No take-off in sight

Published : Dec 30, 2005 00:00 IST

The tottering LCA project has much at stake. Besides upholding the credibility of India's aeronautical industry, it needs to pick up speed in order to meet the urgent requirements of the Indian Air Force.

RAVI SHARMA in Bangalore

THE relatively successful maiden flight of Prototype Vehicle-2 or PV-2, of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas on December 1 is cause enough for celebration. Success in the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA)-driven, Rs.5,500-crore, 22-year-old programme has come at huge costs and infrequently.

Since the LCA rolled out in 1995, the ADA has been able to fly just four aircraft - TD-1 (Technical Demonstrator-1), TD-2 (Technical Demonstrator-2) and PV-1 (Prototype Vehicle-1). The full operationalisation of the fourth-generation combat aircraft, to replace the ageing MiG-21 fleet with the Indian Air Force (IAF), is not expected for another 10 years.

The PV-2's entry into the flight test phase means not only an addition to the Tejas stable but also a quantum leap in the aircraft's build standard. It now has a fibre glass cockpit, a higher percentage of composites in its airframe structure, and more advanced control laws which make the aircraft amenable to newer configurations and compensate for pilot error by ensuring that the airplane stays within its flyable parameters. But, even by the ADA's revised schedules it has flown at least a year late. Its maiden flight was marred by a fuel problem, forcing the flight to be restricted to 20-25 minutes.

The non-availability of the Engine Driven Pump (EDP) also forced the ADA to cannibalise PV-1 for this, making the latter unserviceable (read cannot fly). PV-2 is also not in a serviceable condition until the fuel problem is rectified. With Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), the sub-contractors of the LCA programme, failing to deliver a number of line replacement units (LRUs), the ADA has had to cannibalise PV-1.

According to informed sources, the ADA, in a bid to make PV-1 airworthy, is now thinking of cannibalising TD-2 for the EDP and the LRUs: TD-2 is due for the mandatory inspection since it has done over a 100 hours of flying. This juggling of spares means that all four LCAs are not simultaneously serviceable, and this upsets the LCA's already lagging test programme.

Worse, prior to PV-2's maiden flight, PV-1 was mothballed for a month. Reason: the ADA pulled it out of the LCA flight-test programme to have it painted in the dark grey colours of the IAF for display during the awarding of Presidential Standards to the Aircraft Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE) in Bangalore on November 21. An exasperated test pilot said: "Nowhere in the world is a key prototype aircraft pulled out of its programme and sidelined just to be put on static display. But the ADA had to do it just to show that it is an operational programme. And why paint PV-1 in the colours of the IAF? Given the slow pace of the LCA programme, it is yet to place any orders."

ACCORDING to defence analysts, the two most crucial components of a fighter aircraft are the engine and the radar, around which the weapons and avionic systems are integrated. Both components are nowhere in sight in the LCA project. Although currently General Electric's (GE) 404 F2J3 engine powers the LCA, it is planned that the indigenously developed one, Kaveri, will eventually replace it. But Kaveri, which has been under development since 1986 by the Bangalore-based Gas Turbine and Research Establishment (GTRE), is still years away from completing the approximately 8,000 hours of testing required to complete the engine development phase.

The GTRE, which spent over Rs.1,300 crores on Kaveri (the Cabinet Committee on Security in December 2004 revised the estimate for its future development to Rs.2,800 crores), and which refused to bring in a collaborator in the past 19 years, finally admitted defeat and called for Request for Proposals (RFPs) in July for a tie-up that will include a risk-sharing, joint development/production relationship on either a modified Kaveri or any other engine that can be developed afresh.

Although the GTRE, showing uncharacteristic urgency, insisted that the RFPs be submitted within two months (the period ended on October 31), a decision on who will partner it is still pending. Four combat aircraft engine developers - GE, Pratt and Whitney, Snecma Moteurs and NPO Saturn - submitted RFPs. The technical and financial parameters of the proposals are yet to be evaluated. Informed sources told Frontline that the reason for the delay was that the Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister, under whom all defence research and development establishments such as the GTRE come, was yet to set up the evaluation committee to look into the RFPs.

According to the Standing Committee on Defence, the Kaveri engine will be installed on the LCA at a revised cost of Rs.2,839 crores, almost eight times the development cost of Rs.382 crores projected in 1989. In a move designed mainly at saving face and justifying the large expenses involved, the GTRE would, even with a partner, first like to see the Kaveri fly the LCA over a 15-month-period, starting in January 2006. Second , the GTRE along with its partner would develop a new engine over a four-year period.

The LCA's Pulse Doppler Multi-Mode Radar (MMR), which will detect, track, terrain-map and deliver guided weapons even Beyond Visual Range (BVR), is also experiencing problems both in terms of time and cost overruns. Being developed by HAL, the track-while-scan MMR is designed to keep track of multiple targets (a maximum of 10) and allows for simultaneous multiple target engagement. Although it has been tested on a hack aircraft (Avro HS748M), it is yet to be installed on any of the LCA prototypes. With the MMR nowhere on the horizon, the ADA has had to make do with a weapon delivery pod, which is not a primary sensor, and hence critical weaponisation of the aircraft cannot be undertaken. 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 off the shelf, such as the Elta from the Israeli Aircraft Industries or Lockheed Martin's AN/APG-67 (which was evaluated in 1992 by the ADA and is currently used on the F-16), could be considered even as HAL continues to develop its own MMR.

