frame, has a deadly 180° angle of attack. Your eyes might light up like mine always do at the mention of the ‘Cobra maneuver’. This post, wouldn’t be complete without a video of Pugachev’s Cobra maneuver.
Even with the canard delta wing and possibly a thrust vectoring engine, the French Dassault Rafale too only has a 29° angle of attack. The Tejas however, lacks any of the above features, but still is capable of a 28° angle of attack.
From an improvement point of view, I would say that Hindustan Aeronautics and the Aeronautical Development Agency still have some way to go in terms of getting the next versions of the Tejas at par with the best in the world. So while the toughest hurdle (of actually getting the first one service ready) is now behind us, it’s only a matter of time before the world will be dropping at the specifications of India’s own fighter planes. After all, look what we achieved with our space program, in the shortest time span and in the most economical way.
But that said, the global investment into defense research and readiness is as astronomically high as it is stupid. The collective budget is sufficient to eradicate all the world’s problems, from that of sustainable energy, medical research, poverty and global warming; many times over. But till we become smart enough to spend that money to benefit mankind instead of wasting it on defense expenditure, let’s hope no country ever needs to use its fighter fleet.