Paving way for its induction into the Indian Air Force, indigenously-designed fighter Tejas Friday got initial operational clearance for flying by air force pilots and will join the fleet after the final operational clearance likely next year to replace the ageing Russian-made MiG jets.
The historic milestone was marked by an awesome flying display of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) at the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) airport here, demonstrating its prowess and strike capability in presence of Defence Minister A.K. Antony, IAF chief N.A.K. Browne and top officials.
As the fourth generation aircraft, Tejas can fly at 1,350km per hour and is comparable to the world's best fighters such as the French Mirage 2000, the American F-16 and the Swedish Gripen.
A single engine, multi-role supersonic fighter, which has been in the making for over three decades, Tejas weighs 8.5 tonnes and can carry three tonnes of weapons, including air-to-air missiles, laser guided bombs, guns, conventional/retarded bombs and beyond visual range missiles.
Flying three aircraft, the test pilots used modern avionics to fire' missiles with helmet-mounted display system.
"It's a great day for the whole nation and a momentous occasion," Antony said after handing over the service release documents to Air Chief Marshal Browne for the IOC after the aircraft was certified by the Centre for Military Airworthiness and Certification (Cemilac) of the state-run Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).
Admitting that the ambitious project had gone through periods of "frustration" and "setbacks", Antony said there were even questions about the continuance of the "wasteful project".
"Last few years, I myself had my share of criticism. Ultimately, India will succeed ... that was the determination," he asserted.
Noting that the fighter had enhanced flight envelope and weapon delivery capability, the defence minister said the aircraft had recently flown thrice in a day, indicating its operational reliability.
"The IAF is keenly looking forward to induct the aircraft into the force," Antony noted.
The IAF will induct six squadrons of Tejas after the FOC.
"The IAF will induct the first squadron of LCA Mark-1 from 2015 and second squadron from 2017. Production of Mark-1 will start soon.
The air force subsequently will accept four squadrons of Mark-II, while Indian Navy will induct 40 of its naval variant," Antony told reporters later.
Each squadron will have 20 aircraft and will be based at Sulur Air Force Base near Coimbatore in southern Tamil Nadu.
"The IAF requirement will go up to 200. The Mark-1 will be fitted with GE-404 engines and Mark-II GE-414 engine. As this aircraft meets the staff requirement of the IAF, it has accepted it," Antony said.
Browne said the IAF pilots will start flying Tejas from Saturday over the next 12 months for its FOC by December 2014.
Terming LCA a reality, Antony said the next 12 months would be critical for all the stakeholders in getting the FOC.
"They (defence agencies) have to do a lot. If they can do up this, they are capable of producing the most modern fighting aircraft, as only five-six countries have such a capability," he said.
The state-run Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), DRDO, HAL and Cemilac are the defence agencies which designed, developed, manufactured and certified the world's lightest and smallest combat jet. The development cost alone is estimated to be about Rs.10,000 crore.
Tejas, however, is expected to cost about Rs.200 crore per aircraft initially, with the cost coming down as production goes up.
As the indigenous Kaveri engine of DRDO's Gas Turbine and Research Establishment (GTRE) is yet to qualify for certification, HAL, the lead manufacturer of the LCA, will source the GE-404 and GE-414 aero-engines from the US-based General Electric (GE) for Mark-1 and Mark-II aircraft.
"The Kaveri engine is under development. It will take time. At the moment, we are using GE engines. Kaveri project is not abandoned. We can make it. Indigenisation of an aero-engine takes time. We have plan for that. If we can make aircraft like the LCA, warships, tanks and missiles, we can also make aero-engines," Antony added.