The IAF's continued and obvious lack of enthusiasm for the Tejas and its reluctance to place any orders is certainly hurting the programme. Air Chief Marshal S.P. Tyagi announced in February during the Aero India 2005 air show in Bangalore that the IAF would "soon" be placing an order for 40 aircraft, but the order is yet to materialise. But the IAF can hardly be blamed. With serious slippages in the programme and no operational aircraft in sight, why should it commit its money? Currently the thinking in the IAF is "you produce the aircraft, we will take it when it comes". Although the IAF would need around 200 LCA, currently the Tejas seems to figure nowhere in its plans. Many in the IAF also question whether it will, if ever, serve the purpose it was conceived for.

In August 1998, (Frontline, September 25, 1998), A.P.J. Abdul Kalam as Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister, announced in Bangalore that the LCA, post-Pokhran sanctions by the United States notwithstanding , would be inducted into the IAF in 2003. Now it is likely to happen only after 2010.

Explains a retired Air Marshal: "Even 22 years later the programme hasn't surmounted the IOC [Initial Operational Clearance] stage where the key components are weapon and stores integration. You draw up a matrix of pre-planned test flights where requirements, objectives and parameters are clearly defined and start crossing them off as you accomplish them. And only after IOC can a `weaponised' aircraft be handed over to the IAF for squadron duty. Following IOC, the aircraft will have to get the Final Operational Clearance [FOC], which will mean it is ready to go into combat. But for the IOC, the aircraft will have to undertake around 1,200 sorties, many of which have to be pre-planned test flights, where requirements, objectives and parameters are clearly defined. This is nowhere near completion. Of the 470-odd sorties undertaken by the three LCA, hardly 5 per cent can be counted towards IOC flying. The rest have been cash flying, data generation flying, or flying during displays before dignitaries or the public in air shows."

But there is little doubt that if the IAF is to fill up the squadrons that are being number-plated and is to retain the current authorised strength of 39 and a half combat squadrons, the LCA must be produced in large numbers and fast. By 2020 the IAF will need major fleet replenishments of both its Western and Russian inventories if it is to undertake successfully its defence, reconnaissance and electronic warfare tasks.

Most of the 16 MiG-21 squadrons (of variants including the 125 air defence cum tactical fighter MiG-21 bis, which is currently being upgraded) of the IAF will come to the end of their technical lives. So too will the four MiG-23 UM and MF squadrons, the seven MiG-27 squadrons (first inducted in 1984 but subsequently upgraded) and the three MiG-29 squadrons (first inducted in 1987 but now also going in for an upgrade). Of aircraft from Western stables, the deep penetration strike Jaguar (five squadrons, first inducted in 1979 but later upgraded) will also be at the end of its technical life, while the two operational squadrons of the Mirage 2000 H/TH (first inducted in 1986) will soldier on after upgrades. The 10 Su-30 MKI squadrons (initial deliveries of the plane were made in 1997 and the aircraft are expected to come off the assembly lines until 2018) will form the backbone of the IAF by 2020.

It is with this fleet depletion and force-level requirements in mind that the IAF called for RFPs for the purchase of 126 lightweight tactical fighters that can switch roles during the course of a mission. The RFPs were sent to Russia's RSK MiG Corporation for their MiG-29M/M2, to Sweden's SAAB (for the JAS-39C Gripen), France's Dassault (for Mirage 2000-5 Mk2) and the U.S.' Lockheed Martin with regard to its F-16 Fighting Falcon. These 126 multi-role aircraft, along with the Su-30s, account for around 16 squadrons, with Mirages and others making up a further 10, which puts the IAF in need to fill up around 14 squadrons, or nearly 300 aircraft. This is where the LCA comes in. The IAF has repeatedly said that around 200 aircraft of the LCA's size will be required. But are the ADA and HAL ready to deliver in time?

Although the ADA plans to fly seven aircraft (two technical demonstrators and five prototypes, including a two-seat trainer variant) in the next few years and HAL hopes to start Limited Series Production (LSP) by 2006, the LCA's IOC according to a senior scientist at the ADA, is expected only in 2009-2010, and, FOC in 2015. Since its first flight in January 2001 (a decade behind schedule) the LCA has recorded just 474 flights in 60 months.

Once HAL goes ahead with the production phase (hopefully after obtaining the IOC) it is unlikely to manufacture more than 12 aircraft a year. Which means around 17 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 and 26 years after it made its maiden flight?

There have been suggestions that the ADA hand over the reins of the programme once the technical demonstration phase is over. But this raises two questions: Is HAL interested, and, 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.

Defence analysts are also of the view that the LCA - which has been projected as the world's most compact and versatile fighter aircraft and the leading light of India's aerospace industry - has to succeed. Not just for the sake of the IAF, but also to uphold the credibility of the Indian aeronautical industry.

Says a retired IAF officer, who was associated for many years with the LCA programme: "The ADA seems to be content as and when and if, any success is achieved. There is just no sense of urgency. The ADA should be made accountable, answerable to questions like, is the project progressing as scheduled, is the programme meeting the end-user's requirements? If there is to be progress, the user has to drive the project. They are the ones who are going to pay and use it. Considering the money and time spent, there is no point in making 50 Tejas aircraft and then shutting the line. They have to be produced in numbers and be relevant to the IAF." Until then the Tejas weapon system will be a platform that can fly but do nothing else.

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