India's HAL TEJAS is its most advanced fighter aircraft, and one of its first home-grown military jets

by Henry Kelsall

When you think of global military powers, India is a country which is rapidly becoming one of the biggest military powers in the world and is investing in developing its own technology more and more. For many years, India has relied on aircraft from other air arms, such as the British Sea Harrier or the Russian MiG-21 and even the French

The first ever Indian military aircraft was the HAL HF-24 Marut, an aircraft that wasn’t the most successful. But the HAL company took the lessons from that aircraft onboard, and in 2001 flew the HAL TEJAS for the very first time. The TEJAS has become perhaps the most advanced aircraft in service with the Indian Air Force, serving as a multirole light fighter. It is the smallest and lightest in its class of supersonic combat aircraft, and it entered service with the Indian Air Force in January 2015. It's very quickly become one of the main combat aircraft for India.

The development of the TEJAS can get traced right back to the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) program of the 1980s. This was India’s effort at replacing its aging fleet of fighters, in particular the Soviet MiG-21s it had on its books. The initial project began in 1986, with the design for the TEJAS finalized by 1990. What Hindustan Aeronautics Limited came up with was a small, delta-wing machine that took to the skies for the first time on January 4th 2001. This was the TD-1 demonstrator, and it was instantly India’s most advanced home-grown aircraft.

Prototype testing began properly in 2003, with another technology demonstrator and the first true prototype for the TEJAS both flying that year. The Limited Series Production Aircraft then began to fly for the first time, the first of those taking place on April 25th 2007. There were naturally teething troubles, such as an issue with the ejection system that grounded the TEJAS fleet in 2012 for three months. The testing program itself was a long and protracted one. But the aircraft would eventually be ready for operational service with the Indian Air Force in 2015.

The TEJAS Enters Service With The Indian Air Force

The TEJAS MK-1 has a General Electric F404-GE-IN20 afterburning turbofan engine. This engine has 19,000 lbs of thrust and propels the small fighter to a top speed of 1,230 mph. That is Mach 1.6, and the aircraft has a range of 1,150 miles. Its combat range is 310 miles, while its maximum ferry range is 1,986 miles. The formation of the first TEJAS squadron began in July 2011, and it became operational in July 2016. This was some 15 years after the first example of the aircraft had taken flight.

The TEJAS is similar in shape to the likes of the Dassault Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon, with its delta wing and tailless design. So far, the TEJAS has seen limited operational usage. Its first operational deployment came in August 2020. This was when No.45 Squadron saw deployment along the western front along the Pakistani border. So far, the TEJAS has yet to see any active combat. HAL is set to produce the new MK-1A version of the aircraft beginning in either 2023 or 2024. This should offer notable improvements over the current MK-1, such as a new avionic suite and new jamming equipment.

Enter The Naval Version of The TEJAS

The TEJAS has spawned its own naval version for the Indian Navy. The program for this aircraft began in 2003, and the new aircraft was initially called the NP-1, a two-seater, and the single seat NP-2. The NP-1 and NP-2 are of course based on the MK-1 TEJAS design, with the first flight of the NP-1 taking place in April 2012. The naval version though will never enter service. The program was cancelled in 2020, with the Indian Navy deciding to go for a new aircraft from HAL. This would be the HAL Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter, set to fly for the first time in 2026.

The Future of India’s Advanced Light Fighter

While the Naval version is now cancelled, the future for the TEJAS itself looks bright. HAL is currently developing a new, MK-2 version of the aircraft, and its introduction is currently expected in either 2026 or 2027. The aircraft is currently in the development stage with the prototype yet to fly, but that is at the moment expected in 2023. India is working hard to modernize its armed force and bring into it more home-grown equipment. The HAL TEJAS is an important step in that quest, giving its air force an advanced and agile fighter aircraft.