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Hi-tech & Indian

Print edition : Mar 25, 2011 T+T-
P.S. Subramanyam, ADA Director and LCA Programme Director, with a model of Tejas.-K. MURALI KUMAR

P.S. Subramanyam, ADA Director and LCA Programme Director, with a model of Tejas.-K. MURALI KUMAR

Tejas, the indigenously built Light Combat Aircraft, is going places.

P.S. SUBRAMANYAM, Director, Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), Bangalore, stands next to a big model of India's own Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas, fondly runs his fingers over the edges of its wide wings, and says with a glimmer in his eyes: This is the lightest combat aircraft in the world. Its pilots have told me that when they land, it is like landing on butter! The landing is so smooth. It is because the wings occupy the largest area of the aircraft's surface area. It has no tail! This is something special about this aircraft.

After a 20-year struggle, the indigenously built Tejas is going places. The attitude of the press to the LCA project has changed in the past two years after journalists realised that several hundreds of flights of Tejas were incident-free, that India has developed many of its systems and components on its own, and that the project was marching towards fruition, said K. Jayaprakash Rao, Regional Public Relations Officer, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), Bangalore. The Initial Operations Clearance (IOC) it received on January 10 meant that its production could begin at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), Bangalore. So far we have spent Rs.6,000 crore on the project, which has resulted in 14 aircraft, out of which 11 are flying. The rest are ready to fly, said Subramanyam, who is also Programme Director (Combat Aircraft).

The Indian Air Force (IAF) has placed orders for 40 of them. Assembly lines have been built at HAL to roll out eight aircraft a year. The production capacity will be doubled to meet the requirement of 200 aircraft in the next decade. The IAF has suggested the development of a derivative, called Tejas Mark II, with a higher thrust engine and other improvements. The ADA is working on it and hopes to have a test flight in December 2014 and begin production in mid-2016.

The naval version of Tejas is ready and the first flight will take place in two months. A two-seater trainer version flew in November 2010 and one more will fly in the second half of 2011. The development of the Tejas trainer for both the Army and the Air Force will be completed in another 18 months, after which it will go into production. Tejas is powered by the GE-F404-IN20 engine from the United States.

The single-engine, single-seater, fourth generation aircraft is the smallest and lightest multi-role supersonic fighter in its class. The Delta wing aircraft (wingspan 8.2 metres, length 13.2 m, and height 4.4 m) will carry a variety of missiles and laser-guided bombs. Tejas is already integrated with the R-73 missile and is soon to be integrated with two Israeli missiles, Python-5, a close combat missile, and Derby, which can home in on targets more than 50 km away. The indigenous content of Tejas, which stands at 60 per cent now, will reach 70 per cent in its Mark II variant.

In the face of technology denial regimes and embargoes, the development of the aircraft epitomises the collaborative efforts of several institutions, among them the ADA, its principal partner HAL, and the Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE).

P.S. Krishnan, Director, ADE, said, We have developed the most crucial technologies for Tejas. We have built a simulator for it, which is a world-class facility. We built the simulator for Arjun, the main battle tank. Simulators are a big area for us. We developed the digital fly-by-wire flight control systems for the LCA, which is a crucial technology.

It is a state-of-the-art simulator. It can help the pilot fly his aircraft in any mode he wants, explained V.S. Chandra Shekar, Group Director, ADE. B.P. Sashidhara, Scientist, Flight Simulation Division, added, Whatever manoeuvres we can do in real aircraft, we can do in the simulator. We can pitch, roll and yaw. V. Kala, Project Director for Tejas' flight control systems (FCS), S. Gurudev, Group Director, and Krishnan, who worked jointly on the FCS, were proud that the ADE was chosen to make it.

The fighter aircraft's performance has been flawless in more than 1,550 flights, as on February 17, there have been no incidents at all, not to talk of accidents. Tejas has been flown successfully in extreme conditions in Nagpur during peak summer at a searing 48 Celsius and in the rarefied heights of Leh at 28 C. The LCA is marching towards Final Operations Clearance in 2012.

