On Saturday, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) handed over to the Indian Air Force (IAF) the first Tejas Mark I fighter built on its new production line in Bengaluru. Fifteen prototypes earlier produced were each hand-built to different specifications as the Tejas evolved. Now, however, HAL's production line will build to a controlled standard using modern manufacturing methods. The first Tejas fighter had flown in September, but the IAF had refused to accept it until HAL could hand over eight fighters together, half the complement of the first Tejas squadron. Eventually, the defence ministry ordered the IAF to accept each fighter as it was built, like every air force does.
This illustrates the continuing problems with the Tejas, and why it has taken so long to enter service. With diverse organisations contributing to its development since 1983 - including HAL and the National Aerospace Laboratories - the programme has been overseen by the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), established by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). From the start, the IAF had convinced itself that building a modern fighter was an extravagant aim. Unlike the navy, which took ownership and control of warship-building programmes, an uninterested IAF highlighted flaws and demanded the purchase of expensive fighters from the international market - currently, the Rafale.
Every country that builds contemporary fighters has been through a tortuous learning process - a century for the United States, Germany, Italy, Britain, France and Russia. India has leapfrogged in technology by building what the IAF accepts is a fighter far better than the light MiGs it was intended to replace. The IAF's strength is down to 35 squadrons (each with 16 operational fighters), and with 10 more MiG-21 and MiG-27 squadrons retiring by 2018. But, even so, the IAF has made its preference for foreign fighters like the Rafale over the Tejas clear.
The Tejas has not achieved final operational clearance. Some capabilities remain to be validated before it can be fielded in combat. On the other hand, the test programme has, however, completed 2,800 flights, with only a few hundred more required. The problem is the delays. HAL needs to build the Tejas faster, so that 10 squadrons can fill the gap created by the retiring MiGs. But just two Tejas fighters will be built this year; another six in 2015-16; eight more the year after that; and only in 2017-18 would HAL hit a production rate of 16 planes a year. Clearly, this is too slow. If the Tejas is to help set up a domestic high-tech sector, then the defence ministry needs to be swifter, and HAL needs to indigenise further, developing Indian small-scale vendors to build systems and components currently being imported.