The LCA puzzle

Published : Jul 29, 2005 00:00 IST

Doubts have been raised about the LCA project's future after indications came from the IAF that it may consider halving the number of aircraft of the type it will place an order for now.

RAVI SHARMA in Bangalore

IS the Indian Air Force having second thoughts on Tejas, the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) being developed by the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA)? Tejas is meant to be a fly-by-wire multi-role supersonic advanced fighter that will replace the IAF's ageing MiG-21 fleet, but doubts have cropped up following indications that the IAF may be seriously considering halving the number of aircraft it plans to buy since its announcement during the Aero India 2005 air show in February that it would "soon" place an order for 40 aircraft.

Nearly a decade after it was rolled out and since its maiden flight in January 2001, the LCA has proved that it is a good design platform and that it can fly. The air combat and offensive air support fighter aircraft, which is meant to be a weapons platform and is the product of a Rs.5,500-crore, 22-year programme, can do little else at the moment.

Two technical demonstrators (TD1 and TD2) and the lone prototype (PV1), which are currently flying, have logged around 412 sorties, including around 200 towards the successful completion of the LCA's technical demonstration phase. The flight envelope of the technical demonstration phase includes flying the aircraft at a speed of 1.6 mach (1.4 mach done so far), taking it to an altitude of 15 kilometres (accomplished), and making it capable of sustaining an angle of attack of 25 degrees (20 degrees achieved) and a manoeuvrability (resistance to gravity) of 9 G (4G crossed). The flight envelope will also include sorties to gather data on the aircraft's performance in sideslip.

The ADA has planned seven aircraft in all - five prototypes (PV1 to 5) and two technical demonstrators. PV5 was originally meant to be a two-seat trainer, but this has now been advanced to PV4. According to scientists with the ADA, PV2 is undergoing avionics integration tests and engine ground runs and taxiing trials are expected to take place soon before it can be cleared for flight. The ADA is also hoping to draw two or three aircraft from the limited series production (LSP) line if there is pressure on it from the IAF to hasten weapon integration and trial runs. Drawing aircraft from the LSP will help hasten the entire flight test programme and the flight envelope, as the ADA will be able to deploy more aircraft with specific tasks assigned to them.

While the technology demonstration phase has progressed, albeit with delays, the next stage, the path to Initial Operational Clearance (IOC), whose key components are weapons and stores, is causing concern. Only after the IOC can the `weaponised' aircraft be handed over to the IAF for squadron duty. Following the IOC is the Final Operational Clearance (FOC), which will signify that the aircraft is combat-ready. Prior to the IOC, the aircraft will have to undertake around 1,200 sorties, the vast majority of which have to be test flights where requirements, objectives and parameters are clearly defined.

But according to reliable sources associated with the LCA programme, of the 200-odd sorties that have been completed with the IOC in mind, hardly 10 per cent were `real' experimental test flights. The rest were meant for data generation for parameters such as vibration and radio transmission or were display-flying either before dignitaries (such as the Russian and Venezuelan Presidents, the Malaysian Prime Minister and the Chilean Defence Minister) or in air shows/displays. A retired Air Marshal said: "You can't progress towards your IOC by just taking off and landing the aircraft, the tests have to be done with specific manoeuvres in mind."

That, however, seems some distance away. For a start, the pylons, which are structures fixed to the hard points on the fuselage or wings, are yet to be made. Without them weapons, pods and other stores cannot be attached to the aircraft. Neither have the drop tanks been fitted. As a result, the aircraft's fly-by-wire capabilities with drop tanks and weapons, which will involve a shift in its centre of gravity, are yet to be checked.

Confessed a test pilot: "The LCA has flown almost all its 400 sorties without a change of configuration. This is a dubious record for any aircraft in its test phase. The ADA talks of the speed of the aircraft, but in today's combat, as opposed to close or visual combat that was prevalent in days gone by, what is of greater importance is the power of the BVR [beyond visual range] weapons. Weapon systems that detect and identify a target at 100-plus kilometres away are what will give the aircraft the upper hand."

