Small, nimble and fairly unique, the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft I flew on today is India's effort at catching up with the world's great aviation manufacturers. And now, after more than three long decades in development, that has happened - to a large extent.
No, the Tejas isn't outdated; nor is it a poor, desi solution to what a desperate Indian Air Force needs. Though a generation older than the newest fighters in service now, the Tejas is far better than what it was supposed to be - a MiG-21 replacement. Many of the systems on board are comparable with leading Western types.
With no one offering some of the technology India sought for this project, there was just one way forward - to build these technologies at home. That has been a painstakingly slow process. The LCA Tejas is not a reverse-engineered product. Its core technologies have been built-up slowly, with the process further stalled in the 90s because technical assistance from the US was halted because of sanctions following the Pokhran nuclear test.
Now, a lot of the technology that India sought (both imported and home-grown) has been developed, tested and inducted into service in the Tejas jets which have formed the first squadron of the fighter in service with the Indian Air Force. And now, in a clear endorsement of the project, the government has ordered 83 Tejas Mark 1A fighters at a cost of close to 50,000 crore rupees. What's more, the agencies developing the fighter have been given the go-ahead to develop the Tejas Mark-2, an improved variant of the fighter with a new engine, a lengthened fuselage and the ability to carry more weaponry.
With a singularly intuitive cockpit layout, custom-designed by test pilots and engineers for a specifically Indian requirement, the jet handles safely in the skies with an ease that has to be seen (or rather, felt) to be believed.
The reason for this is another Indian solution: the digital flight control computer which is the heart of the fighter, a system without which the Tejas would not be able to get off the ground. Designed painstakingly over decades by software engineers, the flight control system on the Tejas is the electronic link between the pilot and the aircraft. Every control input by the pilots is electronically transmitted to the control surfaces of the jet to give the fighter the ability to maneuver sharply and safely in whatever conditions the jet may be operating in. In non-geek speak, after decades in development, the software on the Tejas is talking so effectively with the hardware that the ground has been laid for the development of India's next fighter aircraft - a jet called the AMCA or Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft.
Today's experience - and I will offer more reports detailing it - informed me that the time to criticize the Tejas project may be over. Yes, it's taken time to develop the jets. And yes, there is a lot more to master. And yes, the Tejas is never going to re-define the words "state-of-the-art." At the same time, the development of the Tejas is a fairly positive indicator of where India stands in its ability to manufacture fighter aircraft. And from what I have seen - the Light Combat Aircraft Tejas, like the rockets built by ISRO, is an example of how home-grown engineering may have come of age.