The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) recently gave nod to the biggest indigenous defence deal worth Rs 48,000 crore for the purchase of 83 Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). Time and again, it has filled in for the Indian Air Force (IAF) looking at indigenous options to shore up its depleting fleet. Here's how:

Enemy radar jamming capabilities, beyond-visual-range missiles, air-to-air refuelling, tracking 16 targets at one go, electronic warfare suite for self-protection - the new variant of India's own fighter jet Tejas is more potent than its predecessor.

The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently gave nod to the biggest indigenous defence deal worth Rs 48,000 crore for the purchase of 83 Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), paving way for a contract with the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).

Of the 83, HAL is all set to manufacture 73 MK-1A jets, the improved version of Tejas, which will be more lethal than the previous MK-1.

Nearly four decades since the LCA program was envisaged in the early 1980s when the quest for an Indian fighter jet started under Indira Gandhi's regime, Tejas has indeed taken off but it's been a slow voyage. Time and again, it has filled in for the Indian Air Force (IAF) looking at indigenous options to shore up its depleting fleet.

IAF's Tryst With An Indigenous Fighter Jet

By mid-1970s, the HAL completed a study on an indigenous fighter craft but the plan could not fructify. It was in 1983 that the IAF felt an Indian aircraft would be needed in the years to come. Finally, in 1984, there was some hope!

The government set up the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and that's when the idea of an LCA was born. After a lot of planning in the initial stages and a series of trials over the next two decades, Tejas was finally a reality.

After delays, the first LCA prototype took to the skies in 2001, getting the name TEJAS.

The IAF placed the first order for 20 aircraft in 2005 and another 20 at a later stage. However, the Tejas did not meet certain requirements in 2010 and 2012, and security concerns added to delays. Overcoming the hurdles, the Tejas Mark 1 got initial operational clearance in 2013 and final operational clearance six years later.

The first squadron of the TEJAS was raised in 2016. The progress has been slow since then as two squadrons were supposed to be fully functional with 40 Mark 1 jets by then, but till date, the IAF has only 20.

The Improved Version

The MK-1A will have more than 40 improvements from the MK-1 that's already operational. The new variant of MK-1A has improvements such as air-to-air refuelling, beyond-visual-range or BVR capabilities and the capacity to jam enemy radars.

"This deal will be a game-changer for self-reliance in Indian defence manufacturing," defence minister Rajnath Singh had said after the clearance to IAF to buy 73 of the new Tejas variants.

"TEJAS incorporates a large number of new technologies many of which were never attempted in India. The indigenous content of  TEJAS is 50 per cent in Mk1A variant which will be enhanced to 60 per cent," Singh had said.

Delivery is expected to start within three years of the contract.

The defence ministry said the Mk-1A variant is an indigenously designed, developed and manufactured state-of-the-art modern 4+ generation fighter craft.

"This aircraft is equipped with critical operational capabilities of Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) Radar, Beyond-Visual-Range (BVR) Missile, Electronic Warfare (EW) Suite and Air-to-Air Refuelling (AAR), which would be a potent platform to meet the operational requirements of the Indian Air Force," the defence ministry statement said.

It is the first "Buy (Indian-Indigenously Designed, Developed and Manufactured)" category procurement of combat aircraft with an indigenous content of 50 per cent which will progressively reach 60 per cent by the end of the programme, the statement added.

With a total fleet of 123 comprising TEJAS MK-1 and MK-1A soon, the IAF is hopeful of filling up its depleting numbers as these will account for six more squadrons.

TEJAS Could Be The Future of IAF

The Tejas, designed indigenously by the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) under the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and manufactured by HAL, is expected to be the backbone of IAF in future as the mantra is self-reliance by reducing imports.

The manufacturing of 73 TEJAS MK-1A Tejas jets will not only be a boost for 'Make in India' or self-reliance, but also help in filing the gaps as the IAF's current fleet is down to 30 squadrons, way below the sanctioned strength of 42.

Each squadron comprises 18-20 fighter jets. So in terms of numbers, the IAF is short of nearly 200 fighter aircraft. The newly ordered 83 jets are in addition to the 40 Mark 1 already ordered by the IAF. The French Rafale being the new entrant, 36 jets will soon add two squadrons to the IAF's fleet.

In March 2020, the defence ministry gave the go-ahead for the purchase of 83 Tejas Mark 1A aircraft for the IAF. This was a major breakthrough, as after cost negotiations for over three years between the ministry and HAL, the price for procurement of the craft was slashed.

Air Marshal Anil Khosla (Retd), a former vice chief of IAF and who has been part of the planning for Tejas, feels this is a big step considering the requirements at the moment, but cautions against any further delay.

"Hope there is no more slippages in timelines. IAF strength is well below sanctioned. With the situation prevailing in the neighbourhood where we have inimical neighbours, it becomes more important that capability building continues," Khosla said.

"When I was D-G Air Operations in 2016, initial operation clearance was given, but the deal got stuck due to cost factors," he added.

Next in line is the Tejas MK-2 and the IAF has plans to induct 170 of these, which will be a better version of the Mark 1A. But for that to happen soon, HAL has to speed up productivity and get to the next phase that will ensure the IAF has a potent indigenous fleet in the years to come.

Air Marshal Khosla says IAF is considering MK-2 configuration with 108 aircraft that will add six squadrons, but feels India should look to have more modern aircraft as well.

"We need to look into quality and reach a stage where we are at par with the rest of the world. We have to have a balance. Like MiG-21 was the backbone, Tejas can become one too, but we still need to have more Rafales and modern aircraft. We need to procure state-of-the-art aircraft and at least two squadrons without delay, but affordability is a big factor," Khosla said.

The Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft or AMCA is planned as a fifth-generation twin-engine fighter craft that the IAF aspires and which is next in line. The first flight of a prototype is expected by 2025.

Astra Missile Will Make Tejas More Potent

Equipped with the indigenous beyond-visual-range air-to-air Astra missile will add to the TEJAS's firepower. Astra has a range of 100 km and is an all-weather day and night weapon.

Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria said with its strike capabilities, the new version of TEJAS will be superior to JF-17, the fighter jet jointly developed by Pakistan and China. He said Astra missiles that will be fitted on the Mark 1A will make it more potent.

"Indian aircraft Tejas is far better and more advanced than the Chinese and Pakistan joint venture JF-17 fighter jet," Bhadauria had said when asked to compare the two.

Mid-air refuelling in the new version of Tejas, quicker speed and a more powerful engine, better maintainability make the Tejas more superior to JF-17, officials say.