After almost 30 years of design and development, deliveries of India’s indigenous lightweight fighter, the Tejas, to the air force are finally underway. But achieving full operational capability, fielding a naval variant and developing a fully capable Mk. 2 version remain to be done.

In spite of the length of time, handover of the first Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) series-production Tejas—aircraft SP-1—to the Indian air force  on Jan. 17 was hailed as an achievement. To accomplish this, the industry had to conquer hurdles related to U.S. sanctions over India’s nuclear testing that interrupted access to key suppliers in the middle of development, resulting in delays and cost increases.

The Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) program began in 1983 with a budget of around 5.6 billion rupees ($91 million), which has escalated to almost 250 billion rupees over the last three decades. Series-production aircraft may now cost 1.6 billion rupees each—still a fraction the price of a Western fighter.

SP-1 was delivered in the Initial Operation Clearance 2 (IOC-2) configuration released at the end of 2013. This addressed performance, readiness and weapons limitations associated with IOC-1, released in 2011. The upgraded aircraft is capable of high-angle-of-attack flight, faster turnarounds and deployment of R73E Archer infrared air-to-air missiles and 1,000-lb. laser-guided bombs in air-superiority and offensive air support missions.

A second series-production aircraft is in flight-testing, and the first three of the initial batch of six are expected to be delivered by June, with the remaining three likely to be handed over before the end of March 2016. HAL plans to produce six Tejas in fiscal April 2015-March 2016 and subsequently scale up to eight and then 16 aircraft per year.

The air force is aiming to form its first squadron of 16-18 Tejas in three years’ time, based at Sulur in southern Tamil Nadu. The service has ordered an initial 40 Mk. 1 aircraft, 20 of which will be delivered in IOC-2 configuration. Final Operation Clearance (FOC) is now anticipated by year-end. HAL expects the air force ultimately to induct around 14 squadrons to replace approximately 250 MiG-21s still in its fleet.

LCA test pilot Grp. Capt. Suneeth Krishna says the first Tejas delivered to the air force is combat-ready. “The aircraft presented to the air force is a weaponized version. It is an all-weather aircraft and can handle cold, heat and mountainous conditions. It meets the requirements of any such aircraft in its class,” he says.

“The IOC-2 aircraft do not require major structural changes to be converted into FOC aircraft. Besides augmenting a few weapons capabilities, the upgrades are mostly in the software,” says Krishna. In a step toward FOC, a sixth prototype of the air force Tejas made its first flight last November. PV-6 is the final prototype leading to a series-production two-seat trainer and incorporates all of the modifications resulting from flight testing since 2001.

In January, the Tejas began testing an indigenous electronic-warfare (EW) suite developed by India’s Defense Avionics Research Establishment (DARE). “LCA is the first Indian fighter aircraft with the capability for both radar warning and jamming using unified EW technology. Over the coming months, we will be scheduling further sorties to evaluate the system in various signal scenarios,” says DARE Director J. Manjula.

The second prototype of a carrier-capable version being developed for the Indian navy, the single-seat aircraft NP-2, made its first flight on Feb. 7 from HAL’s airport in Bengaluru. The initial two-seat prototype, NP-1, first flew in April 2012 and in December logged the first takeoff from a ski-jump at the Shore-Based Tests Facility (SBTF) in Goa.

NP-1 was mostly grounded for the better part of a year following its maiden flight, to fix several structural and technical issues, mainly with the undercarriage. The weight of the landing gear had to be reduced and movement of the leading-edge vortex controls corrected. These movable surfaces were added to the delta-wing LCA to reduce carrier approach speed. NP-2 has a redesigned landing gear.

“[NP-2] addresses several systemic deficiencies observed while making progress on flight-test of NP-1. It incorporates most avionic hardware components promised to the customer,” says HAL Chairman T. Suvarna Raju. NP-2 has been designed to accept modifications incrementally for carrier-landing aids such as a new air-data computer, auto-throttle and external/internal angle-of-attack lights. 

The second prototype is the lead aircraft for integration of the arrestor hook, as well as Rafael Derby beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles and tactical data link. “The inclusion of NP-2 into the LCA flight-test stable is a significant milestone in the indigenous carrier-borne aircraft development program,” says Raju.

The LCA-Navy is India’s first effort to develop a carrier-borne fighter and is to be deployed on India’s indigenous aircraft carrier INS Vikrant, replacing the navy’s Sea Harriers and operating alongside MiG-29Ks. The ski-jump test last December showed the aircraft can get airborne from the carrier deck within 200 meters (660 ft.), compared with 1,000 meters for a conventional runway takeoff. LCA-Navy is heavier than the air force version and has a fuel-dump capability to reduce weight for arrested landings.

“The LCA-Navy is designed with stronger landing gear to absorb forces exerted by the ski-jump ramp during takeoff,” says K. Tamilmani, chief controller of aeronautics R&D at India’s Defense Research & Development Organization. A special flight-control law allows hands-free takeoff from the ramp, reducing pilot workload and automatically putting the aircraft on a climbing trajectory. A second phase of SBTF tests will involve arrested landings, he says.

At 8.5 tons, the Tejas is light for a single-engine multirole supersonic fighter, but it is heavier and lower performing than planned. So development has begun on the larger Mk. 2, with a more powerful General Electric F414/INS6 engine in place of the Mk. 1’s GE F404/INS20. GE Aviation says it will begin delivering F414s to India next year, with first flight of the Tejas Mk. 2 expected in 2017.