The Rs. 39,000 crore order for the indigenous jet fighters will replenish the IAF’s fighter fleet, restart India Inc’s paralysed supply chains and create a multi-tiered defence industrial ecosystem

The Light Combat Aircraft TEJAS, indigenously-designed by Aircraft Development Agency under the Defence Research and Development Organisation, is slowly entering squadron service.

In the hype over Wednesday’s arrival of the first lot of five French-built Rafale fighter aircraft, it was easy to lose sight of the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) ‘TEJAS’ which, after years of development delays, is slowly entering squadron service.

What has become of the order for the 83 TEJAS Mark-1A variants that the air force was to place with the public sector Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) officials told that the order is likely to be confirmed “before December 2020”. Earlier this year, after months of negotiations, HAL and the IAF finally agreed on a price tag of Rs 39,000 crore for the 83 aircraft (73 fighter jets and 10 two-seat trainer variants). HAL officials attributed the delay to several outstanding issues, particularly a number of queries related to ‘additional requirements through contract’. “All queries have now been answered and the case is under approval,” a HAL official said.

The next phase in the contract would be approval by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), India’s topmost national security decision making body. This will be followed by a formal inking of the contract between HAL and the IAF. Delivery of the Mark 1As will start within three years of the contract being signed and will conclude with all aircraft delivered in five years.

The IAF spent Rs 59,000 crore to buy the 36 Rafale fighter jets. While it greatly enhances the IAF’s combat potential and also contributes offsets, sourced from the Indian industry, to the tune of nearly Rs 30,000 crore, the indigenous TEJAS will have a bigger force multiplier effect on an Indian industry reeling under the impact of the lockdown and economic downturn. More importantly, it is a huge step towards creating a multi-tiered defence industrial ecosystem.

Five major private sector players—Larsen & Toubro, VEM Technologies, Alpha Tocol, Tata Advanced Materials and Dynamatic Technologies--are manufacturing the fuselages, wings, tail fins and rudders of the TEJASs. These are being assembled by HAL at its twin production lines in Bangalore.

“A Rs 39,000 crore order will have a force multiplier effect of nearly seven or eight times on the economy--jobs will be created, work will be outsourced, there is going to be a tremendous downstream effect on Tier 2 and Tier 3 manufacturing in the high-tech defence aviation sector,” an HAL official said.

The IAF currently operates one squadron of the 16 ‘Mark 1’ baseline TEJAS variants at its airbase in Sulur, Coimbatore. On May 27, the IAF operationalised the second squadron of the TEJAS. Number 18 squadron will get its entire 15 final operation configuration (FOC) aircraft by September 2021. These are part of an order for 40 TEJASs that were placed in two tranches in 2006 and 2010. All deliveries will be completed in 2022.

HAL is building a third TEJAS production line, to be set up this November, and this will roll out the two-seat trainer variants of the jet. The line will build a total of 18 TEJAS trainers that will commence deliveries from November 2021 onwards (8 are part of the 40 jets order, and 10 part of the 83 jets order).

After a 2017 presentation by then IAF chief Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa, the government had committed to buying 18 squadrons of the TEJAS and its variants—over 300 aircraft over the next 15 years. IAF officials say the TEJAS family fits into their plans to reduce existing diversity of fighter aircraft to just four types by 2035—the other three will be the Sukhois, Rafales and Mirage-2000s.