With the government approval of the purchase of 83 indigenously developed Light Combat Aircraft, Tejas Mark 1A from Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), the negativity about the delayed programme and doubts over its performance have dissipated in no time. It is the biggest-ever contract worth $ 5.6 billion (Rs. 48,000 crores) awarded to India’s domestic military aviation industry, involving about 500 Indian companies, including MSMEs (Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises) in the design and manufacturing sectors, which will be working with HAL in this procurement. The programme would surely act as a catalyst for transforming the Indian defence and aerospace manufacturing ecosystem into a vibrant Atmanirbhar (self-sustaining) sector.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has rightly hailed the move as a “game-changer” for India’s defence manufacturing has so far been seen as being incapable of catering to the country’s defence needs.
The smallest, lightweight, multi-role, single-engine tactical fighter aircraft in the world, Tejas highlights the success story of indigenous design, development, production and induction of a ‘4+ Generation Fighter’ into the Indian Air Force (IAF). Though it was conceptualised in 1983 to replace the Russian-made MiG-21, the Tejas programme actually commenced with government approval for ‘LCA Full Scale Engineering Development Phase 1’ only in June 1993. With this sanction, the indigenous project took wings seven and half years later when TD-1, the Technology Demonstrator of Tejas aircraft flew its maiden flight on 4 January 2001 followed by the LCA Demonstrator II flying in June 2002.
The success of Tejas programme is a collaborative effort of Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) as lead Design Agency under Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) and HAL as lead Production Agency along with many other agencies. However, getting the LCA project off the ground was a long and arduous three-decade journey plagued with multiple problems and several missed deadlines due to various factors.
Journey-in-the-Making: What Took Tejas so Long to Fly
Speaking about the chequered journey with BharatShakti, the former Director of ADA and Project Director of LCA programme, Commodore CD Balaji (Retd), who is widely regarded as one of the main architects of the LCA programme said, “Actually in 1983, the government decided to set up ADA with a small team to find out whether India can build and develop an indigenous aircraft or not? Dr Kota Harinarayana was heading that group and that is how it was started. However, the final Cabinet approval for full-scale design and development of Tejas prototypes was given in 1993 – 10 years down the line. That is the actual start point of the programme formally. It was not 1983 but 1993 was the base year for the journey”.
The first trigger of the project was when Wing Commander Rajiv Kothiyal took to the skies for a short sortie of 18 minutes on 4 January 2001.