The aircraft that crashed was part of the 40 MK-1 jets inducted by IAF in the initial operational clearance

An ongoing investigation into the first-ever crash of the Indian Air Force’s light combat aircraft TEJAS MK-1 three months ago points towards engine seizure as the most likely cause of the accident, two officials aware of the matter said on Monday.

The locally produced single-engine fighter jet crashed near Jaisalmer in Rajasthan on March 12, minutes after taking part in a tri-services exercise that sought to demonstrate the strides India has made towards self-reliance in the defence manufacturing sector. The pilot ejected safely.

“The engine seizure appears to have been caused by an oil pump malfunction,” said one of the officials cited above, asking not to be named. To be sure, the court of inquiry into the accident is yet to be completed.

IAF inducted its first TEJAS aircraft in July 2016 and currently operates two MK-1 squadrons. The aircraft that crashed was part of the 40 MK-1 jets inducted by IAF in the initial operational clearance (IOC) and the more advanced final operational clearance (FOC) configurations -- the first variants of TEJAS.

IAF ordered the inspection of each plane after the March 12 crash.

“Safety checks on the entire TEJAS MK-1 fleet were carried out. No safety issues were found with the fighter,” said the second official, who also asked not to be named. TEJAS MK-1 is powered by US firm GE Aerospace’s F404 engine.

The engine failure ended the accident-free flying record of TEJAS MK-1.

The reliability of modern jet engines is high and such failure is rare, said Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retd), former director general, Centre for Air Power Studies. “Safety is paramount for IAF, and it will get to the bottom of the matter,” said Chopra, who became the first air marshal in the world to eject from a fighter plane 12 years ago after the engine of his Mirage 2000 seized.

The doomed TEJAS MK-1 had flown during the tri-services Bharat Shakti exercise at the Pokhran firing range near Jaisalmer along with another TEJAS fighter before it went down.

The two fighters had carried out some manoeuvres and fired flares during the exercise that was witnessed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, defence minister Rajnath Singh, chief of defence staff General Anil Chauhan, IAF chief Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari, then army chief General Manoj Pande, and then navy chief Admiral R Hari Kumar and others.

The integrated tri-services “live fire and manoeuvre” exercise, Bharat Shakti, displayed how the Indian military plans to leverage its indigenous capabilities for dominating the battlefield and crushing any threat to the country’s security.

In February, TEJAS fighters took part in the exercise Vayu Shakti-24 at the Pokhran air-to-ground range and showcased their swing-role capability as they first engaged aerial targets, and later ground ones.

In November 2023, Modi flew in a TEJAS MK-1 in Bangalore and described the experience as “incredibly enriching” while also heaping praise on the country’s indigenous military capabilities. His sortie in the fighter jet was seen as a significant endorsement of the TEJAS program, and turned the spotlight on the locally produced fighter jet that IAF is looking at inducting in big numbers and India is also seeking to export.

IAF ordered 83 TEJAS MK-1 fighters for ₹48,000 crore in February 2021, and plans to buy 97 more TEJAS MK-1A at an estimated cost of ₹67,000 crore.

TEJAS is set to emerge as the cornerstone of IAF’s combat power in the coming decade and beyond.

IAF, the world’s fourth largest air force, is expected to operate around 350 TEJAS jets (MK-1, MK-1A and the future MK-2), with a third of those already ordered, some inducted, and the rest figuring prominently on the air force’s modernisation road map and expected to be contracted in the coming years.

The newer variants, MK-1A and MK-2, will come with significantly improved features and technologies over the current MK-1 aircraft.

IAF will deploy the MK-1As at forward air bases in the western sector to bolster its combat readiness against Pakistan and fill voids left by the gradual phasing out of the MiG-21s.

The TEJAS project was sanctioned in 1983 as a replacement for MiG-21s. While the MK-1 and MK-1A variants will replace MiG-21 fighters, the MK-2 aircraft is planned as a replacement for the MiG-29s, Mirage-2000s and Jaguar fighters that will start retiring in the coming decade.

(With Inputs From Agencies)