India’s own fighter, the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), is playing a growing role in protecting Indian airspace. On December 20, when the Tejas was cleared for operational service in the Indian Air Force (IAF), Defence Minister A K Antony declared 200 Tejas fighters would eventually enter combat service. Today, that figure quietly swelled to well above 300, with the government indicating the IAF would have at least 14 Tejas squadrons.
Each IAF combat squadron has 21 fighter aircraft; 14 squadrons add to 294 Tejas fighters. The 21 comprise 16 frontline, single-seat fighters, two twin-seat trainers and three reserve aircraft to make up losses in a war.
In a written statement tabled in the Lok Sabha on Monday, Antony’s deputy, Jitendra Singh, stated, “The MiG-21 and MiG-27 aircrafts of the IAF have already been upgraded and currently equip 14 combat squadrons. These aircraft, however, are planned for being phased out over the next few years and will be replaced by the LCA.”
So far, the IAF has committed to inducting only six Tejas squadrons — two squadrons of the current Tejas Mark I, and four squadrons of the improved Tejas Mark II. In addition, the navy plans to buy 40-50 Tejas for its future aircraft carriers.
Since the programme began in 1985, about Rs 7,000 crore have been spent on the Tejas Mark I, which obtained Initial Operational Clearance in December, allowing regular IAF pilots to fly it. By the end of this year, when it obtains Final Operational Clearance, it would have consumed a Budget of Rs 7,965 crore.
An additional Rs 2,432 crore has been allocated for the Tejas Mark II, which takes the total development cost of the IAF variant to Rs 10,397 crore.
Separately, Rs 3,650 crore were sanctioned for developing the naval Tejas, which is ongoing. That means the Aeronautical Development Agency will spend Rs 14,047 crore on the entire Tejas programme, including the IAF, naval and trainer variants.
Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, which manufactures the Tejas, has quoted Rs 162 crore a fighter as its latest price. Amortising the entire development cost on the envisioned 344 fighters (IAF: 294; Navy: 50), the Tejas would cost Rs 209 crore ($33.5 million) per fighter.
In comparison, the IAF’s Mirage 2000 fighters, bought in the 1980s, are currently being upgraded for $45 million per aircraft. IAF pilots that test-fly the Tejas Mark I find it qualitatively superior to the Mirage 2000.
The heavier Sukhoi-30MKI costs more than Rs 400 crore ($65 million) each. And the Rafale, which is currently being negotiated with Dassault, is pegged at Rs 750-850 crore ($120-140 million) per fighter.
Aerospace expert and historian, Pushpindar Singh, points out that ordering more Tejas would bring down the price further, making it enormously attractive for air forces across the world that are replacing some 3,500 MiG-21, Mirage-III, early model F-16 and F-5 fighters that are completing their service lives.
“With these air forces facing severe budget pressures, the Tejas has only one rival in this market — the JF-17 Thunder, being built by China in partnership with Pakistan. They are marketing the JF-17 aggressively in every global air show, but India is completely ignoring the Tejas’ potential,” said Singh.