Where Does The Tejas Exactly Fit In?
This is the final part of the LCA Tejas series & this discusses a very crucial question asked by defence experts & common man alike. What’s the use of LCA Tejas? Where does it fit in? What role is it supposed to play in the Indian Air Force? This article attempts to settle these questions.
The LCA program was launched with one motive in mind, to replace the MiG-21 fighter. The venerable MiG-21 is a Soviet era short range interceptor which fulfils the point defence role in the Indian Air Force. An interceptor is an aircraft which is tasked to defend against an enemy attacking aircraft. The LCA was initially designed to do exactly the same. However, with changing times the requirement changed & along with interception duties, the LCA Tejas evolved into a multirole light fighter capable of ground attack, tactical bombing, anti-shipping & armed reconnaissance roles.
In IAF, it is still employed in its primary role only, as an interceptor aircraft with secondary ground attack capabilities. Let’s understand the dynamics of this.
Any airforce primarily needs two types of fighter aircraft –
- Firstly, the extraordinarily advanced fighters capable of being undefeated in aerial combat. These are mostly twin engine, medium to heavy class fighters, able to effectively counter literally any aerial adversary. These are specifically used for missions which require more expertise. On the flip side these being sophisticated, need huge amounts of ground maintenance to keep these flying. This requires substantial effort in terms of both man hours & finance. Examples: Su-30MKI & Rafale.
- Secondly, smaller aircraft which are workhorse of the airforce. These are usually single engine & can be deployed in forward air bases quickly, which requires lesser maintenance & ground support. Their turn around time is minimal & availability rate is higher. These are much cheaper to operate & act as an interceptor in case of any sudden enemy aerial activity. Examples: Mirage-2000 & MiG-21 Bison.
LCA Tejas is the second type of aircraft. It is small, single engine, cheap to buy, maintain & operate, can be hot-refuelled at the airstrip & can churn out up to 6 combat sorties a day.
It’s primary objective during its current combat deployment in western sector is to perform Combat Air Patrol (CAP) & to act as an interceptor aircraft. When an enemy aircraft approaches to invade our airspace, you don’t necessarily need a Su-30MKI ready to take off & attack it. All you need is a platform which is
- Available round the clock at any time
- Can take off at a very short notice & in pairs
- Detect & track the enemy fighter with a radar
- Launch a BVR missile to maintain a deterrence
- Can do it again the very next hour if need arises
LCA Tejas is more than capable to do this effectively. For routine sorties in a (comparatively) non-volatile area like western sector, flying the flankers can be costly & ineffective, especially when they are currently needed in the Eastern Ladakh region, at the area of conflict. Su-30MKI is built for a much greater role, though they do perform regular sorties from AFB Halwara & Sirsa.
In future, the LCA Tejas located at forward air bases like Pathankot, Sirsa, Halwara, Suratgarh are ideal for missions at the vicinity at the border. These can react quickly at enemy’s stimulus. Being far cheaper they can be bought & operated in large numbers, saturating the enemy’s radar picture & overwhelming the enemy with just numbers.
Apart from these scenarios, LCA Tejas is very effective for tactical bombing too. It can release guided & unguided bombs like HSLD, SAAW, Sudarshan LGB etc. Once IAF has a considerable confidence at the platform, LCA Tejas could be used for precision air strikes like the Balakot strike too.
LCA Tejas has a dedicated pylon for mounting various types of pods like FLIR, IRST, laser range finder/designator which can “lase” the target for laser guided bombs. In future reconnaissance pods can be mounted in this pylon with a synthetic aperture radar which can do ground surveillance too.
Interestingly, an analogy fits in here. These are hyenas attacking their prey (a lioness) in a group:
Though individually, a lioness is far stronger & more powerful than a hyena, but a pack of hyenas can take down even larger animals like elephants. Hyenas are small, agile hunters and are the size of a big dog. Since they are small, they attack in a pack of 4 – 6 and due to this combined strength, they can hunt a much bigger animal effectively.
The role of LCA Tejas Mk1 in IAF is like Hyenas. They are simple, small, agile & cost-effective workhorse fighters designed to be built in huge numbers to hunt enemy aircraft in groups of 2 – 4 aircraft. They are easy to maintain & fly. A single Tejas aircraft may not be a match against larger Chinese Su-35 fighters but with a wingman & another pair, they are unstoppable.