India soon to fly first fighter jet built at home

The Indian military Monday cleared for production a fighter jet that will be the first plane flown by its national air force that was designed and built at home.

The air force is expected to start flying the first squadron next year after years of production delays and cost overruns. State-owned Hindustan Aeronautics LTD is building the planes with components from many international manufacturers, an analyst said.

Defense Minister A.K. Antony announced the production clearance for the first 20 Light Combat Aircraft and put the total requirement for India's air force and navy at around 200.

India's Air Chief Marshal P.V. Naik said the aircraft "taking wing is a dream coming true."

The fighter jet will be armed with missiles for air-to-ground and air-to-air combat. The navy's version will be able to take off from sea carriers for air-to-sea combat.

The planes are powered by General Electric 404-F engines. Key components such as radar, weaponry and avionics come from Israel, Russia and some European countries, said Rahul Bedi, a New Delhi-based analyst for the independent Jane's Information Group.

The first 20 aircraft will cost India nearly 20 billion rupees ($444.40 million), Bedi said.

India started the ambitious project in 1982 and originally planned to test its own engine in 1996. In the meantime, it began testing a prototype of the airframe using an engine made by U.S.-based General Electric Aircraft Engines.

Bureaucracy, technical shortcomings and U.S. trade sanctions imposed after India's 1998 nuclear tests forced delays. The sanctions were subsequently lifted.

India's air force flies an array of 1,500 aircraft of numerous types and national origins, and it plans to buy another 126 fighter jets from overseas in the coming years.

It is considering the F-16 Flying Falcon made by U.S.-based Lockheed Martin Corp., France's Mirage, manufactured by Dassault Aviation, Russian Mikoyan-Gurevich MiGs and SAAB's Gripen, made in Sweden.

India's primary fighter aircraft are vintage Russian-made MiGs. About 70 percent of the country's military hardware is of Soviet origin.