Marking a milestone in India's military aviation, the indigenously-built Light Combat Aircraft Tejas today received initial clearance for induction into the Air Force, 30 years after the sanction of the programme estimated to cost around Rs 25,000 crore.
The single-engine light weight state-of-the-art fighter aircraft will replace the ageing fleet of MiG 21s from the IAF and will be fully operational after attaining the 'Final Operational Clearance' (FOC) scheduled for the end of 2014.
Defence Minister AK Antony handed over the 500-page 'Release to Service Certificate' of the aircraft to IAF Chief NAK Browne marking the country's elevation into the select club of nations with capability to produce fighter aircraft.
"During the last three years, the capabilities of the aircraft have been improved significantly. In recognition of the enhanced capabilities, IAF has decided to grant it a higher status, namely, the IOC-II for induction into the service," Antony said.
IOC-II signifies that the multi-role single engine light-weight fighter is airworthy in different conditions and can now be flown by regular IAF pilots, but it will have to pass several key tests before receiving the FOC.
"After the test now, next is induction. Our Air Force will induct two squadrons of Mark 1 (of Tejas). It will start 2015 onwards," Antony told reporters.
The FOC would come next year which would be "critical", he said.
"It is a great day for India today," the minister said while admitting that due to time and cost overruns, he had his "share of anxieties regarding the future of LCA when he had taken over as the Defence Minister in 2006."
"But today we are putting behind the moments of self doubt, frustrations and setbacks which we as a nation have gone through in the last 30 years," he said.
The project was sanctioned in 1983 at a cost of Rs 560 crore, but the overall project cost of the programme including its naval and trainer variants would come to around Rs 25,000 crore. The DRDO has claimed that the IAF version of the LCA has cost around Rs 8,000 crore.
Air Chief Marshal Browne said the day marked "a historic milestone" and India had joined a select group of nations to design and produce their own state-of-the art fighter aircraft.
The LCA will now be called Tejas Mark I. It will be called Tejas Mark II after final operational clearance (FOC) slated for end of 2014.
Before FOC, the "fourth generation fighter plane" is to be equipped with mid-air refuelling ability, a more powerful engine and new missiles.
IAF will have two squardons of Tejas Mark I and four squardons of Tejas Mark II and the combat aircraft will replace the ageing MiG fleet of IAF.
The IOC-I was achieved in 2011 but the IAF wanted several improvements in the fighter jet before it could be inducted.
The fighter plane has undergone improvements since IOC-I in terms of its angle of attack and weapons delivery and has been tested for operation in different weather conditions.
The test pilots Friday gave a display of modern avionics at the HAL grounds here and demonstrated the ability of Tejas to fire missiles with helmet-mounted display system.
HAL has started producing Tejas Mark I at its Limited Series Production hangar here and the first fighter jet is expected to be delivered to the IAF in March next year.
Officials said HAL plans to initially produce eight LCAs every year and then scale up production to 16.
Tejas can fly 1,700 km non-stop and has "glass cockpit display system".
K. Tamil Mani, director general at the Aeronautical Systems of DRDO, told IANS Thursday that "the aircraft is 65 percent indigenous". He said the engine, ejection seat and radar are among the components that have been imported.
Officials estimate the development cost of the Tejas to be around Rs.10,000 crore.
Antony said IOC-II of Tejas was a significant milestone in indigisation through self-reliance.
"We can declare we are nearing success. We have passed the semi-final," he said.
The minister said India can make world class fighter aircraft, warship and tanks.
He called for major breakthrough in the next five years in all areas in which India was lagging behind.