The LCA's Pulse Doppler Multi-Mode Radar (MMR), which will detect, track, terrain-map and deliver guided BVR weapons, has run into major hitches and, consequently, time and cost overruns. To be developed by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), which is a sub-contractor to the LCA programme, the MMR is designed to keep track of a maximum of 10 targets and allows simultaneous multiple-target engagement. Although the MMR has been tested on an Avro HS748M, it is yet to be installed on the LCA prototypes. With the MMR nowhere on the horizon, the ADA has had to make do with a weapon delivery pod that is not a primary sensor and hence cannot be used to undertake critical weaponisation of the aircraft. Said a pilot familiar with flight test programmes: "Anything less than a phased-array electronic scanning radar will be obsolete."

According to a scientist at the ADA, the use of a compatible and tested radar that is available of the shelf - such as the Elta from the Israeli Aircraft Industries or the AN/APG-67 from Lockheed Martin (which the ADA evaluated in 1992 and is currently used on the F-16) - can be considered, even as HAL continues to develop its own MMR. This would be similar to what is being done in the case of the LCA's power plant - the GE-404 F2J3 engine of the American company General Electric is being used until the made-in-India Kaveri engine is ready. The contract that the ADA has signed with GE stipulates that should India decide to procure more GE-404 engines the manufacturer will supply them. However, the contract does not insulate India from any political decisions of the United States government and, equally important, the IAF would not like to fly the LCA forever with an American engine.

THE Kaveri engine, which has been under development since 1986 at the Bangalore-based Gas Turbine and Research Establishment (GTRE), is generally seen as the Achilles heel of the LCA programme. Last December the Cabinet Committee on Security revised the estimate for its future development to Rs.2,800 crores. However, the engine, on which the GTRE has already spent Rs.1,300 crores, is still years away from completing the 8,000 or so hours of testing that is necessary for its development phase.

The GTRE has, over the years, been in touch with almost all the global players in aircraft engine development. But collaborations have been restricted to a review of the Kaveri engine and suggestions. According to informed sources, the GTRE is looking to take the collaborations to a higher plane by entering into a tie-up, which will include a risk-sharing, joint development/production relationship on a modified Kaveri engine or any other engine that can be developed afresh to power the LCA.

According to a report tabled in Parliament in April by the Standing Committee on Defence, the Kaveri engine will be installed on the LCA only by 2012 and that, too, at a revised cost of Rs.2,839 crores, almost eight times the projected development cost of Rs.382 crores in 1989.

Many aviation pundits also question the wisdom of launching an ambitious fighter aircraft programme with an untested new engine. They term it "double jeopardy". M.B. Verma, programme director of the LCA programme, admits that the delay in the development of the Kaveri engine has forced the ADA to change its plans. "We had initially planned to fly the third aircraft (PV1) with the Kaveri and had designed the rear fuselage to take on the Kaveri. But after reassessing the [non] availability of Kaveri we had to go back to our old fuselage [TD1 and TD2] design. So, today PV1 is not cleared for the entire flight envelope for which TD1 and TD2 are cleared. But the delay won't affect the programme," said Verma. Having realised that Kaveri will not fructify in the near future, the ADA is designing the second prototype on the basis of the design of the proven technical demonstrator.

Added Verma: "By the end of 2005 we should start carrier trials. Weapon integration will be after that. Since our avionics [suites] are designed with open architecture and stores management, which is also electronically controlled, we will take less time in the weaponisation of this aircraft than has happened in any other programme anywhere in the world."

ONE of the major attributes of the LCA, besides the use of advanced composites, is its low weight - 13 tonnes - and ability to carry as much as 45 per cent of its weight in weapons. But with many key components such as the engine, radar (when it does come) and so on becoming heavier, the aircraft's weapon-carrying capacity has been degraded slowly.

