World

NEW DELHI: India’s air force on Friday added the first domestically developed light fighter aircraft to its fleet.

The aircraft first took to the skies 33 years after it was cleared for development, and marked the latest step in the country’s long-held goal of cutting expensive imports to build a domestic defense-industrial base.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has nudged the military to accept the first version of the “Tejas” Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) to make up for the shortfall while a more powerful model is under development.

Early this month, China said it is still testing its first stealth fighter, the J-20, but it would enter service soon.

The single-seat Indian fighter is considered superior to counterparts such as the JF-17 aircraft, jointly built by China and Pakistan. Tejas has had no accident in 3,000 hours of flying and its use of composites helps lower its radar signature, making it harder to detect early, air force officials said.

“The LCA is as good as any in the world in its class,” said retired Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur, who is now a fellow at the Center for Air Power Studies in New Delhi.

The bellow of conch shells and crack of breaking coconuts — auspicious Hindu rituals — sounded as the two Tejas jets were handed over to the Indian Air Force in the southern city of Bengaluru.

The combat aircraft are part of New Delhi’s multi-billion dollar upgrade of its Soviet-era military hardware, in part to counter rivals Pakistan and China. The two aircraft will be part of a squadron named Flying Daggers 45 and can carry air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons.

The Indian air force has said it plans to add 14 Tejas aircraft in the next two years as it seeks to replace the old Russian MiG-21s, nicknamed “Flying Coffins” because of their poor safety record.

The Tejas jets, developed by Hindustan Aeronautics over three decades, have been touted as the smallest and lightest supersonic fighter aircraft in their class. The aircraft are designed and manufactured in India, although some components are imported.

India is also in the final stages of a deal to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets from France’s Dassault Aviation.

Modi, a hardline Hindu nationalist, has vowed to end India’s status as the world’s number one defense importer by manufacturing more defense equipment locally.

His government has lifted the cap on foreign investment in the defense industry and pushed tie-ups between foreign and local companies.