Folland Gnat

History of Lightweight Fighters

Shreyas karamblekar

At the end of the bloody World War-II, the participant nations quickly found that their yesterday’s air assets were no longer effective due to the emerging jet engine technologies. The Nazis were the first to field a fighter aircraft. Two jet engines powered them. Although it couldn’t lead the Nazis to victory, it showed the potential of such technologies. The concept of Lightweight fighters was introduced in WW2 itself and it is still being followed around the world.


Beginning of the cold war saw the introduction of designs like Mig-15/17, F-86, and Hawker Hunter etc. As the supersonic era began by the mid-1960s, these jets were soon pulled off from the frontlines .

F-86 Sabre
F-86 Sabre
Hawker Hunter
Hawker Hunter

However, the concept “Lightweight fighter” was still being followed since such aircrafts are quicker and a lot easier to build and can be mass produced at any given time.

Indian Air Force’s love affair with lightweight fighters

IAF’s love affair for such lightweight fighters dates back to 1955 when the then high command paid a visit to UK for a subsonic light aircraft. The aircraft was Folland Gnat. The performance and the size of the aircraft impressed him imemdiately. The aircraft was ridiculously small as it was really hard to detect. This became a pain for the PAF during the 1965 and 71 wars. The aircraft eventually earned the nickname “Sabre Slayer”.

Folland Gnat
Folland Gnat

At 29 feet long it was the length of 2 sedan cars parked back to back that we drive today, with an empty weight of just 2200kgs. It was probably  lighter to today’s SUV that are available in the market today. It was equipped with 2*30MM Aden cannons  for air to air and air to ground roles.


However, the aircraft had its fair share of problems. It was often criticized for being short legged (range). Also the handling of the aircraft was a severe issue. This was later quickly rectified by HAL.

When IAF went supersonic

A serious modernization effort was launched in order to rebuild the IAF right after the end of 1962 war. The US was hesitant enough to sell any of its hardware to India since it was already having a good tie up with Pakistan. The British had the English Electric Lightning but they never offered it. The Soviets offered the Mig-21 since they wanted to expand their influence in the region. That’s how it became the stronghold of the IAF and it played a crucial role during the 1971 War.

English Electric Lightning
English Electric Lightning
MiG-21 FL

Designing the Tejas

The ‘Fishbed’ formed the backbone of the IAF, but as time passed by the glory started fading away. By the mid-80s, the arrival of Mirage, Mig-29 and Jaguar became evident that the future is 4th generation. Also by the end of 90s just when the USSR broke, it was harder to maintain a fleet of more than 900 Mig-21s, Mig-23s & Mig-27s.

India realized that she needed to restart her effort in designing and developing a lightweight, simple, easy to fly aircraft. The path was not easy enough as the country had many hiccups. Those were the economic and financial troubles, lack of Infrastructure and lack of a trained work force. The project however brought many indigenous technologies to the table.

The technologies which India couldn’t develop were already available in the open market and it was reluctant to procure them for which it gets a lot of criticism. People really need to understand that not everything has to be made in house. Sometimes off the shelf solutions could be cheaper to opt for and be used e.g the Swedish Gripen J-10, 20 etc.

Successful Induction to IAF

IAF accepted the Tejas Mk1 5 years ago and it has seen more than 3000 hours of incident flying since then. The ‘Flying Daggers’ that currently flies Tejas is probably kept in down south for developing the combat tactics according to the aircraft’s performance. The Mk1A another iteration of the base model will join the IAF sometime around 2023-24 replacing the entire fleet of MiG-21 Bisons perhaps. After commissioning these into active duty, the IAF will have its tactical air arm of lightweight multirole fighters thereby reducing the burden on other fleets such as Su-30s, Fulcrums and Mirage.

Tejas Mk1
LCA Tejas

Putting it all into perspective


Large air forces prefer on having a balanced or mixed fleet where lightweight fighters form the majority. Having such fleet means one can have simple fighter that are easier to maintain, fly and quicker to build if the need arises. On the other hand, the heavyweight fighters are used for special missions.


Such lightweight aircrafts have limited upgrade potential. They cannot be upgraded after a certain point. Moreover, having limited internal fuel capacity means that atleast 3 hardpoints has to be dedicated for external fuel tanks. This eventually results in lesser weapon payload.

Want to learn more about the CATS Warrior system for Tejas? Read here

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<em><strong>Shreyas karamblekar</strong></em>
Shreyas karamblekar

Defense Analyst at Alpha Defense

By Alpha Defense

Alpha Defense initially a solo venture but now a defense group by people from various demographics of India covering defense news and updates. We believe in unbiased analysis of every subject in hand. Our mission is to provide simplfiied defense information to the public.

2 thoughts on “History of Lightweight Fighters”
  1. Excellent overview. Am just now starting to spend time understanding our aircrafts and choices. You are doing a great job. Keep it up.

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