by Lt Gen VK Saxena

27 May 2020 marked a historic day for a glorious Indian Air Force (IAF) squadron steeped in history and battle glory to become operational once again with a state-of-the art aircraft, that is proudly Indian. The reference is to 18 Squadron of the IAF, also known as ‘Flying Bullets’ that got operationalised on this day with the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas Mk-1.

A Slice of History

18 Squadron IAF is a famed combat squadron which has many firsts to its credit. A run down the memory lane…

Raised on 15 Apr 1965, the squadron was first to land and operate from Srinagar for which it earned the sobriquet ‘Defenders of Kashmir Valley’. The squadron has the motto ‘Teevra aur Nirbhay’ meaning swift and fearless.

The squadron has the honour to have given to the IAF, its first and the only Param Vir Chakra. Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon earned the nation’s highest military decoration while serving in 18 Squadron.

The flying officer needs no introduction. During the Indo-Pak war of 1971, the famed air warrior was deployed at the Srinagar Air Base. Outnumbered 1:6 the Sekhon showed the dare-devilry to take off under attack and scored direct hits on two Sabres before going down overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Such was the skill and gallantry of the valiant air warrior that he earned praise even from the adversary. Wing Commander Salim Beg Mirza of the Pakistan Air Force, the pilot who shot him down wrote this about our air warrior, quote. ‘his was a commendable effort indeed, as he kept the field single-handedly to the very end’ unquote.

The Changing Hues of 18

This is the third aircraft type which the squadron has been operationalised with. Upon raising, the squadron was equipped with British made Folland Gnat fighter aircraft. This first generation aircraft saw action in the 1965 and 1971 wars downing a total of nine Sabre F 86 aircrafts (7+2) besides damaging several others thus earning the name ‘sabre-slayer’. Gnat was produced under licence in large numbers by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL). It equipped eight squadrons of IAF at a point in time. 

In 1975, the squadron shed its Gnats upon de-induction from Service and was equipped with HAL Ajeet, an upgraded version of Gnat with improved avionics, hydraulic system and a ‘wet wing’ ( wing structure used as a fuel tank) which increased its range besides freeing underwing hard points for carriage of munitions and payload. 

Ajeet Project of HAL had an uneventful journey. Its two major disadvantages, one, single engine and two, ever rising project costs due to additional operational requirements demanded by the IAF, actually impacted the program badly, making it loose the user’s choice. Even the proposed trainer version of the aircraft did not find favour as the Gnat had already been developed into a training aircraft. IAF retired Ajeets from Service in 1991.

18 Squadron moved on. After having shed its Ajeets in May 1989, the squadron got equipped with MiG-27ML variable geometry ground attack aircraft that got inducted in Service in 1984-85. Though an excellent ground attack aircraft with precision navigation and strike capability, MiG-27 had a turbulent run in their Service life. In the Kargil war, one MiG-27 was lost due to engine failure. Within a short time frame of two years IAF had suffered as many as 12 crashes involving MiG-27. Most of the crashes related to engine failure/engine fire etc. Some experts believe it to have occurred due to the sub-optimal mid-life overhaul of the aircraft by HAL in 2006. The entire fleet of some 150 aircraft was grounded in 2010. The last squadron of MiG-27 was decommissioned in Dec 2019. 18 Squadron had MiG-27 till 2016. The squadron now fly the Indian Tri-colour on board Tejas Mk-1.

How Tejas has come about and what lies ahead in the foreseeable future is attempted.

The Tejas Story

Tejas (meaning radiance) actually had its origin in the iconic MiG-21. It is indeed unbelievable that this platform which entered IAF in Oct 1963 is still around albeit in its upgraded version of Bison. The whole nation was witness when the now famous air warrior Wg Cdr Abhinandan piloting his MiG-21 downed an F-16 on 27Feb 2019.

It was long felt that the huge numbers of MiG-21 in the IAF will require a replacement around late eighties/mid-nineties. Also around this time the thought process of achieving some sort of self-reliance in the aerospace sector was doing the rounds. One of the major developments of this time was the Government’s decision in 1984 to establish the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and tasking it to design and develop the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). In 2003 LCA was named Tejas.

