First LCA Tejas Squadron at Sulur?

IAF chief Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi said on March 12 that the Air Force station at Sulur (Western Tamil Nadu) was being developed into what will be the HAL Light Combat Aircraft’s first user base. The Kangayampalayam village-based station has been persistently of military use by the Navy and IAF from British times, though full-on use has continued only the 1960s. It played a stellar role during tsunami relief operations along with detachments from Yelahanka and Agra. It’s been an open secret that the IAF was building a military airfield at Thanjavur for a while now, though it is only now that the IAF has revealed its plans for Sulur. A home to the first delivered squadron of LCA Tejas fighters no less! Two new airfields will come up at the town, work already in progress.

Down south on a farewell visit recently, ACM Tyagi said, “The Indian Air force (IAF) is playing a major role in protecting the country’s interests outside its borders and the Southern Air Command (SAC) would be in the forefront in achieving this task. The Sulur and Thanjavur bases (in Tamil Nadu) under Southern Air Command would be expanded soon and Sulur would be developed to make it as a Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) base.”

I’ve spoken to a string of former SAC commanders and they all hold that the Trivandrum-headquartered formation has always been looked upon with condescension by Vayu Bhawan. All the action is far away. Things are obviously changing now, with the proposed Aerospace Command (no optimism here!) and now, this fresh new announcement of Southern fighter bases. But look what one former SAC commander says:

“There isn’t a single fighter squadron in SAC and there isn’t any plan except for the occasional platitude by CAS that the SAC will have more importance because 70% of the world’s oil sails in the sea to the South etc. There is no thought process as, you know, the IAF is fixated with Pakistan,” he complains, then goes on to add, “The world except Air HQ knows that USA has imposed so many airspace restrictions on the PAF – all flying to be filed/intimated 48 hours in advance; all flying in Pakistan’s airspace will obtain prior clearance and adhere to assigned altitudes and routes; all flying will be with Air Defence Clearance of the NATO (read USAF) etc. Soon after the Taliban fell in December 2001, our Il-76 flew to Kabul with Satish Lamba our MEA representative, Mr Abdullah Abdullah the future Foreign Minister and Mr Yunoos Quanooni, the future Interior Minister, from Delhi overflying Pakistan. All controllers on the assigned UHF frequency inside Pakistan were Americans.”

That may not matter here for now. The fact is the we now have concrete plans of a base coming up — infrastructure and all — to receive the first consignments of the much-anticipated Tejas. Look at the Google Earth grab here of the Sulur base (home to 5 BRD). Visible for now, only a flight of Mi-8 medium lift choppers and a scattering of Clines/Avros.

All of this sounds a bit sudden. Just before, there were plans to send a detachment of six Jaguars IMs or Sukhoi-30s to AFS Car Nicobar, though these were rapidly disbanded after the killer wave. Just three months after the tsunami, however, some of us defence journalists were taken in a Comm Squadron Boeing-737 to Car Nic to see the extent of damage. For good measure, three Jaguars were flown in to show that the strip was fighter worthy again (and the Jaguars make the greatest length demands on airstrips, remember).

Anyway, in the past, whenever air chiefs have been asked if they’ve had plans to place fighters at peninsular bases, they’ve always scoffed and said with mid-air refuelling, there’s no need at all. Fulcrums or Mirages or Sukhois can tear into the Southern theatre at short notice after a brief contingency (not really needed) thirst-quencher over central-south India. Simple, they said. Then why this? And more imporantly, why the Tejas?

It all seems very telling, to be honest. WAC, SWAC and CAC have squadron depletions and need fighters pronto — the 126 fighters will go towards that of course, but still won’t make up for depleted numbers by that time. If HAL is on a deadline to deliver by 2011, then it makes sense to give the new fighters a taste of the Western and Northern sectors first off, right? Why Sulur, of all the places? Even the North East would be more respectable, in terms of a good place to cut teeth. So does basing the Tejas well away from India’s conventional air conflict theatres undermine faith in the machine? Is the IAF nervous about an aircraft it believes is already obsolete, and will be even more so when it’s delivered? Sounds like it. On record of course they’ll tell you it’s all just a test process — which would be acceptable if it wasn’t so disingenuous. Testing is precisely what has happened for the last god-knows-how-many years.

A nice robust argument is on in our comments section about the take-off weight of the Tejas. Either way, the question remains, as commenter Abhiman puts it, “If an RFP can be sent to the under-development Typhoon, and if an RFP can be sent to the Gripen, then why is an RFP not being sent to the Tejas?”

24 thoughts on “First LCA Tejas Squadron at Sulur?”

