The Tejas Program: Triumphs, Tragedies, and Troubles

India’s indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas, has long been held as a symbol of technological prowess and self-reliance by the Indian leadership. The Tejas program, initiated in the 1980s was envisioned as a replacement for the past-its-prime MiG-21 fleet. The maiden flight of LCA Tejas was conducted in 2001 nearly 2 decades after the initiation of the project. Following its maiden flight, the program went on another hiatus until 2021 when it was revived by the Modi government using the guise of the ‘Make in India’ initiative.


To promote self-reliance in the manufacturing of fighter aircraft over the purchase of foreign jets, PM Modi has made Tejas into his pet-project. So much so that he became the first ever Indian PM to fly in a twin-seat variant of the Tejas LCA for a 30-minute sortie in September 2023. One of the booming successes of the Tejas program has been its nearly impeccable flight record with no incidents on record, until 12th March 2024, when a Tejas aircraft crashed in the Rajasthan region. While, this can be disregarded as an unfortunate one-off, the incident, augmented by a long series of other Indian aircraft crashes over the past decades, certainly raises a cause for concern upon the efficacy of the overall Indian aircraft fleet.


While there is no hard evidence, one can also presume that perhaps the Tejas program’s revival by the Modi government in 2021 may have been rushed without carrying out the required due diligence which resulted in the first ever flight crash of an otherwise successful aircraft. A more superstitious mind may also call it bad ‘Karma’; however, the on-ground facts regarding the program deem such a leap unnecessary.


The Tejas program has been curated as a success story of indigenous defence production and self-reliance. Under the leadership of PM Modi, there has been a deliberate effort to highlight Tejas as a symbol of technological prowess and a cornerstone in India’s journey towards becoming self-sufficient in defence capabilities. It is interesting to note that an aircraft that was enjoying an impeccable record thus far, had its first crash soon after PM Modi made it into a flag-ship project for its indigenous manufacturing and the ‘Make in India’ initiative. The government’s narrative surrounding Tejas, portraying it as not just a fighter aircraft but a testament to India’s ability to innovate, design, and produce sophisticated military hardware, can be called into question if one is to look at some simple facts.


Firstly, despite the Modi Government showcasing Tejas at different Air shows, it has so far failed to garner much interest from potential buyers. One of the reasons for this reluctance could be the fact that only a few of these aircraft have been inducted in the IAF thus far.


Another glaring issue with this program is the prolonged development timeline. Originally conceived as India’s first fourth-generation supersonic fighter, the aircraft is now said to be “20 years behind schedule.” This significant delay raises questions about the efficiency of the development process, potentially impacting the overall effectiveness of the Tejas program. With newer technologies developing at a rapid pace, this 20 year old program may be in a need for an overall to keep up with the times.


Additionally, while Tejas has mostly been promoted as a success story, albeit a much delayed one, experts have identified some other shortcomings with the aircraft, including inadequate payload/ range performance as well as a high turnaround time between missions. The single engine design of the aircraft, while cheaper to produce and operate, also limits its uses especially for ground attack roles. This could be one of the reasons for the low numbers of Tejas inducted with the IAF as well as the reluctance by foreign buyers.

Another point of contention is the critique regarding the engine of Tejas aircraft, with claims of it being “underpowered.” The ability of an aircraft to generate sufficient thrust is paramount for its operational success, and any shortcomings in this aspect can compromise its overall performance.


The Indian government has recently approved the purchase of an additional 97 Tejas Mk-1A jets. While this move may indicate a strategic endeavour to support indigenous defence production, it could also be seen as an effort to bolster the program’s image, especially to augment its value as an attractive product for foreign purchase.


The juxtaposition of real-world challenges with cosmetic glorification such as PM Modi’s sortie in a Tejas aircraft, raises questions about the transparency and authenticity of the narrative surrounding the entire indigenisation program. The looming question is whether Tejas represents a milestone in the ‘Make in India’ indigenisation process, or it is a strategic folly covered under shrouds of glamour and misplaced national pride.



About Nida Shahid 5 Articles
Nidaa Shahid completed an MPhil in Defence and Strategic Studies from Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad. She is a former research fellow of King's College London, UK as well as James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies, Monterey and Sandia National Labs, Albuquerque, U.S.

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