British Roadblock in Tejas way to Argentina, and how New Delhi likely to fix it

Anil chopra, Rishav, Air Power Asia, LCA, HAL, DRDO, Argentina, India,

Carrying an aspiration to score the maiden export success of its Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has so far entered into multiple races, and multiple venues, opening doors for various potential customers to judge the capability and compatibility of the platform to fulfill their air defence requirements, either on long-term or interim basis. Made its way to the headlines very recently, Argentina is now also being viewed as the latest potential customer of India’s indigenously designed and developed LCA “Tejas”, a fourth-generation multirole fighter.

On September 14, the Argentinian Chief of the Cabinet of Ministers, Juan Manzur, and the office of Defense Minister Jorge Taiana, had formally presented a detailed report (https://www.defensenews.com/air/2022/09/21/argentina-eyes-664-million-for-fighter-jets/)on the needs of the country’s armed forces, along with the financial budget it requires to bolster the strength on multiple fronts. Among the highlights, is its project to spend US$684 million on the acquisition of 12 modern fourth-generation combat aircraft, also including US$20 million for setting up the associated infrastructure comprising simulators, training facility, maintenance equipment, and more. The report also consisted of the progress made in the domain, including the studies and evaluations done for the contenders to make a proper choice for the Argentine Air Force (officially called Fuerza Aérea Argentina, FAA).

The report (https://twitter.com/MalvinasData/status/1570096751557632000) has offered, for the first time, a detailed study on the demands of the South American state for its next fighter aircraft, listing the technical specification it seeks in the platform, as well as from Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) for logistics and related after-sales support:

  1. Supersonic multi-role fighter.
  2. Capable of in-flight refueling from refuelers owned by the FAA.
  3. Active Electronic Scanning Array Radar (AESAR).
  4. Tactical Data Link (TDL) capability.
  5. Electronic self-defense capability (Electronic Warfare Suite).
  6. Potential and logistical and temporary projection.
  7. No components of British origin.
  8. Availability and supply of a wide range of weapons for deployment.

Based on the given characteristics, four contenders were chosen: JF-17 “Thunder” from Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) and Chengdu Aerospace Corporation (CAC), LCA Tejas from Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, F-16 “Fighting Falcon” [Unspecified variant] from Lockheed Martin, and MiG-35 from Rosoboronexport. Additionally, it also listed costs of each system per flight hour, which is apparently noted from open source, with JF-17 having the lowest, with US$7,600 while MiG-35 having the highest, with $US18,000. F-16 and Tejas stand on measures of US$10,000 and US$12,000 respectively.

In an interview with infodefensa (https://www.infodefensa.com/texto-diario/mostrar/3896537/xavier-isaac-infraestructura-apoyo-operacion-aerea-mayores-urgencias-hoy-tiene-faa), Xavier Julián Isaac,Chief of General Staff of the Argentine Air Force, shed some additional light on the current state of the acquisition process. The key element is that Tejas and JF-17 are the frontrunners in the competition. The F-16 offer is “not concrete” as of now. However, the United States has proposed to sell the lot from the Royal Danish Air Force inventory, which is receiving more than 2 dozen F-35 “Lightning II” fifth-generation fighter aircraft in the next five years, and hence looking to dispose of a squadron of aging F-16A/B MLU airframes. It must be noted that it is not capable of probe-and-drogue refueling from the KC-130 aerial tankers in service with FAA. This is a familiar drawback for non-NATO customers of the Fighting Falcon as it is only capable of “boom” refueling operations, in which a rigid, telescoping tube, called “Boom” with movable flight control surfaces is inserted into the spine of the aircraft for transferring the fuel. On the other hand, probe-and-drogue requires a hose (called a probe) from receiving aircraft attached to the basket (called drogue) retracted from the tanker aircraft. Probe-and-drogue systems are relatively simpler and affordable to carry out and hence, a relevant choice for many air forces around the world. For MiG-35, it is simply stated as an “underproduced aircraft”, and hence, a straight no-go for the FAA.

