The Indian government finally walked the talk on supporting the indigenous defence industry when the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) on January 13 cleared the purchase of 83 indigenously designed and developed Tejas Mark-1A Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) worth Rs 48,000 crore.
A formal contract, among the largest placed with the Indian defence industry, is likely to be inked between the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) and the Indian Air Force (IAF) at the biannual Aero India air show in Bengaluru this year. The first jets will start rolling out in three years. They will be an advanced version of the Tejas Mark-1 that made its maiden flight exactly two decades ago.
Behind this long-delayed fighter aircraft project is the story of a rare political foresight that could lead to the creation of an indigenous aircraft ecosystem in the country. The IAF, too, has finally come on board to back the programme.
In 2017, a presentation to the government by the then IAF chief, Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa, committed the IAF to buying 18 squadrons of the LCA and its variants-over 300 aircraft-over the next 15 years. IAF officials say the LCA family fits into their plans to reduce the diversity of fighter aircraft to just four by 2035-the other three being Sukhoi, Rafale and Mirage-2000.
THE PARRIKAR PUSH
None of this would have happened without a concerted push in 2016 when the then defence minister Manohar Parrikar stepped in to rescue the Tejas from being perpetually trapped in a development cycle. The project had begun as a concept during Indira Gandhi’s rule in the early 1980s. The aircraft made its first flight in 2001, during prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure.
It was designed as a fourth-generation multirole fighter, one of the world’s smallest and lightest supersonic aircraft with a combat radius of 500 km and eight hard points that can carry 5.3 tonnes of weapons and sensors.