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The LCA success

Print edition : Mar 14, 2003 T+T-

AERO INDIA 2003 having showcased the world's aviation technology, it is time to ask where India's premier aeronautical initiative, the light combat aircraft (LCA) programme, is headed. Both the `technology demonstrators', TD 1 and 2, were on show at the extravaganza. Does that really signify anything? In response, one must examine critically what has been accomplished so far.

The most important target of the technology demonstration phase was to put the composite airframe, the `glass' cockpit, and the fly-by-wire (FBW) system successfully through a rigorous flight test programme using GE 404 engines imported from the United States.

The LCA has been described as the world's smallest and lightest, supersonic, multi-role fighter. Modern aerodynamic design with static instability (controlled by a digital flight control system), a full glass cockpit, full authority digital engine control (FADEC), and up-to-date weapons systems, including beyond visual range air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles, make it comparable in performance to the latest versions of the U.S. F-16 or the French Mirage 2000. Its small size and the extensive use of composites also make this agile aircraft much stealthier than its formidable competitors, without having to resort to aerodynamically inefficient compromises as in the case of, for example, the U.S. F-117 `Stealth' fighter.

The Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) recognised right at the beginning that the LCA programme was predicated on five critical technologies: the carbon composite wing, the flight control system, a glass cockpit, a high performance multimode radar, and the propulsion system. Looking back, the development of advanced carbon composites has been very successful. Specialised software has been sold even to Airbus Industrie, and the critical flight control system has been developed in spite of Lockheed Martin withdrawing its assistance following the Pokhran blasts of 1998.

On the other hand, the development of the Kaveri engine has fallen behind, but then, engine development is always a slow and unpredictable process. Even Snecma of France, with half a century of successful jet engine development experience, took nearly 13 years to bring the Rafale fighter's engine, the M 88, to low-volume production after bench-testing had begun. The decision to adopt a digital FBW system added considerably to the development process, the delay only partly (perhaps of about 18 months) accounted for by the curtailment of Lockheed Martin's critical assistance post-Pokhran 1998.

To cry over spilt milk will be to lament that if only India had accepted Dassault's offer of an analogue system in 1988, the flight test programme could easily have been completed by now. On the other hand, the LCA's quadruplex (four channel) digital FBW system is what the world's most advanced aircraft currently use and an analogue system may already have been up for replacement. The F-16 fighter, by way of analogy, replaced analogue with digital controls while morphing from its original A/B form to the much more capable F-16 C/D in the 1990s.

This long delay has not been in vain, however, because it has allowed the parallel development and indigenisation of hundreds of the little-known systems and components that are an essential part of all aircraft. One such is the beautifully designed auxiliary gearbox developed by the Combat Vehicles Research and Development Establishment (CVRDE), Avadi: it is nearly 60 per cent cheaper than an imported one.

The learning process has also allowed Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) to shorten considerably the development time of its soon-to-fly intermediate jet trainer (IJT) and to make common use of nearly 50 per cent of the LCA's line replaceable units (systems that are replaced as a part of normal field maintenance). More important, India's capability in indigenous aircraft development is at last close to being vindicated, a quarter century after the late Raj Mahindra's brilliant and wideranging design initiatives of the 1960s and 1970s. His last effort, the `Saras' light transport from the National Aerospace Laboratory, has just `rolled out' and will take to the air later this year.

Changes to the LCA's flight control system software, to the `full-up' standard, and the associated modifications to some of the aircraft's control surfaces, to expand considerably the `flight envelope', have been completed and TD 1 has just taken to the air again after the dozen sorties it flew in 2001. It now joins TD 2 in an extensive flight test programme to `prove' the aircraft and its various systems. With over 50 sorties flown so far, the two aircraft are well on their way towards establishing the credibility not only of the critical technologies that have gone into the LCA's design but of the programme itself.

IF all this background seems unnecessary, it is relevant in the context of charges and counter-charges that have often been made with regard to the whole programme. There is no doubt that the LCA programme managers took on an ambitious task to develop an advanced technology aircraft without realistically estimating the resources required to accomplish their goals in the face of an often-sceptical Indian Air Force and a not always fully committed HAL. They then lost a great deal of credibility by projecting completion dates that were unrealistic and misleading. India's financial crises of the early 1990s and the post-Pokhran embargo only added to their woes.

The end result of their struggle is, however, an aircraft that is a world-beater in performance and in price. Thanks to a recent increase in `transparency', the IAF now knows for sure that the LCA will soon be a superb multi-role fighter.

Some of those who are critical of the LCA do not seem to realise that affordability is a factor that even the U. S. has learnt to accept, as shown by the awarding of the formal contract to Lockheed Martin in 2001 to develop the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). The JSF is in some ways less capable than the U.S. Air Force's F-22 or the U.S. Navy's F/A-18 E/F, but its affordability makes it essential to both the services. Estimates last year put the LCA's cost at about Rs.100 crores per aircraft. One needs to compare this with an aircraft of similar capability like the multi-role Mirage 2000-5, which Taiwan bought paying French francs 333 million apiece in 1997. At current exchange rates, that amounts approximately to Rs.260 crores, with inflation easily taking that up to Rs.300 crores today. In other words, unless Indian inflation rates rise to three times those of France (they are currently about the same), the LCA would be one-third the price, or at least Rs. 200 crores cheaper, when it enters service. This is no mean achievement.

Even if the IAF orders only 250 aircraft - although it needs many more of the class - the nation will save at least Rs.125,000 crores over the aircraft's lifetime (when calculated by the net present value method). That represents an annual saving in interest costs alone of Rs.10,000 crores, if the government borrows the money required at 8 per cent.

The IAF will be doing itself a big favour if it places an initial order for 50 LCAs (about two squadrons plus spares) soon. It would be the best way to ensure that India develops quickly the kind of air defence capability that it has badly wanted for at least four decades.

Some systems will have to be imported, at least initially, from secure sources, but major efforts need to be made urgently in order to ensure that the development of all indigenous devices and systems and production facilities needed for the aircraft are put on a war footing. This will not happen unless and until realistic estimates for the various activities involved are made, and stuck to thereafter, by committing adequate physical, financial and, not least, human resources to the programme.

Unfortunately, experience does not suggest that this will happen unless the Defence Minister gives an immediate political direction to that effect. The nation's financial health and a sustainable air defence capability demand that nothing less is acceptable.

In this context, the recent decision by the Chief of the Air Staff to retire the two plus squadrons of ground attack MiG-23s that are still operational, along with the oldest versions of the MiG-21, opens up a hole in the IAF's capability. This hole needs to be plugged quickly if the `order of battle' is to be preserved, if not improved. The best way to do that is to order immediately two more squadrons of multi-role Mirage 2000s directly from Dassault of France.

Although expensive (at about Rs.300 crores apiece), the IAF is very happy with the performance of the two-and-a-half squadrons it already has.

These very capable aircraft should be the latest 2000-5, Mark 2s rather than the original 2000 H/THs, 49 of which India got in the 1980s and 10 more were ordered recently. India ought to use the size of this large new order to ensure that these 10, due for delivery in 2003 and 2004, are at least fitted with the latest RDY radar, standard equipment in the 2000-5.

There is no reason why India cannot follow the strategy that the Greek Air Force adopted in this regard when it placed a much smaller reorder for the type two years ago.