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Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) unveiled its HLFT-42 (Hindustan Lead-in Fighter Trainer) design at Aero India 2023, generating a wave of mixed reactions. The single-engine aircraft, adorned with a symbolic image of Maruti, the Hindu God of wind, promised a blend of training capabilities and combat prowess. However, several aspects of the design raise questions about its overall strategy.

The HLFT-42 evokes the HF-24 Marut, a past HAL project. While the Marut spirit of power and agility is commendable, some argue that a 4.5-generation trainer envisioned for 2030 or later seems like a niche concept for pure pilot training. This begs the question: is the HLFT-42 truly a fighter trainer, or a trainer with light combat ambitions?

The focus on a single-engine trainer with a stealth aspect could have positioned the HLFT-42 against competitors like Russia’s Su-75 Checkmate. Both cater to the Light Tactical Aircraft (LTA) market seeking affordable upgrades.

The Indian Air Force’s (IAF) focus on the larger, 25-ton AMCA fighter program but AMCA faces stiff competition from established 25-ton class jets like the KF-21 and Turkish TF-X (Khaan) programs, which are already attracting potential buyers. A single engined Stealth aircraft could have better success rate.

The current market trend favors a low-cost, single-engine stealth fighters. The Checkmate exemplifies this strategy, which Russian knew and picked up. Su-75 is purely for Export market since a single engine stealth jets are out of favour in Russian Air Force. HAL could have aimed for similar market segment, considering established players like the Boeing-Saab T-7 Red Hawk and the well-selling T-50 will likely offer competitive pricing in the same market for LIFT segment for 4+ gen fighter jets.

HLFT-42 in stealth avatar could have seen higher chances of export success. At 16.5ton MTOW, HLFT-42 doesn’t fall in AJT class of Trainers like Bae Hawks that are sub-sonic nor it falls in LIFT Class of supersonic Trainers like Hongdu JL-10, T-50 and Boeing-Saab T-7 Red Hawk that offer limited weapons carrying payload. At 16.5ton, HLFT-42 is just 1-ton behind Tejas MkII fighter jet so it seems to be duplication of same class of fighter jet also for India. Adopting Tejas Mk1A platform or even Tejas MkII platform into LIFT could negate need for HLFT-42. Only way HLFT-42 program could make sense is if it was a low-cost, single-engine stealth fighter program.

While the global market is increasingly interested in low-cost, single-engine stealth fighters. The Checkmate exemplifies this trend, and HAL could have positioned the HLFT-42 to compete. This approach might have opened doors for export, especially for air forces seeking an alternative to the expensive F-35 or Chinese FC-31.