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Soaring High: LCA Tejas Facing Tough Competition From China

Story Highlights
  • Suh Wook, South Korea's defence minister, recently met with Mohammad Ahmed Al Bowardi, the UAE's defence minister, in Seoul to discuss arms industry partnership and other relevant topics.
  • In 2018, the UAE expressed interest in India's Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), but no more progress was achieved. After originally expressing interest in negotiations with India, it is unclear why the UAE did not pursue them.

In the face of a growing danger from Iran-backed Houthi rebels, the UAE is considering to purchase military weaponry from South Korea and China.

The UAE has recently turned its focus to the Asian military industry as part of its procurement diversification. However, it appears that their predilection for Chinese and South Korean equipment is expanding.

Suh Wook, South Korea’s defence minister, recently met with Mohammad Ahmed Al Bowardi, the UAE’s defence minister, in Seoul to discuss arms industry partnership and other relevant topics.

The meeting’s highlight, though, was a visit to Korea Aerospace Industries, located 440 kilometres south of Seoul. The UAE is said to be interested in the T-50 trainer jet, KF-21 fighter jet, light-armed helicopter, and next-generation helicopter satellite system developed by South Korea.

This meeting was notable since it took place just two months after the UAE inked a preliminary agreement with South Korea to purchase a mid-range surface-to-air missile system (M-SAM). The Cheongung II M-SAM, which will shortly be supplied to the United Arab Emirates, is an important part of South Korea’s multi-layered anti-missile defence system.

Suh expressed his gratitude to the UAE’s Minister of State for Defense for the decision, promising that South Korea would continue to support the UAE military in developing related operational skills. Al Bowardi also praised South Korea’s defence industry capabilities, emphasising that cooperation in the arms sector is a top priority in the two countries’ unique strategic partnership.

This could mean that the UAE plans to negotiate more arms deals with South Korea in the future, as the demand for stronger operational capabilities develops in response to Houthi rebel attacks on critical infrastructure.

The Houthis have been assaulting oil facilities and the security of the two kingdoms, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, using drones and missiles since January of this year. While the UAE has bolstered ties with South Korea and China, it is debatable if this has come at the expense of India.

UAE Interested in Chinese and Korean Weapons 

In 2018, the UAE expressed interest in India’s Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), but no more progress was achieved. After originally expressing interest in negotiations with India, it is unclear why the UAE did not pursue them.

Then-Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman met with her UAE counterpart Mohammed Ahmed Al Bowardi Al Falacy in 2018 to discuss the problems. The Emirati minister was on an official visit to India at the time and saw the facilities of Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) and Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL).

The UAE minister also paid a visit to the Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment, which performs pre-induction flight testing for the Indian Air Force’s combat planes, airborne systems, and weapon stores. Abu Dhabi has indicated through these high-level visits that it was interested in India’s indigenous fighter plane.

The UAE Defense Ministry, on the other hand, said last month that it would soon sign a contract with China National Aero-Technology Import & Export Corporation for the purchase of 36 L-15 Trainer and Light combat aircraft, with the option of purchasing another 36 aircraft later.

The Hongdu L-15 is a two-seat, twin-engine supersonic platform that has been dubbed a “star model” by Chinese media. It was presented in November of last year in response to the increased demand for training pilots.

Tejas, on the other hand, has a trainer variant that could be deployed in the near future. According to rumours, the aircraft’s LIFT (Lead-in Fighter Trainer) variant is based on the Tejas MK-1A, which the Indian Air Force has previously ordered and will receive soon.

The UAE recently chose the Chinese LCA over the Indian Tejas, which was heavily promoted at different defence shows, including the Dubai Air Show 2021, where it demonstrated “breathtaking manoeuvres.”

Furthermore, the UAE has decided to support the T-50 trainer aircraft from South Korea, which is the country’s first indigenous supersonic Light Combat aircraft and trainer. The T-50 is designed to prepare pilots for today’s and tomorrow’s fighter jets, such as enhanced F-16s, F-22s, and the F-35 joint strike fighter.

The UAE’s choice of South Korean armaments extends beyond the planes it is looking into. The Gulf country had showed interest in the Indian Akash missile in 2020.

It did, however, reach an agreement with South Korea for its Cheongung II KM-SAM mid-range surface-to-air missiles earlier this year. As a result, any potential talks with India on Akash missiles – a weapon it has put up for sale to partners — have been cancelled.

This comes amid a burgeoning partnership between New Delhi and Abu Dhabi, which was formalised in 2017 when a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement was signed.

The United Arab Emirates has also been recognised for acting as a mediator between India and Pakistan. In addition, India and the United Arab Emirates have signed a Free Trade Agreement.

In order to explore new markets, the Indian Defense Ministry granted 954 export authorizations for various weapons and subsystems in 2021, up from 829 in 2020. The LCA Tejas and BrahMos cruise missiles have become two of India’s most important defence exports. It recently sold the Philippines BrahMos cruise missiles. The Tejas Light combat aircraft, on the other hand, has failed to find a buyer.

Furthermore, in December 2020, the Union Cabinet, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, authorised the sale of Akash missile systems to friendly foreign countries.

It also set up a high-powered council to speed up the authorization of military equipment exports. India has set a goal of reaching $5 billion in defence exports by 2024, but the UAE’s track record could derail that goal.

“UAE’s choice for South Korea’s Cheongung II missile system over India’s Akash missile system is based on performance,” stated Squadron Leader Vijainder K Thakur (Retd), a military expert and former IAF Jaguar pilot, commenting on the issue. Almaz-Antey and Fakel provided technical assistance in the development of the Cheongung II system. The 9M96 missile, which is employed with Russia’s S-350E and S-400 missile systems, is the basis for the system. The Akash missile is not comparable to the 9M96.

Similarly, the Korean TA-50, developed in collaboration with Lockheed Martin, is a more adaptable plane than the LCA. It’s propelled by the same GE F404 engine that drives the LCA. It was built from the start to be a high-performance trainer, unlike the LCA, which was intended to be an F-16 fighter but is now only available as a Lead In-Flight Trainer (LIFT) due to performance issues! In addition, the TA-50 has been in service for a longer time and has proven to be effective in its duty.”

“A trainer aircraft is different from a Light Combat Aircraft in that it is not designed for combat but might be outfitted with modest armament for basic missions,” said defence analyst Nitin J Ticku. It lacks a sophisticated engine and the fighting range essential for combat.

The UAE appears to be particularly interested in Advanced trainers, as evidenced by its L-15 deal with China and now its interest in the South Korean T-50.

Unlike the L-15 and T-50, which are designed to train fighter pilots for advanced planes, India’s LCA Tejas is geared for battle. If the UAE issued a tender for the acquisition of a light fighter, the LCA Tejas would undoubtedly be a top competitor, as it has been in Malaysia.

Furthermore, ATJ Hawks, not LCA Tejas, are used for training in India. As a result, the comparison is untenable. However, India is currently constructing its own LIFT trainer, which could be compared to the Chinese and South Korean trainers in the future.

It does not, in my judgement, constitute a snub to Tejas or India’s defence export prospects. In truth, when it comes to defence exports, India is a relatively new player. Its equipment will improve over time as well, with LCA Tejas and BrahMos leading the way.”

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