  1. Hello Mr. Aroor. I think if Tejas would have been positioned close to border areas, its range would have allowed it to strike deeper into enemy territory, than if it is positioned in South India.

    In my view, older fighters that have less service-life remaining may be redeployed to the South, whereas advanced fighters like Tejas and Mirage-2000-V (to be acquired from France/Qatar) may be placed closer to the border.

    However, I may slightly disagree with your view that the decision to deploy Tejas at Sulur may be due to lack of confidence in its capabilities on part of the IAF. It is known on public domain that technologically, the Tejas is second to no plane currently in service in the IAF. Its range and payload also are comparable to the Mirage 2000 and MiG-23/27. Thus, the IAF is definitely not of the view that it is obsolete, and is fully aware of its capabilities.

    Hence, it may be unclear why it is being deployed at Sulur.

    Thank you.

  2. In the previous comment I wrongly stated that external load of Tejas is comparable to Mirage 2000, whereas latter’s capacity is greater at 6,300 kgs.


  3. abhiman.. i don’t think you’re right about how the IAF feels. it definitely does not believe very strongly in the Tejas’ capabilities. and why? simply because it doesn’t have it yet, and knows nothing about it. the deployment in sulur has a lot to do with that perception. and remember, the IAF has ordered just 20 LCAs so far. that’s no joke. if she proves her self in sulur, maybe they’ll push six to halwara or adampur, but that’s a long shot in the near term. tell me what you think.

  4. When any AF inducts a new system, its never deployed in frontline. Even SU-30 was inducted in Pune and not Halwara. M2K went through similar process.

    SU-30, M2K has user manuals and Standard operating procedures etc. These planes have been flown for a number of years. The learning curve was already avaliable.

    Comming to LCA in Sulur. The objective of Limited Series Production is to give the IAF pilots a feel of the aircraft. The flight handling capabilities are to be familiriased. Its similar to acquring a new model of car. You have to run the new car below 80 KM/PH till the engine reaches first 1000 kms and then go for first service. You also get the feeling of the pressure applied to brakes, clutch, steering etc. If you have driven a TATA, An American and a Japanese car, you will understand what I am trying to say.

    The LSP cannot be flown from the main bases as it hinders regular aircraft movement. The regular bases have airspace restrictions. A new car cannot be driven on fast lane.

    LCA features a different FBW. When M2K was inducted in IAF, the pilots were lost because of the features it offered. Then they got togther and made a group to understand how best the M2K can be used. LCA will go for similar phases. Next batch of LCA with weapons will have to be acclimatised too.

    LCA will have very steep learning curve compared to other aircrafts it inducted. Expect crashes, system failures and other issues. Its a part of testing.

    Sulur also houses INS Agrani. It has proximity with Naval establishments. Naval pilots can also access LCA without going to North of India. Indian Navy had established INAS Hansa at Sulur to operate the Sea Hawks.Indian Navy as per my calculations is going to operationalise Naval LCA faster than cry babies IAF.

    Time and again we hear that LCA is going to be obselete. What is the proof? If the Bagula Bhagat Media can come kind of technical specs to back this up, we can explain it.

    Let me put this in another form.

    Any aircraft has 2 main sections. 1) The Platform or the airframe, shape etc. 2) The electronics.

    1) LCA platform: Its comparable to Eurofighter Platform. If LCA platform is going to be obselet in 2011 , then Euro Fighter will be obselete too.

    2) Electronics: LCA is already headed for AESA by 2011. It has most modern systems already. These systems are not going to change for another 20 years.

    Look at F-16, MiG-29 etc. Have they become obselete? They keep re inventing themself. LCA will have to go through same phases.

    BTW, The new Hawks are going to be based in Bidar and not Air Force Academy at Hyderabad. In Shiv Aroor’s words. Is the IAF nervous about an aircraft it believes is already obsolete, and will be even more so when it’s delivered? Sounds like it. On record of course they’ll tell you it’s all just a new base– which would be acceptable if it wasn’t so disingenuous. AJT aquisition is precisely what has happened for the last god-knows-how-many years.

  5. When did someone care about IAF wants or does not wants? IAF wanted Mirages as MRCA. What happened? The only time someone listened to IAF was during the Jaguar purchase.

    IAF can “recommend.” IAF cannot take descisions.

    Its evident all the way. Acquisitions are not IAF’s problem.

    Strategic systems are decided by the policy makers. They are sitting somewhere else. Do you know which group in India establishment desides such policies? Figure it out, if you fail, I will tell you toorrow. I will hint, this organisation had hard disks stolen from its premises couple of years back.

    IAF, Army and Navy DO NOT TAKE DESCISION ON KEY PURCHASES. Mess and anonymous talk is NOT Indian policy on weapons.