Air Commodore Rohit Verma, Project Director, National Flight Test Centre, Bangalore, who has flown Tejas 55 times, said, The aircraft handles very well. Young pilots have flown it. They find it safe. It has good sensors, radars, a helmet-mounted sight and an inertial navigation unit.

On the basis of a project definition document that was formulated in 1990, the ADA, in a report to the Ministry of Defence, said it would take seven years and Rs.4,000 crore to develop the LCA. It was conceived as an ambitious attempt to bridge huge technological gaps in multiple disciplines, including fighter aircraft design. The programme began in 1993 when the Government of India decided to support the technology development for the aircraft, which was completed in March 2004. The first Technology Demonstrator for flight took place earlier, in January 2001.

The biggest challenge when we took up the programme in 1993 was to catch up with the rest of the world in fourth generation fighter aircraft technologies. The greatest achievement of this phase is that India mastered them, said Subramanyam. The fourth generation technologies are fly-by-wire flight control systems; unstable aerodynamics; glass cockpit incorporating the latest all-digital avionics systems; advanced composite materials for the airframe; and computer-based control of all electromechanical systems.

When India began the Tejas programme, the rest of the world argued that India would not be able to do it because it faced a gap of 30 years in developing these fourth generation technologies. Subramanyam said, I should put on record here that it was the decision of persons such as [former President] A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and Kota Harinarayana that we should attempt these technologies. They said we should be confident that our youngsters would be able to achieve these technologies.

Kota Harinarayana, former ADA Director, is the chief architect of the Tejas project. In honour of his contribution to the project, the letters KH were inscribed on the aircraft that made the first flight in January 2001.

The programme faced a setback in the form of U.S. sanctions in the wake of India testing five nuclear devices at Pokhran, Rajasthan, in May 1998. Again, the motivation provided by Kalam and Harinarayana helped the LCA team develop he fourth generation technologies without U.S. support.

The five years of sanctions from 1998 to 2003 made us self-reliant and gave us the confidence that we could do things on our own, said Subramanyam. On the basis of the success of the first flight, the Government of India gave the go-ahead for a prototype vehicle and for the limited series production of Tejas. In 2006, the IAF, which funded the project, placed orders for a squadron of 20 aircraft, and in 2011, a few days before Tejas received its IOC, the IAF placed orders for another 20 aircraft.

In 2003, the Navy stepped in with funds for the development of a naval variant. The first prototype of the naval variant is in the final stage of development and will fly in the first half of 2011. The Navy has said it will require the Mark II variant as well and will fund the programme.

A team of test pilots from the IAF and the Navy gave suggestions on how to improve the aircraft's flying qualities. The pilots were able to tell the designers how the aircraft should behave. So whatever deficiencies they had seen in other aircraft, we were able to overcome in Tejas, said Subramanyam.

When the naval prototype completes its [aircraft] carrier compatibility trails by 2014, it will be a great achievement, he said. For India will be only the second country, after Russia, to have a fighter aircraft that can ski-jump from an aircraft carrier and land on the carrier. The ski jump involves a short runway on the aircraft carrier for take-off and landing with the help of an arrester. The U.S.' fighter aircraft use the catapult method to take off and land on carriers.

A spin-off from the programme is that it has nurtured many private industries to take the various fourth generation fighter aircraft technologies to new levels of design, development, testing and fabrication.

Meanwhile, the Kaveri engine for fighter aircraft being developed by the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE), a DRDO laboratory in Bangalore, crossed a milestone on November 3, 2010, when an IL-76 aircraft flew with it for an hour at an altitude of 6,000 m at a speed of 0.6 Mach (0.6 times the speed of sound). This trial took place at the Gromov Flight Research Institute (GFRI), Moscow, Russia. DRDO officials said the engine control, performance and health were excellent during the flight. The IL-76 was modified for this flight-trial, with the Kaveri engine replacing one of the four engines of the IL-76. A team of 20 GTRE scientists worked with the GFRI for these trials.

In a year or so, the GTRE and Snecma (French manufacturer of civil and military aircraft engines) will start working jointly on Kaveri, and the engine will reach final development in about five years. There are plans to integrate the engine with Tejas to evaluate and validate Kaveri's design. This will give us the confidence to work with Snecma, said Subramanyam.