The LCA has also suffered from poor estate management, with designers and engineers fitting equipment "wherever there was place on board". This has meant that while it takes four hours to change an engine on a Mirage 2000, it takes three days to do the same on the Tejas. Poor estate management has also meant that components are not placed where they should ideally be. For instance, though the power amplification unit should ideally be as close to the MMR, in the LCA it is placed some distance away, requiring the use of long wires, which means guide wave losses.

The plethora of paperwork and information on the LCA has also not been documented adequately. Explains an engineer with the programme: "All these years when any of the IAF's fighter aircraft had a problem we would say, `ask the Russians or the French or the British', depending on the original designer of the aircraft. Now that we are developing the LCA, if we don't have proper documentation whom will we ask?"

Many aviation pundits believe that the LCA programme is at a crossroads and only far-sighted decisions in the technical and management spheres will help it achieve its goal: to provide the IAF with around 200 aircraft that can replace the MiG-21 fleet. But the delays that forced the IAF in 1991 to upgrade 125 MiG-21 aircraft in a deal that was worth over $600 million are once again forcing it to shop overseas for 126 multi-role combat aircraft.

Publicly, the IAF has maintained that it would like to have at least one LCA squadron (20 aircraft) by 2010. But there is a feeling that it is not whole-heartedly behind the LCA. The IAF is yet to place a firm order and release the money. Also, the IAF, which is not part of the LCA project management team, has not thought it fit to post even one of its teams at the ADA, "which can monitor and manage, and take the right decisions at the right time". This is something it has done in other aircraft programmes such as the Su-30, the MiG-21 Upgrade and even the most-recent Hawk advanced jet trainer.

Informed sources said that even HAL is not overtly keen on the LCA. It is, without doubt, focussing more on its own Intermediate Jet Trainer programme. The logic is simple: the LCA will never be its project and the ADA, which is basically a research laboratory, continues to wield total financial control over the programme. Reliable sources in HAL said the assembly/production lines for the eventual manufacture of the planned eight LSP aircraft, the first of which should roll out by early 2007, are yet to be set up.

According to the ADA, this is unpardonable since "the ADA has been continuously and simultaneously providing the aircraft's designs via the product line management system to HAL's Aircraft Research and Design Centre where the ADA has invested Rs.40 crores," and also because HAL has been provided the money to set up the Tejas LSP line: "At any time Rs.20 crores of ADA money is parked with HAL," said an informed source.

But even after HAL goes ahead with the production phase it is unlikely to manufacture more than 10 aircraft a year. That is, 20 years for 200 aircraft. The question is will the LCA - even with its open architecture - still be relevant in 2027, 32 years after it was first rolled out?

There have been suggestions that the ADA hand over the reins of the programme and the LSP to a specialised production agency such as HAL once the technical demonstration phase is over. But this raises two questions: Is HAL interested? More crucially, will the ADA be prepared to step aside and forsake the only project for which it was created? The ADA has made it amply clear that it would only like to hand over the project after the FOC is obtained.

Said an informed source at the ADA: "We will continue to have responsibility for the programme. We are the designers. The airworthiness responsibility will be with us, use of new versions of software will be decided by us, any changes in the avionics have to be approved by us, the integration of future sensors will be with us and we are the signatories for all safety features on the aircraft." It is now for the government to decide whether a professional production agency or a defence research laboratory should head the Rs.5,500 crore programme.

Admittedly, U.S. sanctions following India's nuclear explosions in May 1998 affected the availability of key components such as hydraulic actuators (that help in manoeuvring the aircraft, gaining altitude, and determining the trajectory) and ring-laser gyros (to make inertial navigation systems). This did delay the programme, but there have been other causes as well. These include perhaps a lethargy to adapt to the changing global situation, where every major aircraft designer/manufacturer has entered into tie-ups and joint ventures, and to rope in the private aircraft industry to aid the programme as major global players do.

Many experts are of the view that if the LCA has to serve its purpose - provide the IAF with at least 200 aircraft - the government and the ADA should expedite the project.

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