The development journey of Tejas spanning over three decades is marked with humble successes and huge failures. Some points from the CAG Report on Tejas presented to the Parliament in 2015 are presented:

  • LCA was to be inducted in 1994 but it suffered a delay of more than three decades before the first version of Tejas was given Initial Operational Clearance ( IOC). 
  • The IOC initially achieved in Dec 2013 was with 53 concessions /permanent waivers. 
  • The self-protection jammer which was to be fitted in Tejas Mk 1 could not be realised. It is now planned for Tejas Mk-II version. 
  • There were delays from the IAF side in identifying the weapon package to make the LCA contemporary and huge delays by various work centres under ADA and HAL, which added to the overall delay. 
  • As against the claimed 70% indigenous content, more than half have been developed with imported electronic components. 
  • Major challenges have been faced in development of indigenous engine (Kaveri), multi-mode radar, self-protection jammer and more. 
  • The Mk 1 version of the aircraft fell short on many counts like the user requirement of a trainer aircraft, inadequate electronic warfare capability, performance sub-optimalities related to the functioning of radar warning receiver, missile approach warning system, weight specifications, inadequate protection to pilot from front side, under powered engines and so on. 
  • It was intimated by the HAL and ADA that most of the above shortcomings will be addressed in the upgraded version of Tejas called Mk-1A ( interim version) and a subsequently advanced Tejas Mk 2 which will be developed as a Medium weight Fighter aircraft. 
  • In order to keep the program going, IAF ( out of its total demand of 324 aircrafts) agreed to accept no more than 40 aircrafts as Mk-1. The balance 83 (out of the initial order of 123) were to be Mk 1A while the rest were to be Mk-2.
While the multiple sub-optimalities quoted above are undeniable on counts of unacceptable delays, monumental rise in the project cost, shortfalls in the operational capability of the aircraft and more, one fact that cannot be denied is that the country today has a reasonable capability of an indigenous Light Combat Aircraft which, while may not be the best in its class in the world, it still has a formidable signature and some worthwhile features. 

Some positive features of Tejas are enumerated:

  • The aircraft has a three axis (pitch , roll and yaw) fly-by-wire capability which will give it a better manoeuvrability in a dog fight.
  • It’s tail-less compound delta wing provides it with a higher angle of attack capability which enables the pilot a better chance to locate, track and hit the enemy aircraft. This combined with lesser wing loading allows the aircraft, better manoeuvrability, better agility and instant turn capability.
  • Its on-board oxygen generating system (OBOGS) places it favourably against fighters carrying oxygen tanks that last only a few hours.
  • The aircraft is suited well for within visual range (WVR) combat in a dogfight duly armed with WVR air-to-air missiles.
  • Its advanced auto pilot system has a feature to auto-pulling up the aircraft should it cross the danger altitude line.
  • Tejas measures up favourably to JF-17, a comparable multi-role combat aircraft of the Pakistan Air Force in many features such as manoeuvrability, maximum take-off weight capability, higher angle of attack capability, lighter wing loading, shorter take off distance etc.
  • It has gives and takes when compared to other aircrafts like F-16, J-10 etc. These are not covered.

Of course the biggest problem about Tejas remains ‘TIME DELAYS’ and the critical need to meet the shortfalls in the operational capability asked for by the user.

There is a huge standing order of 324 aircrafts. Out of this, the delivery of only the first batch of 40 Mk-1 aircraft is still not completed. 

The first 16 with IOC standard were delivered in early part of 2019, the next 16 with full operational clearance (FOC) standard started late 2019 and led to the operationalisation of Flying Bullets.

As per the current time lines by HAL, the next 83 will be the upgraded version (Tejas Mk-1A. By the time these deliveries are over (2025-26) Mk-2 version is likely to be ready.

It is critical for the HAL to come good on timely deliveries and making up shortfalls in operational capabilities. Only when that happens, many squadrons of the IAF will be able to dazzle with the radiance of Tejas touching the sky with glory.