December 20, 2013, will be marked as a proud day for India and its military scientific and industrial sectors as the indigenously designed and developed Tejas (India’s light multi-role fighter aircraft, known as LCA) gets its second and most important initial operational clearance (IOC). While the final operational clearance (FOC) will take about 18 months, after which Tejas will be formally a part of combat forces of the Indian Air Force (consequently by the Indian Navy as well), the process of induction of Tejas into IAF is now a reality after IOC.
Tejas’s journey informally began in the late 1960s, half a decade after India failed in designing its own supersonic fighter HF-24 (Marut) for a variety of reasons, most importantly the denial of aero-engine technologies by the West to Indian scientific and industrial establishments. It took more than a decade thereafter for India to initiate a major aerospace programme as part of a pentagonal strategic military industrial project (integrated guided missile development, supersonic fighter, tank, submarine and warship), which came up between 1978 and 1984. Learning important lessons from the earlier aborted programme, the LCA began its formal journey in 1983. After spending a cumulative design and development cost of $2.7 billion, the Tejas is now ready for induction.
The eventual success of the Tejas journey has been co-terminus with many problems (most importantly, failure of the indigenous GTX-35VS Kaveri afterburning turbofan engine for the fighter), frequent design changes (a corollary of fast paced aerospace technology environment and demands from the IAF for integration of newer systems), technology adaptability and sourcing challenges (especially sourcing component and sub-systems from abroad because of sanctions regimes), resources allocations and interest group politics, all of which have contributed to delays and thus perpetuated growing gaps between technological advancement and matching scientific and industrial capabilities in India. Despite all these, several features of the Tejas can now be called truly indigenous (for example, only three out of the 35 major avionics components are sourced from foreign suppliers; and the ability to indigenously develop and manufacture advanced carbon-fibre composite—CFC—structures and skins and a modern glass cockpit), although