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?"