However, the General’s interview also confirmed that only JF-17 has gone through Argentina’s full-fledged evaluation. The report has an entire section that defines JF-17 as an ideal solution for the criteria set by the FAA, which most likely culminated after visits of Argentine officials to both China and Pakistan. While Tejas and F-16 have their reasons to still have this pre-requisite (in the procurement process) pending.

The Falkland roadblock

The 1982 Falklands war had seen political, territorial, and military conflict between the United Kingdom and Argentina which caused large-scale casualties of personnel on both sides. Though the UK has control over the islands today, it has imposed multiple embargoes on the South American state which has impacted multiple military deals so far. The Buenos Aires attempts to acquire Swedish SAAB Gripen and South Korean FA-50, were scrapped as both platforms employ Martin Baker ejection seats. Other deals like that of second-hand Spanish Mirage F1M or Israeli Kfir also fell apart due to British pressure made on the sellers. This is the reason that the report has explicitly mentioned that any OEM looking to make their proposal needs to ensure that the product must not sport any British-origin system.

Tejas and its red flags, and fixes

This is not the first time when Tejas is officially declared in the race for Argentina’s next fighter aircraft. Soon after the joint commission meeting in Buenos Aires, attended by Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar, his Argentinian counterpart, Mr. Santiago Cafiero, Argentinian Minister of Defense Jorge Taiana, and the Secretary of Strategic Affairs Mercedes Marcó del Pont, a joint statement was issued which acknowledged “Argentine interest in Made in India Tejas fighter aircraft”. The report in parliament additionally confirmed the competition New Delhi and Tejas are facing, both at the political and product level. At the product level, it involves a third party which is a genuine concern. These problems are very well acknowledged by both HAL and the Argentine air chief and hence, they agreed to delay the “deep study/evaluation” of the platform until the end of October.

The LCA, albeit designed, tested, and certified within the country, a considerable number of sub-systems are of foreign origin. This is due to reasons like an indigenous counterpart is simply not available, or under development that will take years before announced fit for integration. Two British firms, namely Cobham and Martin Baker are major partners in the Tejas program. Cobham at present supplies quartz radome and in-flight refueling probe. However, the radome was not British nor planned to be British from the beginning. Indigenous composite radome (Kevlar with low-loss polyester) was there in place on Tejas prototypes and limited series production aircraft. But it was soon observed that multimode radar onboard, the Israeli Elta EL/M-2032 was facing several operational limitations due to electromagnetic problems caused due to the radome only because it was not transparent enough for RF signals. This called for alternatives under the product improvement program, with an official tender in 2012, but without causing any structural changes. Cobham, came up with a better solution with quartz radome, with successful tests also carried out in multiple scenarios for validation, leading to its product as standard fitment on Tejas, which eventually allowed maximizing radar’s range. However, in 2019, it was unveiled that DRDO’s Advanced Systems Laboratory and Research & Development Establishment (Engrs.) have begun work on an equivalent quartz radome, and planned to introduce it as soon as Mark 1A variants start rolling out from production lines. This is most likely going to be fixed in the Argentinian scenario.

In-Flight Refuelling Probe is yet another hurdle. During the integration process, multiple studies were done to place the IFR probe in the most appropriate location on the aircraft, without heavily compromising the aerodynamics of the airframe or blocking the pilot’s view. This is also indicated by the designs of earlier mock-ups, where the refueling probe position was different from what we are seeing today in serving units. To swap it with a different IFR probe, certain modifications need to be carried out during integration, before moving ahead with another round of tests on the ground and then dry docking up in the air, to validate if the new probes function as smoothly as the Cobham one. For this, however, HAL needs a longer time than a month, which Argentina needs to cope with if it goes ahead for Indian LCA.

