Indian Air Force (IAF) commissioned the second squadron of indigenous ‘Tejas’ Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) in a glittering, CoViD-compatible ceremony on May 27 at Air Force Station Sulur in southern India. Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria presided over the ceremony with senior officials from IAF, Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) in attendance.
No. 18 squadron, christened “Flying Bullets”, inducted the first four LCA Mk-1 built to Full Operational Clearance (FOC) standards. Another squadron of 16 LCA belonging to 45 Squadron “Flying Daggers” have been operating from the same base since 2016. These aircraft were delivered with Initial Operational Clearance (IOC). That makes it 16 LCA with IOC and four with FOC.
“We are proud to deliver a much lethal aircraft than the IOC block. Apart from all the capabilities of IOC aircraft, the FOC variant additionally comes with Air-to-Air refuelling capability, close combat gun, additional drop tanks, BVR missile capability, updated avionics and flight control software suite”, Mr. R Madhavan, CMD HAL said.
No. 18 Squadron was first raised at Ambala on Apr 15, 1965 with the Folland Gnat aircraft and saw action in the 1971 Indo-Pak war. The squadron operated a number of Indian and imported aircraft before it was “number plated” (temporarily retired without assets) in 2016, only to be resurrected with LCA in 2020. IAF Chief Bhadauria flew a sortie on an LCA from 45 Squadron prior to the induction ceremony. The air chief paid rich tributes to the history and legacy of the squadron, as well the 30-year efforts by multiple agencies to produce Tejas Mk-1, in his address at the event.
“LCA, in the current form that you are getting, is the best in its class in the lightweight combat aircraft, in the world. Take my word for it“, ACM Bhadauria said in his speech.
This is a significant endorsement of product, coming right from top. “Chotu Bhadauria” is an accomplished experimental test pilot who has been involved with the LCA program for many years in various capacities. He chooses his words carefully, straddling a difficult space between flight testing, national agenda, budget realities, and international pressure. China has been flexing muscle on several fronts, of late. An LCA may well have to defend the Indo-China Line of Actual Control (LAC) soon.
On 18 Mar 2020, Indian MoD cleared the decks for a $5.2 billion deal for 83 LCA in Mk-1A configuration. This is in addition to orders for 40 LCAs in the Mk-1 configuration that will eventually be shared between 18 Sqn and 45 Squadron. “Four more FOC-LCAs are in the advanced stages of production and testing and expected to join the Squadron soon”, a HAL press note reads.
As per reports, HAL expects the first LCA Mk-1A flight by 2022, series production within a year of that, and a sustained production rate of 16 aircraft per year to meet IAF’s timelines. LCA Mk-1A is expected to feature upgraded sensors, including an AESA radar, self-protection suite, improved BVR and close combat missiles, and improved maintainability. One hopes these best-laid plans are not held hostage to the “Christmas Tree” syndrome that often delay indigenous platforms because key sensors or weapon systems are not ready.
The promised delivery rates are completely inconsistent with past records. HAL must be held to account. Days of unsubstantiated promises must end if we (India) want to become fair competition in a market dominated by established players. Nobody knows it better than ACM Bhadauria himself. ‘Flying Daggers’ & ‘Flying Bullets’ will soon (if not already) face the great Indian ‘cloak & dagger’ & ‘over-promise, under-deliver’ approach in the face of unprecedented challenges. Their voice must prevail. I wish them the best. You should too. This is our only slender chance against unimaginable odds.
IAF’s future plans include 36 Rafales via import, the Medium Weight Fighter (MWF) that ‘could be’ Tejas Mk-2 with more powerful F414-GE-INS6 engine, a fifth-generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) and another 100-plus fighters – all of which are needed to field 42 squadrons where the IAF has just 30. The 123 LCAs will likely form the indigenous backbone while a host of foreign manufacturers vie for a slice of the pie. Latest announcements calling for increased “atma nirbharta” (self-reliance) adds hope to domestic industry while diminishing chances of large-scale imports.
Former IAF test pilot Suneet “Soggy” Krishna who flew hundreds of developmental sorties on the LCA before hanging his g-suit had this to say:
“Extremely proud to see the IAF showing confidence in Tejas & the new-generation fighter pilots happy with the aircraft performance and pilot-aircraft interfaces. It’s been a long journey from first flight to production & required great amount of resilience, determination, synergy & patience from every stakeholder. Only those who have been part of this journey know how complex and difficult modern combat aircraft design, development, certification & production is. Every time a Tejas takes off, every Indian should feel the thunder in their hearts.”
Coming from a former Mirage 2000 pilot, that’s saying a lot. Kaypius will keenly watch what the two squadrons have to say in the coming years. I wrote about ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ in aeronautical product develpment in this 2018 story.
“Every time a Tejas takes off, every Indian should feel the thunder in their hearts”
It remains to be seen how much the Rafales, Fighting Falcons, Super Hornets, Gripens, or others in fray, will succeed in stealing some of this “thunder” in India. Our small bird has big plans. Hope Indian Navy is also invested in such plans (Mk-1A, TEDBF or LCA Mk-2?).
Blending navy’s Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) experience and Soggy’s words, I feel, every time an ALH takes off, the navy and HAL should well feel the “blunder” in their hearts. I seriously wish the journey of naval LCA turns out different.
Good luck & godspeed, Flying Daggers & Flying Bullets! The best aircraft is the one made in own country! But don’t give an inch. Because the enemy won’t.
"The best aircraft is the one made in own country" ❤️ #LCA
Kudos to a galaxy of designers, workers, test crew, critics & supporters who shaped this baby from paper to metal. Balls to the naysayers.
Also applaud historic contribution of Kota Harinarayana & Rajiv Kothiyal. pic.twitter.com/25IRMmIf2Y
— Kaypius (@realkaypius) June 3, 2020
© KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2020. All rights reserved. Cover photo courtesy Indian Air Force. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.