India’s Tejas fighter program, already in a steady slipstream of service and onward development, got some very welcome thrust today when India’s prime minister Narendra Modi strapped in for a back-seat sortie in the homegrown combat jet. With two squadrons of nearly 40 fighters of the baseline Mk1 version in service, and a $6.5 billion order for 83 of the improved Mk1A version placed in February 2021, the Tejas program has been cruising healthily along. Modi’s signature moment in the fighter provides both reassurance and encouragement to the program, while clearing the decks for India’s future combat aircraft programs.
In February this year, Livefist reported plans in the works to follow up the order for 83 Tejas Mk1A jets with an order for at least 50 more aircraft. A prototype of the Mk1A version of the jet began flight test in May 2022, with deliveries to begin in 2024. You can read details of the improvements in the Mk1A version of the Tejas in this 2016 piece here.
Another major step forward for the Tejas program this year has been temporary deployments of active service aircraft to operational frontline air bases in India’s sensitive northern sectors. We now know that a complement of Tejas jets at the Awantipur air base in Jammu & Kashmir was a precursor to firm plans to deploy inbound Tejas airframes to populate squadrons in frontline border states of the north and western sectors, including Punjab and Rajasthan.
Livefist has consistently argued that the Indian MoD must accelerate inductions of the Tejas while phasing out its legacy MiG-21 fighter fleet. One of four remaining MiG-21 squadrons was recently retired, with the last three to be decommissioned over the next 18 months, parallel to the induction of the new Tejas Mk1A jets.
Development work on the Tejas Mk.2, a bigger and significantly more powerful and capable fighter is also speeding up. In September last year, the LCA Mk2 project received formal government sanction with ₹10,000 crore. The Mk.2 aims for a first flight by 2027 and intends to replace a gamut of in-service IAF fighters including the Mirage 2000 and MiG-29. In June this year, India and the United States agreed to a partnership that will involve the GE F414 turbofan engine assembled and progressively built in India to power the Tejas Mk.2. More thrust was one of the reasons the Indian Air Force originally felt there was limited scope on the F404-powered Tejas Mk.1. But capability enhancements beyond combat envelope went a long way in converting a skeptical customer into one that cannot wait to get its hands on more Tejas airframes.
There are clear benefits of a VIP photo-op with the Tejas. For one thing, a sortie in the Tejas ties in perfectly with Prime Minister Modi’s pet flagship atmanirbhar bharat campaign, calling for indigenisation and ‘Make in India’. A ride in the Tejas is especially significant considering that the Indian Air Force’s reputation as an overwhelming importer of a plethora of combat aircraft isn’t really ending anytime soon. The IAF most recently inducted 36 French-built Rafale fighters, with the Indian Navy cleared to negotiate for 26 of its own deck-based Rafale fleet.
The Indian Air Force is also in the international market for a hugely ambitious bid to buy and build 114 new generation multirole fighters, a veritable reboot of the infamously collapsed M-MRCA contest for 126 fighters. In the shadow of these high-value import engagements, a hand on the shoulder of the Tejas program sends out a powerful message. Not only does it assuage nerves at Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), which has lost sleep over the visible recent emphasis on private sector airframing in the country, but provides a very welcome boost to the military aviation complex, steeped as it is in a variety of combat jet programs, including the fifth generation AMCA, the naval twin-engined deck based fighter (TEDBF), the Ghatak stealth bomber drone and more.