The ejection Seat is the most crucial of all, since replacing it can take longer than any other above-identified system. The Mk.16 variant from Martin Baker is placed in its final configuration after a series of simulations and trials. It is fitted by keeping in mind that pilots have good visuals within and outside the aircraft’s glass cockpit, while also making it comfortable, whether in long-haul relaxed flights or combat scenarios to undertake Gs well (the airframe is certified to take up the figure between -3.5 to +8.0 Gs). Additionally, it also needs to be optimized as per the additional equipment worn by the pilot, especially the Helmet Mounted Display systems. In 2012, after the integration of the modern Display And Sight Helmet (DASH), supplied by Elbit systems of Israel, there were cases where it was observed protruding out of desired space, which could lead to a fatal ejection sequence. To solve this, a detailed fix was worked on for three months. This simply proves the work done on what today is a safe, compatible while also comfortable accommodation in the cockpit. To replace this, a proper ejection seat manufacturer needs to be found. For which, first can be Russian company Zvezda which produced K-36D ejection seats for IAF Su-30MKI and MiG-29, while also supplying improved versions of the variant for Su-57 as well, Russia’s top-of-the-line fifth-generation fighter aircraft. As another option, HAL can seek another partner from the west, this time American firm Collins Aerospace. Collins Aerospace has produced the ACES family of ejection seats that are integrated into premium fighters of US origin, including the F-16. Since both aircraft are in the same class, ACES 5, the latest iteration of the ACES, should be considered for integration to convince Argentina. However, as mentioned earlier, the integration of an ejection seat is a time-consuming process. It involves seat fitment and several trials, both on the ground and in the air before it is certified suitable for standard operations. It may take at least a year for the integration process to complete.

Though unspecified, it is clear that Mark 1A standard is on offer, considering the base Mark 1 production is likely halted after the completion of 40 airframes and Mark 2 is not ready yet. Firstly, it is entirely compatible with all the demands made by the FAA. It includes an Active Electronically Scanned Array Radar (AESAR), which can either be the Israeli Elta EL/M-2052 or Indian DRDO Uttam Mk1, it will be able to attain a top speed of Mach 1.6, it has Software Defined Radio (SDR)-based data link,  it is capable of conducting probe-and-drogue refueling, it sports an Electronic Warfare (EW) suite with provision to carry pod based Missile Approach Warning System (MAWS) and self-protection jammer, either indigenous (under-development) or Israeli ELL-8222 and lastly, it can carry a wide range of armament, including Derby or Astra Medium Range air-to-air missile, Python-5 or R-73 Imaging InfraRed (IIR) close combat missiles, Laser Guided Bombs like Paveway and Griffin, Precision Guided Munitions like AASM Hammer, Anti-Ship missiles like BrahMos-NG (under-development), and finally an array of dumb bombs. The integrated MIL-STD-1553 data bus also offers the capability of integrating newer weapons as per the operator’s preference, and this is the reason why during promotional events, several untested weapons are also advertised to be compatible with the aircraft. Overall, while in IAF it will be attached more for interception roles, it can be more relevant as a decent multirole fighter for Argentine Air Force.

The Competition

The competition of Indian LCA in this affair is the Sino-Pak fighter JF-17. Despite starting later than the LCA program, the JF-17 managed to overtake its Indian counterpart both in numbers and relevance to the user. Today, the platform is in service with 3 nations, and more than 160 units have been produced so far. This is not the first time, however, that the aircraft is officially pitched to the South American country. Back in 2015 as well, talks were held with Beijing regarding the sale of the platform which didn’t materialize, believed to be due to financial constraints. In 2021, rumors emerged again when an alleged budget report mentioned a request for allocation of $664 million for the purchase of 12 JF-17 Block III, which was later denied formally in a statement (https://www.argentina.gob.ar/noticias/el-ministerio-de-defensa-informa)

