The stumbling blocks

Published : Jan 20, 2001 00:00 IST


THE Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) programme, a highly ambitious and expensive project on which around $500 million has been spent so far, has its advocates and critics.

Critics of the project say that the technology used in the aircraft will be obsolete by the time it enters squadron service, which will not happen earlier than 2012. However, the proponents of the project, such as LCA Programme Director Dr. Kota Harinara yana and Head of the National Flight Test Centre (NFTC) Air Marshal Philip Rajkumar, term this argument "rubbish". According to the Air Marshal, the LCA's avionics - configured around a powerful mission computer with three MIL-STD-1553B digital data buse s in a distributed environment - is based on open system architecture and has built-in software extension capabilities that will ensure that it stays abreast of technology. Said Rajkumar: "The aircraft is being designed for high manoeuvrability, which at its peak would create G-loads of 8 or 9, the limit of human endurance. And anyway two midlife upgrades are common for fighter aircraft."

According to Harinarayana, innovations like the LCA's Digital Flight Control System (equipped as it is with a digital back-up as against the analog back-ups currently in use), its high proportion (40 per cent) of advanced composites in the wings, fin and fuselage resulting in significant weight reduction, and its utility systems management that is designed to monitor the health of the aircraft (which even the Mirages or the Sukhois do not have), will keep the plane abreast of technology for the next 25 years.

The high-profile LCA project was conceived in 1983 in order that the country would have an indigenously built fighter aircraft tailor-made to the requirements of the IAF. It was thought that the LCA would be an ideal replacement for the ageing MiG 21s, M iG 23s and MiG 27s which constitute nearly two-thirds of the Indian Air Force's (IAF) combat fleet. It was felt that it could also replace the Sky Hawks and three series of Mirages.

The project, which started in January 1985 under the aegis of the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), has been plagued by a lack of direction and budgetary support, red tape and bungling and project mismanagement. The slow progress during 1983-85 can be attributed to bureaucratic delays. During this period the project's management team was changed; then during 1988-93, there was governmental indecision over financial support. Formal and financial sanction for Phase 1, for the construction and flight test of two full-scale engineering development (FSED) aircraft at a cost of Rs.2,188 crores (1992 prices), was accorded in April 1993, despite the fact that project definition - done in consultation with the French aviation company Dassault - had been co mpleted in September 1988.

While the first FSED aircraft rolled out amidst fanfare in the presence of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao in November 1995, the first flight was initially scheduled for 1991. The fact that it has had to wait for a good 10 years and that the LCA will n ot be ready for squadron service "before 2012 and probably only by 2015" explains in part why the IAF has not been enthusiastic about it.

Besides bureaucratic delays, the very premise on which the LCA programme is based - to attain a high level of technological competence in a wide range of areas simultaneously and in a tight, time-bound schedule for just one project - has been another of the stumbling blocks before the project. And in many of these areas, technology was and still is at best rudimentary.

Another factor that adversely affected the project is the punitive sanctions imposed by the United States in the aftermath of the Pokhran-II nuclear blasts. The non-availability of consultations with key U.S. companies like Lockheed Martin, especially in areas like fly-by-wire technology, has hampered the project.

The LCA is designed to be unstable (this enables it to perform extreme manoeuvres) and it would fly out of control if its flight-control-system (FCS) computers do not continually adjust the aircraft's control surfaces. Since India had experience in fly-b y-wire technology, the American aerospace giant, which is a world leader in this technology, had been involved in developing and studying the robustness of the FCS software. The FCS software was indigenously developed. According to reports, while experts from Lockheed Martin were in the process of identifying certain deficiencies that had been noticed in the flight system, the sanctions were imposed. The sanctions meant that Indians have now had to analyse, understand and rectify the problems in the sof tware all by themselves.

A consignment of avionics software, jointly developed by Lockheed Martin and Indian agencies, has been held up by Washington after New Delhi refused to accede to the Clinton administration's demand that it return the eight GE 404-F2J3 engines it had with it following the sanctions. Another system, whose indigenisation is crucial to the project, is the software for the LCA's servo actuators, which is used in the fly-by-wire system to move the aircraft's control surfaces.

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