At the moment, the first Tejas squadron of the Indian Air Force is operating five Tejas jets in what is known as the Initial Operating Capability or IOC configuration. This variant does not have the full scale capabilities the Air Force expects. Another 15 jets in this configuration are presently on the assembly line. A further 20 jets in Final Operating Configuration or FOC will be manufactured once the fighter completes a series of protracted trials that are presently being undertaken. Though this configuration is acceptable to the Indian Air Force, it still falls short in key technology and capability areas which the Mk-1A variant will overcome.
The Mk-1A variant of the fighter the Air Force is looking to acquire incorporates three specific advancements over the jet presently being operated - The MK1-A will operate a state of the art AESA or Active Electronically Scanned Phased Array radar. This radar can beam radio waves electronically over a large area ahead of the jet to detect several targets on the ground or in the air simultaneously. The radar, which would essentially be the heart of the Tejas Mk-1 jet, will likely be acquired from Elta of Israel or Thales of France after an international tender is announced. An indigenous AESA radar is also being developed but has still not been flight-tested.
The Tejas Mk-1A will also feature enhanced electronic warfare capability which will include a jammer to confuse the radars of enemy jets or surface-to-air missile systems. This jammer will either be mounted externally on the wing of the jet, or will be partially recessed within the fuselage of the fighter.
Finally, the Tejas Mk-1A will be far more maintainable than the variant of the jet presently in service. This will be done through the incorporation of dozens of small modifications suggested by Indian Air Force engineers and pilots. This is a priority area for the IAF which wants guarantees that the Tejas will have a high availability rate whenever it is needed for missions.
The order for Tejas fighters comes at a time when the government is considering the acquisition of a second, larger class of single-engine fighters in a deal likely to be worth upwards of $10 billion for more than 100 fighters. The two main competitors for this deal, Lockheed Martin of the US and Gripen International of Sweden are pitching their F-16 Block 70 and Gripen E/F fighters respectively. Lockheed Martin has tied up with the Tata group for manufacture of the jets in India while Gripen International has tied up with the Adani group. However, there is no clarity as yet on when the government will go ahead with this deal. With today's formal Request for Proposal being sent to Hindustan Aeronautics, the government seems to have indicated that its immediate priority is the Tejas. However, the Indian Air Force has, for years, argued that the acquisition of either the Gripen or the F-16 has nothing to do with the Tejas programme since the Tejas fighter is smaller, carries less weaponry and flies for shorter durations than both the Gripen and F-16. It is unclear whether a plan to build a substantially larger and more capable Tejas Mk-2 fighter, nearing the capabilities of the Gripen or F-16 will eventually materialise.
Under development for more than three decades, the indigenous Tejas, earlier known as the Light Combat Aircraft or LCA is the first fighter jet to be built in India since the HF-24 Marut designed several decades earlier. Severely criticised for delays in its development, the Tejas fighter is belatedly showing promise as a jet which is far more capable than the MiG-27 and the MiG-21, legacy fighters which the Indian Air Force is in the process of retiring. By infusing new upgrades over the next few years, the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) which has designed the Tejas, hopes the jet will continue to prove to be a formidable fighter capable of striking targets on the ground and in the area over long ranges.