Airborne, at last

Published : Jan 20, 2001 00:00 IST

The successful maiden flight of the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft creates a milestone in Indian aviation history.

AFTER years of delays and failures, India's attempt to build a multi-role, fly-by-wire, supersonic, battlefront fighter aircraft took a small but significant step forward on January 4 when the first technical demonstrator (TD-1) of the Light Combat Aircr aft (LCA) took off on its maiden flight from 09 (towards the east) at Bangalore's HAL airport. Watched by Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal A.Y. Tipnis, who was in the cockpit of one the two 'chase' Mirage 2000s, and from the ground by Defence Min ister George Fernandes, Scientific Adviser to the Prime Minister A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Director of the Aeronautical Devel-opment Agency (ADA) and the LCA programme Dr. Kota Harinarayana, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Chairman C.G. Krishandas Nair (HA L will manufacture the LCA) and scientists and technicians from the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and HAL, the tailless compound delta configured LCA accomplished an 18-minute flight, attaining a speed of 450 kmph and a maximum alt itude of 3,000 metres, before a neat touchdown, its dragshute cushioning its stop.

The 'chase' is the standard procedure the world over when a new aircraft is escorted by an appropriate configured aircraft. The two specific tasks of the pilot taking part in the chase are to provide the prototype's pilot with air speed checks during tak e-off and landing (since the prototype's instruments are yet to be calibrated) and to see physically that no panels have flown off or that there are no fuel and/or hydraulic leaks.

The aim of the TD-1's maiden flight was to see whether the aircraft could take off and land safely and also to test its fly-by-wire handling capabilities. The maiden flight, which Tipnis aptly termed as "just the end of the beginning", also went some way in proving the airworthiness of the LCA's composite airframe. The flight also meant that the incorporated flight control software was tested in the air for the first time.

While people associated with the project deservedly gave themselves a pat on their back (fewer than 10 countries manufacture combat aircraft, and most of them would like to stymie the Indian efforts, for commercial or strategic reasons), the euphoria has to be tempered with ground realities. To many aviation experts who have seen the project flounder over the years, the self-congratulation was not justified, considering the time and cost overruns. While the LCA flight is a milestone in terms of technolo gy, key questions about the future of the project, the time limits for results, and most important, the usefulness of the aircraft to its primary (captive, some say) customer, the Indian Air Force (IAF), remain unanswered.

The LCA did fly, but as experts point out, the purpose of a military aircraft is not just to fly, but to land ordnance on target. In the multi-role LCA's case, ground, air and/or sea targets have to be stricken with smart weapon systems. But before it ca n be tested as a weapons platform, it has to be tested as a flying platform. The question is will it fly to the rigours of military standards and the required high Gs. Yet to be fitted are the avionics to guide the weapon systems and navigational aids fo r the pilot.

Another worry is that the prototype is powered not by the indigenous turbofan GTX-35VS Kaveri engine, which has been under development at the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE) for nearly 10 years, but by the General Electric (GE)-manufactured GE- 404F2J3 engine, on whose export to India the United States has put an embargo in the wake of the May 1998 Pokhran nuclear blasts. India currently has eight GE-404F2J3 engines. And indications are that it will take at least five years before the Kaveri en gine - which is similar in configuration to the GE-404F2J3 - meets LCA parametres. This means that an alternative engine has to be looked for, which would mean fundamental changes in the LCA's design. Otherwise, the new Republican administration in the U .S. must be persuaded to lift the sanctions. Powering an unproven aircraft with a proven engine may be all right, but waiting indefinitely for the Kaveri engine will prove detrimental to the LCA project.

Three Kaveri engines have so far been put through the test bed, with four more to be built within the next three years. Although the engine has undergone over 900 hours of bench tests and will be sent to Russia by the end of 2001 for high-altitude tests, it is still years away from being integrated onto to a flying platform. A Kaveri engine had exploded on the test bed in Bangalore, impeding progress.

The timing of the inaugural flight, just after the signing on December 28 in Moscow of the controversial $3-billion deal between India and Russia for the licensed production of 140 Su-30MKI (Su-30 Modified-Commercial-India) fighters, has raised eyebrows (see following story). Was it meant to take the spotlight away from India's biggest defence deal, the usefulness of which is under question? Actually, the Su-30MKI is not even on the drawing board. (India had earlier bought 40 Su-30MKs from Russia.)

India's only other tryst with building fighter aircraft - the HF-24, which was developed with German help in the 1960s - was a failure, because of an underpowered engine. With the deficient engine making it difficult even to effect a take off and landing , the plane was a sitting duck during hostilities with Pakistan.

Given the delays and the bungling, many in the IAF are surprised that the LCA actually flew. As the pilot who commanded the first flight, Wing Commander Rajiv Kothiyal of the National Flight Test Centre, ADA, told Frontline, "The fact that we put it together and it flew is in itself creditworthy."

But now that it has flown, aviation experts aver that substantial steps need to be taken to transform the machine into a deadly weapon. Batteries of flight tests (only during the third flight of the TD-1 will the retraction of landing gear be undertaken) will be followed by the all-important task of system integration. It is this, more than anything else, that will make or mar the LCA. Successful and speedy integration of the aircraft's complex systems - flight propulsion, navigation, and radar or weapo ns delivery systems - will determine the usefulness of the aircraft.

