The deployment is intended to fill the gap left by the phasing out of the MiG-21 fighter jets and will include the advanced variant TEJAS MK-1A
The Indian Air Force will deploy the locally produced light combat aircraft (LCA) at forward air bases in the western sector to bolster its combat readiness against Pakistan and fill the gap left by the gradual phasing out of the Soviet-era MiG-21 fighter jets, senior officials aware of the matter said on Thursday.
An TEJAS MK-1 squadron based at Sulur Air Force Base in Tamil Nadu is set to be relocated to a frontline fighter base in Gujarat, while the first TEJAS MK-1A squadron will be raised at an air base in Rajasthan, said one of the officials requesting anonymity. TEJAS MK-1A is an advanced variant of TEJAS MK-1.
IAF is expected to begin raising the TEJAS MK-1A squadron after state-run plane maker Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) delivers the first aircraft to it in February 2024.
“Two air bases in the western sector, which earlier operated MiG-21s, are being readied to induct TEJAS MK-1 and MK-1As. The MK-1As will progressively be deployed at forward air bases to enhance IAF’s combat capability,” said a second official who also asked not to be named.
As things stand, IAF operates two squadrons of TEJAS MK-1, and both are based at Sulur. A fighter squadron consists of 16 to 18 jets.
The count of TEJASs in IAF is set to increase as it will induct 83 MK-1A fighter jets between 2024 and 2028. The air force ordered these aircraft in February 2021 for ₹48,000 crore. In early October, IAF chief Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari announced plans to order 97 more TEJAS MK-1As at an estimated cost of ₹67,000 crore.
HAL has a capacity to build 16 TEJAS MK-1As every year in Bangalore and a new production line set to be activated in Nashik will help the firm ramp up production to a total of 24 jets. This will enable HAL to deliver the 83 fighters by 2027-28, a year ahead of the contracted delivery schedule.
Timely delivery is a top priority for IAF, which is grappling with a shortage of fighter squadrons.
The deployment of TEJASs at forward air bases is a testament to the maturity of the aircraft as an operational platform and weapon system, said Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retd), director general, Centre for Air Power Studies.
“The development also shows that TEJAS can be maintained at forward air bases. Since the fighters will now be in an operational role at premier bases, it is important for HAL to ramp up production to meet IAF’s requirements,” he added.
On October 4, HAL handed over the first trainer version of TEJAS MK-1 to Chaudhari in Bangalore, with the twin seater set to fill a key training role and double as a fighter if needed.
The aircraft is part of an earlier order for 40 MK-1 jets in the initial operational clearance (IOC) and the more advanced final operational clearance (FOC) configurations — the first variants of TEJAS. Of the 40 MK-1s, IAF has inducted 32 single seater jets and raised two TEJAS squadrons (the ones in Sulur). Seven more twin seater aircraft will be delivered to IAF by March 2024.
TEJAS is set to emerge as the cornerstone of IAF’s combat power in the coming decade and beyond. IAF, the world’s fourth largest air force, is expected to operate around 350 TEJASs (MK-1, MK-1A and MK-2 versions), with a third of those already ordered, some inducted, and the rest figuring prominently on the air force’s modernisation roadmap and expected to be contracted in the coming years.
The newer variants, MK-1A and MK-2, will come with significantly improved features and technologies over the MK-1 aircraft.
IAF’s leadership firmly backs the TEJAS program. In a recent review, Chaudhari described the fighter aircraft as the flag-bearer of IAF’s efforts towards the indigenisation of its combat fleet.
IAF could order more than 100 MK-2s, and the aircraft will be ready for production in five years, HT has learnt. The world’s leading aircraft engine maker GE Aerospace and HAL signed a memorandum of understanding in Washington in June to produce F-414 engines in the country for TEJAS MK-2, during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first state visit to the US.
F-414 has evolved from the F-404 engine that powers the existing TEJAS variants.
The production of the engines in India will result in the new fighter jet having an indigenous content of around 75% compared to 55%-60% in TEJAS MK-1A and 50% in the existing MK-1 variant.
The TEJAS project was sanctioned in 1983 as a replacement for MiG-21s. IAF raised its first TEJAS squadron in Sulur Air Base with two aircraft in July 2016. While the existing MK-1 and MK-1A variants will replace MiG-21 fighters, the MK-2 aircraft is planned as a replacement for the air force’s MiG-29s, Mirage-2000s and Jaguar fighters that will start retiring in the coming decade.
In late October, IAF retired one of its three remaining squadrons of MiG-21s. The latest MiG-21 Bisons to be phased out belonged to the No. 4 Squadron based at Uttarlai in Rajasthan. The two remaining squadrons, based at Bikaner and Suratgarh in Rajasthan, will be phased out by 2025. Several MiG-21s have crashed in recent years with the accidents turning the spotlight on India’s longest-serving fighter plane, its safety record and IAF’s plans to replace the ageing jets with newer ones.