India's Tejas fighter achieves initial operational clearance milestone

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More than two decades after it was conceived as a replacement for the Mikoyan MiG-21, India's Tejas light combat aircraft has received initial operational clearance.

Defence minister A K Antony handed over a release to service certificate to Indian air force chief of staff P V Naik in Bangalore on 10 January, moving the Aeronautical Development Agency's (ADA) supersonic type a step closer to its formal induction.

Antony says India's military aviation programme has received a big boost by passing this milestone, with the Tejas demonstrating its ability to build a state-of-the-art multi-role combat aircraft virtually from scratch. It has also given fresh impetus to the planned development of an advanced medium combat aircraft (AMCA) and unmanned combat air vehicles, he says.

 

Both images © Aeronautical Development Agency

The initial operational clearance declaration has paved the way for Hindustan Aeronautics to take up the series production of 40 Mk I examples of the Tejas on order for the Indian air force. The company has the infrastructure in place to roll out 10 of the GE Aviation F404-IN20-powered aircraft a year, with the first due to be handed over before the end of 2011. It is unclear whether the company is in a position to meet this deadline.

Since its launch in the 1980s, the Tejas programme has been hit by time and cost overruns caused by India's lack of experience in combat aircraft technology, and slowed by US sanctions imposed after nuclear tests conducted by India in 1998.

A first technology demonstrator took to the skies in January 2001, and subsequent envelope expansion, sensor integration and weapons delivery work has seen more than 1,500 sorties flown under a wide range of atmospheric and environmental conditions.

India's massive investment in the project has helped to rejuvenate its aeronautics sector in areas such as research and development, design, fabrication, assembly and testing facilities, the nation's Defence Research and Development Organisation says.

"Small and medium enterprises played a major role in the production of test equipment and components," says Ashok Saxena, managing director of Navv Avia Technologies. "These companies are now getting business from many foreign firms looking for good quality, low-cost outsourcing for their own programmes."

The Tejas will join an operational inventory also including the air force's current Sukhoi Su-30MKI strike aircraft and its future medium multi-role combat aircraft. The Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed Martin F-16, RSK MiG-35 and Saab Gripen NG are in contention for the projected 126-aircraft deal.

The air force is estimated as requiring around 200 Tejas, while the Indian navy needs 40 examples to replace its British Aerospace Sea Harrier FRS51 fighters.

The ADA is also developing a Tejas Mk II fighter for the Indian air force. Planned to fly in 2014, this will use a more powerful GE F414 engine and have a retractable refuelling probe and other improvements to remedy deficiencies noted in the original version.

Meanwhile, India's Gas Turbine Research Establishment's indigenous Kaveri engine originally developed for the Tejas will be upgraded under a tie-up with French firm Snecma, and could power the proposed AMCA.