Improved Tejas Mk1A Is Finally In The Air

The hugely anticipated first flight of an improved version of India’s Tejas fighter took place today in Bengaluru. The 18-minute flight of the first Tejas Mk1A airframe ‘LA5033’ was flown by HAL chief test pilot Group Captain K.K. Venugopal and comes after two days of taxi tests at HAL’s airfield in the southern Indian city.

In a statement, HAL Chairman C. B. Ananthakrishnan said, “HAL achieved this significant production milestone with concurrent design & development amid major supply chain challenges in the global geo-political environment subsequent to the contract signature in February 2021.”

With the first flight finally done, HAL’s real challenges begin now. The Indian Air Force has already placed orders for 83 of the Tejas Mk1A variant, with orders for a further 97 being processed at the Ministry of Defence level. The IAF wants HAL to significantly ramp up its production rate of aircraft in order to give the sizeable Tejas orders a shot at stemming fighter depletion rates in service. With a little under 40 Tejas fighters in operational service across two squadrons — and 180 of the Mk1A inbound over the next few years — the Tejas stands to become the IAF’s most abundant jet in service after the Su-30 MKI.

“With the continued support of (these) stakeholders, the country can look forward to early induction of the Tejas Mk1A by the IAF and more numbers through the three lines of production established at HAL,” the HAL statement said, clearly acknowledging that production rates will be the chief challenge now. The delayed first flight of the Mk1A means HAL is not likely to meet a March 31 deadline for the start of deliveries on the order for 83 aircraft.

The Tejas Mk1A is a ‘compromise’ variant mutually settled on in 2016 between the Tejas’s developers and the IAF. It comprises over 40 small and large improvements over the baseline Tejas Mk1 that’s in operational service. Broadly, the Mk1A features a new electronically scanned array radar, electronic warfare capabilities, all-new avionics, expanded weapons flexibility — and perhaps most crucially vastly improved squadron level maintenance and turnaround. You can read all about those improvements in our 2016 piece here.

“Congrats to all involved. The real work starts now,” says aviation analyst and author Angad Singh. In a 2021 piece shortly after the Indian government cleared an order for 83 Mk1A airframes, Singh wrote, “After years of insinuation, some subtle and some not, that the IAF was lacking in commitment to the indigenous Tejas programme, this order, the largest single procurement of modern combat aircraft in the last thirty years (by value as well as quantity) firmly inverts the conversation… The ball is now in HAL’s court to deliver on time and as promised.”

You can read Singh’s full piece here. Singh and Livefist founder Shiv Aroor also did a detailed video chat in 2020 on the Tejas program where additional orders and challenges came up:

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