It’s been almost every Air Chief’s favourite whipping boy – an Indian-built fighter jet delayed so inordinately that it came to be seen as a promise that would never be kept.
But three decades after the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft went into development, there is a grudging acceptance that the fighter which will be officially inducted into the Air Force today in Bengaluru is, in many ways, world-class.
While the delay in delivery cannot be justified, there have been fierce debates on why that happened. State-run Hindustan Aeronautics or HAL, which is the lead player in the Tejas project, says the air force kept shifting the goal post on what exactly it wanted from the jet. The manufacturer also says it was hit by sanctions imposed by the US after the Pokhran nuclear test in 1998, which placed crucial technology out of reach.
The Air Force, for its part, has insisted there are better options available in the world market, jets built by manufacturers who have been in the business of military aviation for decades. The Tejas, they have argued in the past, will be obsolete by the time it enters Air Force squadron service.
Except it isn’t. Not in the least.
Equipped with a modern Israeli multi-mode radar, the Elta 2032, state-of-the-art Derby air-to-air missiles to attack enemy jets, and modern laser designator and targeting pods to hit ground targets, the Tejas is, in many ways, as capable as the French-built Mirage 2000, the aircraft used by HAL as its benchmark. Every pilot that has tested the jet has sworn by the Tejas’s flight control system and the ease with which it manoeuvres. Not a single Tejas fighter has been lost to an accident during flight tests during 3,000 sorties.