It was in 1983 when India rolled out the project to build a new light combat aircraft as a replacement for Russian MiG-21s, which continue to fly despite being obsolete

In a boost to India’s fledgling domestic aerospace ecosystem, the Cabinet Committee on Security cleared the Rs 48,000-crore deal for 83 Light Combat Aircraft TEJAS, which included 73 Mark 1A versions, on 13 January.

The first big order to the state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) for TEJAS, which will become the backbone of the Indian Air Force (IAF) in the coming years, is a landmark in the aircraft’s journey of over three and a half decades.

It is a culmination of India’s effort to build a frontline fighter aircraft, which began in the 1950s. It was in 1961 that HAL’s HF-24 Marut, designed by Kurt Tank, the German aeronautical engineer who built the Luftwaffe aircraft in World War II, first flew.

And that’s why TEJAS is the Newsmaker of the Week.

It was in 1983 when the government of India rolled out the project to build a new Light Combat Aircraft as a replacement for the Russian MiG-21s, which continue to fly despite the fleet being obsolete.

The plan was to release the first aircraft by 1994. However, the first prototype of LCA flew only in 2001 — 18 years after the project started.

It was then that Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee christened the LCA as the TEJAS.

One of the primary reasons for delay was the fact that India wanted to develop its own jet engine, something which it has not been able to do even today.

In the 1970s and the ’80s, especially after the 1974 Pokhran nuclear tests, India was caught in a terrible environment of technology denial.

The West, particularly America, denied India access to any ‘sensitive technology’. Moreover, the US imposed sanctions after India conducted the nuclear tests in May 1998.

In December 2013, the TEJAS got Initial Operational Clearance and in 2019, the IAF was given the first aircraft with Final Operational Clearance.

How Different Is TEJAS MK-1A

The new aircraft comes with four major capabilities over the current variant of LCA, which is known as the TEJAS MK-1.

These improvements include mid-air refuelling, enhancing the combat ability, and maintainability improvements through incorporation of Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) Radar, Electronic Warfare (EW) suite and Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missile capabilities.

The aircraft will give a big boost to the domestic aviation industry since it involves extensive cooperation between the private industry and the HAL.

The front fuselage of the latest version of the TEJAS will be built by Dynamatic Technologies, while the middle section has been outsourced to Hyderabad-based VEM Technologies, and the rear section to Alpha Design Technologies, Bengaluru. The wings for TEJAS Mk 1A will be manufactured by Larsen and Toubro.

There are over 70 Indian suppliers involved in manufacturing various parts of the aircraft.

In all, about 500 Indian companies, including MSMEs, will be working with HAL in this deal for 83 new TEJAS.

Capabilities And Future Plans

The new aircraft has inbuilt capability to fire Beyond Visual Range missiles such as Derby missile and is already integrated on the current TEJAS itself.

Indigenously developed BVR missile (ASTRA Mk 1) will also be integrated into the Mk 1A, which will be a weapon of choice of the IAF, HAL officials said. This weapon will give an edge to LCA TEJAS over its contemporaries such as the Chinese-Pakistan joint venture JF-17 in BVR warfare.

With the introduction of podded Self-Protection Jammer (SPJ) and AESA radar in TEJAS MK-1A, the survivability of the aircraft gets further enhanced.

The AESA radar is capable of tracking 16 targets at a time in air-to-air, air-to-ground and air-to-sea modes. The IAF is also looking at procuring the next generation of TEJAS, which will be known as TEJAS MK-2.

However, instead of being an LCA, it would be in the medium weight category.

The Aeronautical Development Agency, a lab of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), is working with the HAL to develop a fifth-generation fighter aircraft called the Advanced Medium Combat Fighter Aircraft (AMCA).

The contract for TEJAS is the best development for the Indian defence industry. The HAL and the ADA should ensure timebound delivery as well as manufacturing of future versions as per schedule.

This is because indigenous defence systems are the way forward for strategic independence.