The Cabinet Committee on Security’s approval for the procurement of 83 upgraded Tejas fighter jets for the Indian Air Force (IAF) signals a significant push to accelerate the slow and difficult march towards self-reliance in the defence sector. The nearly
Rs 47,000-crore deal has been described as a game-changer; it would, according to the Defence Minister, act as a catalyst to transform the Indian aerospace industry into a self-sustaining ecosystem. Last year, an import embargo was imposed on 101 defence items, a new Defence Acquisition Procedure was put in place and Foreign Direct Investment in the sector was raised from 49 to 74 per cent under the automatic route. The government may have made clear its intent to support indigenous defence manufacturing to stem the dependence on expensive high-tech foreign imports, but the real test lies in putting that into practice and ensuring results.
Tejas is flying high, but it has been a long and arduous journey for the Light Combat Aircraft. The Mark-1A fighters will have several ‘improvements’ over the 40 Mark-1 jets ordered by the IAF earlier. The indigenous content level is expected to be 60 per cent, up 10 per cent, by the time the entire delivery is rolled out and there will be greater collaboration with private vendors. It is not only the largest make-in-India deal in the defence sector, but also the biggest for fighter jets since the government in the mid-1990s okayed the purchase of 272 Sukhoi-30MKI jets from Russia. The first lot of the upgraded version of the Tejas platform is to be made available by 2023 and the last by 2027. Public sector giant Hindustan Aeronautics Limited has a challenging task at hand and will have to step up its production rate.
The IAF at present has 30 fighter squadrons (16-18 planes each) against the requirement of 42 in case of a simultaneous two-front war. The Air Force is banking on the Tejas to add to its strength, and be the ‘backbone’ of the fleet.