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J C Menon

India plans to buy an additional 83 indigenous TEJAS Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) as its air force inducted the LCA Mk-I Final Operational Clearance (FOC) standard aircraft into a resurrected squadron on 27th May 2020. The Indian Air Force (IAF) operationalised 18 Squadron (known as ‘The Flying Bullets) with the single engine, light weight, highly agile, all weather multi-role supersonic fighter aircraft. The IAF had initially ordered 20 of these fighter aircraft and 45 Squadron (known as ‘The Flying Daggers’) was the first TEJAS squadron, having formed in 2016. The IAF then placed an order of 40 more TEJAS Mk-Is, including 32 single-seat aircraft and eight twin-seat trainers.

“The latest procurement initiated by the IAF for an additional 83 aircraft will be single-seat fighters in Mk-1A configuration,” says Chief of the Air Staff (CAS) Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria. The nod for finalising the contract for the additional aircraft was given by the government last month and the deal is expected to cost around 400 billion rupees (US$5.2 bn).

Truly Versatile Platform

The Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) had given initial clearance for the 83 additional aircraft in November 2016 and the IAF issued the Request For Proposal (RFP) to Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) in December 2017. However, negotiations then stalled due to the steep price quoted by the manufacturer, which the IAF had said was more than the price of a Su-30MKI. Available in single and twin seat version (the latter mainly for training), the jet is light and simple when compared to other fighter jets. It is powered by a single GE 404F2/J-IN20 General Electric engine rated at 53.9 kN (12,100 lbf) thrust dry, 90 kN (20,200 lbf) with afterburner. It has a length of 13.2 metres and a wingspan of 8.2 metres while the aircraft weighs 6500 kg (dry) and has a total takeoff weight of 13000 kg. It has a maximum speed of Mach 1.8 (2222 kmph) and can travel 500 km with drop tanks.

The aircraft is capable of air-to-air refuelling and uses Israel’s Elta EL/M-2032 multi-mode fire control radar, though what makes it a truly versatile platform is the ability to carry laser guided bombs, air-to-air, air-to-surface and anti-ship missiles. With a delta wing, the aircraft is designed for ‘air combat’ and ‘offensive air support’ with ‘reconnaissance’ and ‘anti-ship’ as its secondary roles. TEJAS also has a quadruplex digital fly-by-wire Flight Control System (FCS) with associated advanced flight control laws while extensive use of advanced composites in the airframe gives a high strength to weight ratio, long fatigue life and low radar signatures.

Resurrected Squadron

No. 18 squadron was raised at Ambala on 15th April 1965 with the Folland GNAT aircraft and has the unique distinction of having operated two HAL made aircraft, the TEJAS and the AJEET, which it operated from the same station. Over the years, it has also operated MiG-27 ML aircraft from various bases across the country though it currently falls under the operational control of Southern Air Command, which is responsible for integrating the squadron into the IAF Concept of Operations.

Future Plans

India needs around 42 squadrons of fighters to defend its western and northern borders simultaneously, but it currently has about 31 meaning the country needs new aircraft to replace ageing Soviet-era jets. The list of aircraft planned to be inducted by the IAF includes 36 RAFALES, 114 multi-role fighter aircraft, 100 Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) and over 200 LCAs in different variants. The planned 123 TEJAS fighters are to be followed by the Mk-II variant which is a medium weight fighter.

In April 2018, India floated a global tender seeking responses from global manufacturers to purchase the required 114 jets, with the deal attracting initial offers from global giants like Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Sweden’s Saab AB in addition to the Russian-made Sukhoi Su-30MKI and Su-35. The initial document stated that at least 85 per cent of the production was to be done in India with the induction of all these fighters to take place over the next 35 years.