Unfortunately, there are no short-cuts in aircraft building - ballpark estimates are that the LCA will need anything up to 18,000 hours of testing, in around 1,500 sorties. Tipnis told Frontline: "This is only a small step, we have miles and miles to go before it can become a fighting machine and can be inducted into the IAF."

But there are still very many doubting Thomases in the IAF. The DRDO and HAL, which have a captive market in the IAF, have more often than not given an inflated picture of their own abilities, even while understating costs. Neither organisation has been able to deliver to the IAF's exacting Air Staff Requirements.

Even so, HAL, which has not been exposed to competition, has been able to dump its aircraft consistently on the IAF. The HAL-manufactured propeller trainer HPT-32, which over the past decade has suffered from engine flame-outs, and the HF-24 are examples . The inaugural flight of another high-profile HAL product, the Advanced Light Helicopter, took place in 1992, but it is still to be inducted into the IAF. According to Air Marshal Philip Rajkumar, Head of the National Flight Test Centre, ADA, in the cas e of the LCA the IAF has been in the know at every stage of the project's development and "operational inputs were also fed in at every stage".

Nevertheless, there is a feeling that the progress of the LCA should not be superimposed onto the long-term re-equipment planning (LTREP) of the IAF.

Explained a retired Air Marshal: "Let the IAF come up with its future projections. If the LCA can match this and deliver, then it is okay. Otherwise the IAF should be allowed to choose the aircraft that it wants."

While doubts over whether it will dovetail into the Air Staff Requirements exist, global competitors will vie for the IAF's pie. Aviation experts aver that it is advisable for the IAF to plump for the best, all things considered. Tipnis said recently tha t the IAF wanted to upgrade its fleet by acquiring 350 multi-role aircraft - like the Su-30MKI, the Mirage 2000-5 and the Hawk trainer - during the next 15 to 20 years. The LCA was not mentioned.

Competition for the LCA comes from the equally light and first fourth-generation fighter in active service worldwide - the Saab (Sweden)-made Gripen (which entered squadron service with the Swedish Air Force in 1998, 10 years after it first flew); the Eu rofighter (developed by British Aerospace, Germany's Daimler-Benz Aerospace, Italy's Alenia Aerospazio and CASA of Spain); the Joint Strike Fighter (being developed for the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps and the British Navy) and the French Rafale .

Although India has, defying the global trend, gone for indigenous development, collaboration with Asian or European countries is certainly on the cards. Informed sources told Frontline that a consortium of Asian countries, including Singapore, Mal aysia, Korea and Indonesia, could be formed. Fernandes signalled India's willingness when he said on the LCA occasion that India "would welcome those who want to hold hands".

Singapore is now buying Sky Hawk F-4s and F-16s from the U.S.; Malaysia is picking up MiG-29s from Russia and Mirage-2000s from France; Korea is acquiring F-16s; and Indonesia is buying British-made Hawks and F-16s. While it is too early to talk of expor ts, economies of scale would mean a reduction in the cost of the aircraft. Estimates are that at least 600 LCAs will have to be manufactured if the project is to become financially viable.

And India, considering its relatively lower costs of research and development (according to Harinarayana, five to six prototypes and a type-to-specific trainer will cost $1 billion) and labour could score well in a price war. Harinarayana and others on t he LCA project said that each aircraft would cost between $17 million and $20 million. The figure is debatable. In December 1996, Kalam had said that the cost would be around $21 million, while others had indicated that it would cost $24 million. Conside ring cost escalations, aviation experts feel that when the aircraft comes out it could cost upwards of $35 million. But even that would place it favourably since the Rafale at $60 million is the cheapest. The Eurofighter costs around $80 million.

Production of the aircraft - the IAF's latest requirement is 200 aircraft and 20 twin-seaters, type-to-specific trainers - at HAL could be a challenge since many of HAL's factories are built on Soviet-style production technology. There will have to be a major restructuring if HAL's factories are to manufacture a fourth-generation aircraft like the LCA. HAL also has a poor productivity and efficiency record with huge overheads, and in the face of declining IAF orders there is significant idle capacity. H AL's factories at Nashik in Maharashtra and Koraput in Orissa, for example, have to be content with overhauling aircraft and replacing components.

Since HAL has not produced more than 12 aircraft in any given year, it would take 18 months for it to provide the aircraft required for one IAF squadron. Even if production got under way in 2012, it would take over 16 years to fulfil the IAF's demand for 200 LCAs. By then the LCA would become obsolete.

According to aviation experts, if the LCA project is to be evaluated realistically, 18 years for a first flight must be considered too long and not worth the time, effort or money. Looking back, they feel that the decision to build a combat aircraft was all right, but the project team took on too much, instead of outsourcing non-strategic, tried and tested systems. Also, they say, India should have decided first to build a simpler combat aircraft, like an advanced jet trainer, before going in for someth ing as big as the LCA. "You just can't leapfrog technology." But having come this far, everyone agrees, "there is no turning back".

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