    I hope you get it.

  6. Hello Mr. Aroor. I agree with your view that Tejas may have been utilized more efficiently at bases close to the border than in Sulur.

    However, its basing in Sulur may not imply that IAF “suspects” its capabilities because if “lay-people” like ourselves can ascertain with surety from the public domain that Tejas is technologically one of the 2 most advanced planes in the IAF, then IAF must also be knowing the same.

    In my view, this might be due to some outdated procedures on induction in the IAF.

    As a example, even though softwares can predict whether the trajectory of a ball would have hit the stumps in case of LBW decisions, yet the onus of the final decision is on the umpire (who can be incorrect). This is done to preserve the traditional authority of the umpire on the field, after run-outs are now being determined by video-replay.

    Similarly, despite that after attaining the IoC, the Tejas can be attested as having cleared its flight-envelop and capable to face combat, the IAF may insist that (as chacko joseph said) a “feel” of the plane is required, new planes cannot be inducted “so soon”, etc.
    Thus, these may be just traditional procedures without which the IAF may perceive that it will no longer have any say in the quality of planes, and be viewed only as a “driver” of planes.

    The Gripen was ordered for purchase by South Africa only 10 years after its first flight. By the same measure, the Tejas may also enter service in atleast the forward bases after 7-8 years of its first flight.

    Thus, it may be unclear as to what so-termed “feel” and “experience” may be needed to be attained by the IAF to base an entire squadron of Tejas in a South-Indian base, despite having experience with the Su-30, Mirage-2000, and MiG-29.
    Again, if the Tejas is meant to replace the MiG-21 then the case to deploy it at forward bases is strengthened.

    However, this bias may not extend to foreign purchases. I think if the MRCA tender is won by the unverified and “on-paper” MiG-35, or the unfamiliar F-16/Gripen, then it may be highly unlikely that the IAF will deploy even the first few deliveries at southern bases. Sir I may suggest you to ask this question to IAF officers if you get the opportunity. This bias may exist in case of indigenous products only.

    I also agree with Chacko Joseph’s view that IAF’s requirements are seldom espoused by the Ministry of Defence.

    Thank you.

    Reference :

  7. Mr. Aroor, to my earlier comment I may just add that since currently there is no atmosphere of impending war, or any prevalent military tension, the testing towards attaining the IoC may be done at forward bases also.

    As per, the J-10 fighter planes have been deployed at the Yunnan province, which borders India. As per Taipei Times they may also be deployed at the Zhejiang province, on the Taiwan Strait. The J-10 is also a relatively new fighter, which was first flown in 1998 and deployed at front-line bases like Yunnan and Zhejiang in 2006 i.e. only 8 years after first flight.

    In my view, the Tejas can be based under Eastern Command to counter the J-10 units based at Yunnan province of China.

    Thank you.

    References :

    Note : It may be interesting to note that similar to the IAF, the Su-30MK squadrons of the PLAAF are also based at slightly interior provinces like Hunan, Henan, Heibei etc.

    Flanker deployment of PLAAF :

    Map of China :

  8. Any new aircraft, when it enters into service, will need to be got used to, tested by the pilots, make themselves familiar with its handling and limits and develop tactics for its use.

    Now, no new plane will be deployed at Forward bases till these operating tactics and procedures are developed. That would be foolishness to do so.

    Apart from that, there would be maintenance, safety and overhaul procedures to develop, which would warrant the need to be near the manufacturer. In the case of foriegn made planes, it wouldn’t matter. in the case of a totally new type of aircraft like the LCA, it is crucial. Since most of the major labs are in bangalore, South India is a good place for the base.

    Plus, placing them near the borders would place additional restrictions on maneuvering area and will cause hindrance to regular sorties of the patrol aircraft and pilots on other aircrafts. This would cause constraints for both the test aircraft (LCA) and the regular combat aircraft, which wouldn’t be efficient.

    This is why we need a base at a relatively clear area like sulur. The closeness to the sea would also allow for better testing of maneuvers and tactics in the wide open areas rather than cramped spaces of the interiors. Civilian aviation wouldn’t be a major problem either.

    The proximity to the sea and Naval bases is also very indicative, considering that the Navy is also going to operate the LCA when it enters service, and having a base close to it will help in maintanence and joint operation and training. It also fits in well with our look-east policy.

    Another thing to note is that the IAF has not criticized the Tejas, but has always supported it and recognized its capabilities. What the IAF has criticized and expressed concern about has been the delays in the project, which now looks to be on a steady course.

    All in All, the choice of Sulur is well thought out.

  9. Hello Mr. Aroor,

    Thanks for that blog.

    The question I have for you is about the IAF thinking (that the LCA is obsolete). What is that makes you make that statement?

    I think the issue is if the LCA meets the Air Staff Requirements (ASR). IAF not liking the LCA would be legit if the ASR is NOT met. So, do you know if there is any concern within the IAF about the LCA not meeting the ASR?

    Thanks in advance.

  10. Sorry Mr Aroor. I have a feeling that you are being paid by the Russians or Americans. What is it $1000 an article?

    Common be honest. Instead of supporting the indigenous capability, you are going on and on criticizing it. Some of them are just factually incorrect.

    Why are you selling out your own country?

    At least say who is giving you your info.

  11. Shiv,

    It has nothing to do with anything except that they need a base which is well within LCA’s flying envelop from HAL. This will allow regular maintenance and upgrades of LCAs to final versons. Reading anything else in this matter would be ignoring the ovbious!

  12. Shiv you are only partially right,but not anywhere near practicality, there are sceptics within the establishment i agree, But remember, Tejas LSPs (8 Platforms in all) and many of 20 aircrafts will be delivered to the IAF prior to the IOC or even the FOC. thereby allowing scope for co-developing operational and maintence phillosophies. The selection of Sulur is because its the only available airfield close to bangalore (Bidar,Yelahanka and airfields in andhra all are busy preparing for Dhruvs, AJT,s IJT,s and belong to the training command). and as a matter of fact Sulur had to be spruced up to accomodate a fighter sqd. IAF is keenly observing the LCA developments, only stopping short of being a stakeholder. IAF can and could reject the LCA at any stage after all NFTC is an IAF appointee and run by IAF establishment. Now IAF posting 20 odd officers headed by a decorated AVM, doesnt it mean now it is tending towards a strong commitment.

  13. Aroor with all due respect, you are a joke, and it is fitting that he interact with other jokers. The LCA is being positioned at Sulur because any AF would want an IOC/LSP series to be positioned as close to the manufacturer and developers as possible to iron out any defects/ teething issues. It has little to do with what the IAF thinks or does not think of the LCA or conspiracy about Southern Air commands lack of prestige vs WAC etc. Once the birds get reasonably mature- a year or so, then detachments will be sent to other AFB with well developed infrastructure, with HAL facilities nearby. Finally, the third phase wherein the aircraft is deployed anywhich where..

    But all this is too complex for our high flying defence journalists in India…apparently there are no industry certifications or academic exams for this profession…or common sense either..

  14. Hi again. I agree with the views as expressed by “anonymous” and Kishore, that Tejas may also have been located at Sulur because it is close to HAL at Bangalore.

    However, as per the report of Mr. Aroor, the first squadron may be permanently based there, whose purpose may be unclear.

    The first LSP which is to make its first flight in a few days from today shall be formally inducted into the IAF immediately. This LSP (flown by IAF) along with 5 TD and PV vehicles shall accelerate the goal of IoC, since more number of flights shall be logged in parallel by 6 units.

    Thus, until IoC is achieved (by 2008-09), the LSP units may be based at Sulur so that any technical assistance may be availed at short notice at Bangalore, which is very near to Sulur.

    However, after the IoC the Tejas quadron must be deployed at forward bases and not retained at Sulur only.

    Thank you.

  15. Yet again it is pragmatic to have an operational fighter base in sulur keeping in mind the dynamic geo-political situations, strategic assests like mangalore refineries to kalpakkam and of course the IT,BT swathe in the south. LCA platform will be continously recieving updates, upgrades, remember TVC,AESA,RAM, and ASTRA et al. these concurrent developments justifies a permanent base down south. And mind you none of the aircraft are known to have been weaponised yet, including the first LSP. the fully ready, weoponised, sensor operational 1.7 mach LCA’s will surely head towards deployment in forward areas.

  16. Are you serious? This is an aircraft being manufactured by India, not deployed anywhere before. Would you put the first few anywhere further than the only support infrastructure you’ve got? Its permanent because all aircraft will be pushed into full service from this base. By your argument, with the need for air-superiority in the gulf, atleast some f-22s should be based in saudi arabia, or are the iranians that easy? Hang on, wait a minute, the raptors still have issues mate. Who would’ve guessed? And oh yeah, theres that bit about operational clearance. Obsolete, my ass. Get a life!

  17. punter, while i do agree with your view, i think there’s another side to this. i am currently at vayu bhawan, posted with the space directorate. if you remember, ACM Krishnaswamy wanted a batch of eight LSPs inducted early so the IAF could get a taste of the tejas. the plan had been to place the LSPs somewhere under SWAC, which was a radical thought at the time. the current chief pretty much ignored the tejas in that sense. there was little or no pressure from his side. the fact is the sulur base is being upgraded in a large way for fighter ops and the first tejas sqn will be there permanently. follow-on orders from us will probably go north and north east, but the first 20 will be at sulur permanently. in fact, a ceremony for the new sulur is being organised next year. IOC/FOC etc are procedures that are mandatory. there is an element of truth in the fact that the IAF is cynical about LCA. right or wrong, this is a fact. maybe it boils down to brio and high-handedness, but that is the way our government agencies function. we are brought up to be suspicious of anything that is entirely indian. and believe me, you have no idea how much power AIR HQ has in making the “top office’s whims” reverberate across the spectrum of operations and acquisitions. this is just my personal view. obviously one of the factors is proximity to support and maintenance centres in b’lore etc, but my point is that is not the only reason. this article maybe highlights the other extreme, but the sense is definitely part of the reason sulur has been chosen. thanjavur is also to come up as a fighter base, among another in central andhra.

  18. To the previous commentator I may say that in my view, the decision to permanently base the the first squdron of Tejas at Sulur may be less driven by the motive of getting (as you said) a “taste” or a “feel” of it, but more due to asserting authority or arbitration over the induction of equipment on part of the IAF.

    I agree with the view as expressed by Kishore, “punter” and the “anonymous” commentator before Kishore that basing the Tejas at Sulur shall provide proximity to technical assistance, which is located at Bangalore.
    But the reasons like the importance of the sea-lanes in the Indian-Ocean, the maritime interests etc. are not “pressing” needs currently. Now unfortunately upon the attack on a Sri-Lankan air-force base by LTTE ultra-light planes may provide another such reason.

    As the maritime interests, oil-lanes and LTTE threats etc. are not of immediate concern, they may be addressed by basing ageing fighter squadrons at southern bases. These “concerns” may be adequately adressed by the diminished capabilities of older fighters, while newer and advanced fighters may “replenish” the forward bases where the threat assessment is very high and it is perrenial.

    In my view, no significant “feel and taste” and such may be required by IAF from Tejas upon having operated MiG-29, Su-30 MKI, Mirage-2000 etc. since 2 few decades because the Tejas is not “radically” different from these planes in handling.

    Such requirements of getting “touch and feel” etc. may be required if (hypothetically though) planes like F-35, PAK-FA and even the naval F-18 E/F are inducted.

    Thank you.

  19. By the time LCA arrives it would be a small lightweight fighter with some advanced avionics and a dated design. Small size means it won’t have a very useful weapon load (less space for ECM and anti radiation missile so vital for successful GA roles) and a very limited range and limited scope for future add on upgrades. A 1980s vintage design means no stealth. All this would add up into very poor battlefield survival and usefulness.

    But I could be all wrong about this though and the aircraft may never progress beyond the 20 LSP for air shows and photo-ops!

  20. To the previous anonymous commentator, I may say that all the foreign contenders for the MRCA too may be called ‘dated’ designs from the 1970s and 1980s at the latest. Thus, Tejas is not a dated design, but a contemporary one..

    Though smaller and lightweight, its composite airframe provides for a weapon-load and range nearly equivalent to that of the Gripen; it may be confirmed from any publicly available source. The F-16 too is a 1979 design, the Gripen a 1982 one and the Rafale a 1985 one. Hence by that measure all these planes may also be ‘outdated’ and vulnerable to radar, which is clearly not the case. Thus, Tejas cannot be termed as ‘dated’ at all.
    In fact, it follows the current trend of delta-winged fighters like Rafale, Eurofighter, Gripen and J-10.

    Since Tejas has the same number of external stores as the Gripen (8), uses the same GE-F404 engine and has the same external load, the quantitative ECM suite and weaponry will also be the same. Thus, Tejas shall be well-equipped in battlefield survival.

    Tejas has over 90% of composites by surface area, which inherently translate to superior stealth than conventional fihters. This percentage of composites is higher than even the Typhoon as is evident from the information provided in the OFFICIAL websites of Eurofighter consortium and ADA, Bangalore.

    The Tejas can substitute the MiG-21, MiG-23, and MiG-27 fighters of the IAF because it has equal (if not more) max payload capacity and range than all these planes. It will be the most apt replacement in lieu of these older planes in the IAF.


  21. The IAF is zeroing on three places Thanjavur , Sulur and Tiruchirapalli for its possible deployment highlighting the new strategic concerns in Indian establishment’s regarding country’s security, particularly with the growing importance of Indian Ocean region and the maritime security.

    South India has to be protected too, remember. It is not just about north india.

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