By: Our Correspondent

India's Tejas indigenous Light Combat Aircraft has received its initial
operational clearance, paving the way for its induction into the Indian
Air Force by June.

However, the Tejas takes flight amid concerns
that while the aircraft is an extremely expensive attempt at widening
and deepening India's high-tech industrial base, it has only produced
what amounts to a 30-year-old aircraft.

In a further
disheartening contrast, the Tejas, presumably India's most technically
advanced indigenous aircraft program, was rolled out at the same time as
China chose to unveil, ahead of President Hu Jintao's US trip, its J-20
so-called 'stealth' fighter, designed to rival the best offerings from
the US's Boeing, Lockheed and others, to the general amazement of the
intelligence community.

"It is part of the story of India's
lamentable and expensive history of domestic defense procurement
programs," said a London-based security analyst. The analyst also
questioned the aircraft's role, asking: "What is a 'lightweight fighter'
in the Indian strategic context given their large number of highly
capable Russian long-range aircraft? Is it an advanced trainer or
intended for use in low intensity operations, i.e. against internal
insurgents?"

India has five long-range Sukhoi squadrons in
operation, which total around 105 aircraft, and aims to possess another
280 such fighters.

As has been the case of several domestic
defense projects, India conceptualized the long delayed light fighter
program as long ago as 1983, with the government eventually pumping
nearly Rs145 billion (US$3.2 billion) into a development effort that was
initially budgeted at slightly over Rs 5.5 billion.

The present
Tejas is said to approximate Sweden's Saab JAS 39 Gripen, which was
rolled out in 1984 – 27 years ago. The program has suffered major
bottlenecks due to sanctions on imported high-tech possible dual use
technology and equipment that was imposed by America following nuclear
weapons tests by India in May 1998.

Nonetheless, Defense
Minister A K Antony said the country's Air Force and Navy would
ultimately deploy 200 such fighters, replacing the ageing and accident
prone Russian MiG-21 fleet.

The Tejas is touted as a
fourth-generation fighter, developed by India's state-run Aeronautical
Defense Agency and manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd with
several public-private tie-ups. Stealth capabilities could upgrade the
aircraft to fifth-generation levels.

The Tejas is expected to
get its final clearance over the next two years for formation of a
squadron by 2013 or early 2014, India's Air Force chief, Air Chief
Marshal P Naik said.

Ironically, in a reflection of changed
Indo-US equations, the initial 40 Tejas aircraft will be powered by
American GE-404 engines while the rest (Tejas Mk-2) will be equipped
with more powerful GE-414 engines.

Future versions of the plane
are slated to be driven by the domestically developed Kaveri aero-engine
program with no certainty about the final completion period. The
indigenization level in Tejas is presently about 65 percent and is
expected to be scaled to 75-80 percent.

India continues to be one
of the largest importers of weapons globally due to its inability to
develop an effective indigenous delivery of weapons systems and
emergence of private industry.

In the decade that has followed
the 1999 Kargil war with Pakistan, India's arms purchase deal value has
surpassed US$50 billion, with every sign of such momentum being carried
over the next decade and crossing US$100 billion. After the terrorist
attack on Mumbai by Pakistani-based militants in November 2008, India
briefly considered attacking Pakistan but backed away because top
military officials were afraid they would lose.

Most observers
agree that the performance of the state-owned Defense Research and
Development Organization that oversees all defense production has not
been up to the mark and there is need to incorporate foreign technology
and help.

Among the severely delayed DRDO projects are the Arjun
main battle tank and attempts to modernize a Russian aircraft carrier,
both of which are years behind schedule.

Meanwhile, the emergence
of America as India's new military partner is even as New Delhi looks
beyond Russia, India's traditional supplier dating back to the Cold War
era. Problems with Russia include servicing and spare parts delays and
obsolete technology.

Keen to diversify its weapons procurement
sourcing, India has told US to ease its export control restrictions to
allow high-end weapons technology tie-ups between the two nations.

America has also been looking to sweeten defense deals with India to bag new contracts.

India Air Power
Currently,
India is in the process of building a fighter jet fleet that will
comprise imported multi-role combat aircraft (MRCA) that will fit
between the more powerful Russian Sukhoi-30 and the Tejas.

The
competition is stiff for India's largest ever defense deal, the US$12
billion 126 medium MRCA contract, with the six players in the fray keen
to outdo each other. Lockheed Martin, Boeing (American), Dassault's
Rafale (French), Gripen (Sweden), MiG (Russian) and Eurofighter Typhoon
(a consortium of British, German, Italian and Spanish companies) have
begun presenting their fighter jets for flight testing to the IAF.

The
country originally ordered 50 Su-30 MKIs from Russia in 1996 and
additional 40 fighters in 2007. India's state owned Hindustan
Aeronautics Ltd is contracted to build 140 more by 2017.

The
Russian MiGs formed the backbone of India's air strike for a long time.
However, technical snags, shoddy servicing and non-availability of
spares resulted in many MIGs going down, killing pilots and maiming
India's air force capabilities.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at sidsri@yahoo.com