issued by the Argentine Ministry of Defence. Speaking of Block III, that is the variant on offer, comes integrated with all the fourth-generation capabilities, but at far less cost than other platforms in the class, including the Tejas. The aircraft is equipped with Chinese KLJ-7A AESAR, said to be an air-cooled variant. Furthermore, it has a full-package EW suite, including an internal RWR, MAWS, and podded Chinese jammer, most likely KLJ-700, first spotted with the Block 2 standard. Link-17 is Pakistan’s homegrown data link which has so far effectively favored PAF in combat operations, whether in counter-insurgency or the 2019 skirmish with India. Speaking of firepower, the JF-17 armament package hosts a variety of air-to-air and air-to-surface weapon systems. The PL-15 is a medium-to-long range active radar-homing air-to-air missile which is referred to as a “long-stick” of the JF-17. Featuring an AESA seeker (the second missile after Japanese AAM-4B to flaunt this feature) and a relatively larger size than other AAMs in its class, the PL-15 can attain max operational range beyond 100 kilometers against fighter-sized targets. For anti-ship roles, it has supersonic CM-400AKG and subsonic C-802AK air-launched cruise missiles, where the former employs a quasi-ballistic trajectory while the latter performs sea-skimming, to strike hostile ships and even aircraft carriers, within 180-250 kilometers. PL-10 Close Combat High Off BoreSight (HOBS) missile, Precision Guided Munitions with Range Extension Kits (REK), and similar munitions are additional highlights of the weapon set arriving with JF-17.  However, certain items in the JF-17 Argentine evaluation report do raise eyebrows when analyzed closely.

First, The JF-17 is offered with Chinese ejection seats, in place of Martin Baker systems in service with PAF and other users. It is worth noting why Martin Baker was selected over Chinese ejection seats in previous production units. Was there a concern about safety, reliability, etc.? Speaking of the ejection seat likely offered, it could be HTY-5 (https://inf.news/en/military/fef552a3b31dbacd9d1c27a0bf2b60ae.html) zero-zero seats which are presently fitted on the Chengdu J-10 family. A customized design can fit the JF-17 as well. Second, the powerplant mentioned to be equipped on JF-17 was WS-13, in place of the Russian RD-93 turbofan engines that are currently powering all three Blocks of JF-17. WS-13 engines are-however-not in operational service with any JF-17 user. In December 2021, the maiden batch of Block III airframes was rolled out from the PAC facility in Kamra. None of the examples featured the WS-13 engines, but the improved RD-93 called RD-93MA, which was officially confirmed in 2020 to be the PAF choice to power Block 3 JF-17. This indicates that Russian turbofan engines are likely to carry the Thunder fleet for further years before getting swapped with Chinese alternatives in near future. This also suggests Argentina needs to wait equally longer to have a Chinese fighter with a Chinese engine. But one cannot rule out the possibility of the existence of a test bed already equipped with WS-13. It is well-known how Chinese aerospace developments are often kept away from the media limelight and new concepts always make their way to the media through teasers or local spotters around the testing facilities. Evaluation visits may likely involve a detailed briefing on how the OEM could carry out the modifications in a short timeframe.

Argentina’s ailing economy and the Air Force

As recession is heading towards many nations globally, Argentina is not an exception. The country is in massive debt and inflation reached as high as 88% in October. The economic crisis has the potential to affect such military-grade deals since it exploits the foreign exchange reserves. But the state of the Argentine Air Force is not pleasing as well. Since the retirement of Mirage III in 2015, only two fighter-grade aircraft serve in the FAA inventory, Douglas A-4 “Skyhawk” and IA-63 “Pampa”, an indigenously designed light combat aircraft and trainer. Neither the quality nor quantity is satisfactory for the FAA to sustain any aerial combat against modern-day threats. Though the country has no threats in the region (for now), having a capable fleet of combat platforms is necessary to have adequate power projection.

Overall, the options available for the South American state in its search for fighter aircraft are available with enough flexibility to make the desired choice. The decision of Argentina will also determine the winner at the political level between India and China/Pakistan since both are directly competing to bag a weapon deal. All three states practice a stable and cordial relationship with Buenos Aires, and hence have their crafted strategies of approach in this affair, which may take more than a year or two before arriving at a final conclusion.

Sources:

https://www.defensenews.com/air/2022/09/21/argentina-eyes-664-million-for-fighter-jets/

https://www.infodefensa.com/texto-diario/mostrar/3896537/xavier-isaac-infraestructura-apoyo-operacion-aerea-mayores-urgencias-hoy-tiene-faa (General Interview)

https://inf.news/en/military/fef552a3b31dbacd9d1c27a0bf2b60ae.html (HTY-5 ejection seats)

About the Author: Rishav is a Young aviation enthusiast and analyst. The views expressed are the author’s own.

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: