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IAF Banking on LCA to Make Up Fighter Squadron Deficiency


With only three MiG 21 squadrons now operational as the Srinagar unit has now been replaced by the MiG 29 the Indian Air Force may be down to just 30 squadrons – a mix of Su 30 MKI which makes up the largest numbers, Jaguar upgraded, Mirage 2000, Mig 29 and the newly acquired Rafale.


The deliveries of Tejas Mark 1 have been reportedly completed as per a review that was carried out by the Chief of Air Staff (CAS) Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari of the status of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) programme in Air Headquarters on August 22.


In addition the Press release reported that representatives of premier military aircraft manufacturer public sector Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd [HAL] assured the CAS of timely delivery of the contracted twin-seaters in the coming months, as well. Chairman & Managing Director of HAL assured those present that the deliveries of this advanced variant of the LCA would commence by Feb 2024. . 83 LCA Mk-1A aircraft have also been contracted by the IAF in 2021. The deliveries are likely to be spread over the next four years as per the schedule.


Importantly the CAS indicated that based on these assurances, the LCA Mk 1A could be inducted in a newly raised squadron in one of the IAF's operational bases, early next year. This will be the first squadron with effective combat capabilities necessary for the air force in the coming decades given the number plating of the MiG 21, which will be followed by the MiG 29, Jaguar and the Mirage 2000 roughly in that order.


The Press Release indicating that “timely deliveries of the more capable variant, the LCA Mk 1A is likely to see increased deployments at forward bases, besides participation in International exercises in the days to come”.


What’s in the Pipeline?


In the pipeline are the medium version of the LCA Tejas Mark-2 expected to be 108 in number and 126 indigenous stealth fifth-generation advanced medium combat aircraft (AMCA) both to be developed and manufactured indigenously. The Mark 2 will be powered by the GE 414, a MOU for which was signed during the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the United States in June this year.


There is not much clarity on the 114 multi-role fighter aircraft which is under the strategic partnership programme but has been in the proverbial decision making loop for the past five years.


Thus, much is at stake for the success of the LCA Mk 1 A programme and follow up and the assurances of the HAL chairman will dictate the overall combat fighter potential of the IAF.


Will HAL deliver is a question that begs answers given past record?


Astra


On the same day it was revealed that Tejas, Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) LSP-7 successfully fired the ASTRA indigenous Beyond Visual Range (BVR) air-to-air missile off the coast of Goa on August 23, 2023 at an altitude of about 20,000 ft. All the objectives of the test were met and it was a perfect text book launch.


ASTRA is the indigenous a state-of-the-art BVR air-to-air missile to engage and destroy highly maneuvering supersonic aerial targets designed and developed by Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL), Research Centre Imarat (RCI) and other laboratories of DRDO. Integration of the Astra will be a landmark for the Indian aerospace sector given the necessity for indigenization.


MiG 29 Forward Deployed


After having pulled out the MiG 21 squadron from Srinagar which performed in a number of recent air operations including in Kargil 1999 and Balakote 2019, the upgraded squadron of MiG-29 fighter jets at has now been deployed at the Srinagar air base. Tridents squadron named the ‘Defender of the North’ has replaced the MiG-21 squadron. “Srinagar lies in the centre of Kashmir valley and its elevation is higher than plains. It is strategically better to place an aircraft with a higher weight-to-thrust ratio and less response time due to proximity to the border and is equipped with better avionics and long-range missiles. The MiG-29 fulfils all these criteria due to which we are capable of taking in the enemies on both fronts,” Indian Air Force pilot Squadron Leader Vipul Sharma was quoted by the ANI.


ANI also quotes Squadron Leader Shivam Rana that the upgraded aircraft can operate at night with night vision goggles and has a longer range due to air-to-air refuelling capability. “We have also included the air-to-ground armament which was not there earlier. The biggest capability of the aircraft are the pilots which are handpicked by the Indian Air Force to serve on these aircraft,” he said.


Implied is the capability for provision of air defence over Eastern Ladakh as well as limited ground attack capabilities.


Conclusion


For much of the rest of the decade, the IAF may be looking at 30 combat fighter squadrons plus with the Su 30 MKI as the backbone and Rafale a front line fighter though with limited numbers. The IAF continues to pursue the 42 squadron requirement given the two front challenges. The number of squadrons have been brought down from 45 to 42 some time back.


Suffice to say the IAF would have wargamed a number of scenarios wherein to manage the Two Front situation and has also carried out exercises in the past.





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