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LCA Tejas: Still a Long Way
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Issue Vol. 32.4 Oct-Dec 2017 | Date : 01 Dec , 2017

LCA Tejas

Originally intended to serve as an air superiority aircraft, the LCA Tejas has a secondary ground-attack role. The wing and fin are made of carbon-fibre-reinforced polymer. It is one of the smallest and lightest fighter aircraft of its class in the world. The IAF requires 200 single-seat and 20 twin-seat aircraft to replace its ageing MiG 21 fleet and Indian Navy (IN) requires 40 for carrier operations to replace Harriers. This Rs 200 crore aircraft was to originally enter service around 1995. However, the LCA undertook its maiden flight on January 04, 2001. Delays to operationalise the Tejas forced the IAF to extend the life of its older fleet of aircraft, with the inevitable flight safety implications.

The long arduous wait for the aircraft is still not over for the IAF…

On January 17, 2015, the then Defence Minister, Manohar Parikkar handed over the first series-production Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) to the Indian Air Force (IAF). Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) designed, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) manufactured, multi-role, single-engine, tail-less delta, the LCA Mk I was in a pre-Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) status. This was more of a ceremonial hand-over and the real ‘battle-ready’ aircraft with Final Operational Clearance (FOC) would come much later.

Nearly 18 months later, on July 01, 2016, the IAF’s first Tejas squadron was formed with just two aircraft at Bengaluru. HAL handed over the two aircraft to No 45 Squadron ‘Flying Daggers’ at a much-hyped ceremony, rightly preceded by inter-faith prayers. Bengaluru was chosen for temporary location of the squadron to cater for the initial technical glitches that could be experienced and product support from HAL. Also, the IAF’s flight test centre, Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE) is located next door. More importantly, large part of maintenance and operational documentation was still evolving. Physically, the aircraft may move to the designated IAF base at Sulur near Coimbatore in 2018. The long arduous wait for the aircraft is still not over for the IAF.

Nearly 70 per cent of aircraft components are reportedly manufactured in India but with the engine, radar and some avionics including electronic warfare suite imported, it has its Achilles’ heels…

This compound delta plan-form is designed with ‘relaxed static stability’ for enhanced maneuverability. Originally intended to serve as air superiority aircraft it has a secondary ground-attack role. The wing and fin are made of carbon-fibre-reinforced polymer. It is one of the smallest and lightest fighter aircraft of its class in the world. The IAF requires 200 single-seat and 20 twin-seat aircraft to replace its ageing MiG-21 fleet and Indian Navy (IN) requires 40 for carrier operations to replace Harriers. This Rs 200-crore aircraft was to originally enter service around 1995. However, the LCA undertook its maiden flight on January 04, 2001. Delays to operationalise the Tejas forced the IAF to extend its older fleet of aircraft, with the inevitable security and flight safety implications.

Technological Development

After a very bold but not fully successful attempt with the HF-24 ‘Marut’ in 1960-70s, 147 of which were inducted into the IAF, HAL began studies on a Tactical Air Support aircraft. However, it could not find a suitable engine and also by 1975, the IAF was actually looking for an air-superiority aircraft with secondary ground-attack role. By 1983, the IAF had clarified that the new aircraft would be a replacement for MiG-21 which constituted 40 per cent of the IAF and were to be phased out in 1995. The IAF finalised the Service Qualification Requirements (SQR) in 1985. To better coordinate and build core state-of-the-art aerospace technologies, ADA was formed in 1984 to manage the design and development programme of the now designated LCA.

Though HAL was to finally manufacture and deliver the system to the IAF, the ADA with a consortium of defence labs and industries was to prove the aircraft. In this process, India did master technologies related to the glass cockpit architecture and the carbon-fibre composites developed by National Aerospace Laboratory (NAL). The areas of real challenge were turbofan engine, pulse-doppler radar and fly-by-wire flight controls for which even today India remains dependent on foreign firms. The Martin Baker ejection seat is also imported. Nearly 70 per cent of aircraft components are reportedly manufactured in India but with the engine, radar and some avionics including electronic warfare suite imported, it has its Achilles’ heels.

The IAF is the only repository of comprehensive military aviation knowledge in the country; yet its expertise was taken only in small bits…

HAL and the Electronics and Radar Development Establishment (LRDE) have not been able to produce viable Multi-Mode Radar (MMR), efforts for which began in 1997. By 2006, it was clear that the MMR was experiencing major delays. Besides, cost escalation and the performance of several modes fell short of expectations. Acquisition of an ‘off-the-shelf’ foreign radar as an interim option was exercised. Similarly, the GTRE responsible for the development of the Kaveri engine, had not seen success. The Kaveri engine programme was launched in 1986. The development moved with serious hiccups at all stages. At an early stage, it was decided to fly the LCA with a proven engine and General Electric (GE) F404-GE-F2J3 was selected. Finally in 2003, the upgraded variant F404-GE-IN20 was mounted on the series production aircraft. In mid-2004, the Kaveri engine failed its high-altitude tests in Russia, ending the last hopes of it powering the Tejas. In 2006, help of French aircraft engine manufacturer Snecma was sought to recover the Kaveri engine; but by 2008, it was clear that the Kaveri would not power the Tejas and was delinked in 2008. On November 20, 2016, DRDO announced that it had tied up with Snecma to revive the Kaveri engine project as part of the offsets deal for 36 Rafale aircraft. They hoped the engine would be integrated and tested on the LCA Tejas by 2018.

High speed powerful control actuators still come from abroad though work on its development is in progress in India. Fine tuning of the Control Laws for this ‘relaxed static stability’ aircraft was a massive time consuming task. The support from Lockheed Martin was terminated after 1998 after the embargo was imposed by the US. The task was then taken on by NAL. The Automatic Flight Control System as it finally evolved has been highly praised by all the test pilots associates with the Tejas project.

Major Milestones

The original schedule called for first flight in April 1990 and service entry in 1995. The tail-less delta wing design was frozen in 1990. The ‘Proof of Concept’ phase which included the design development and testing of two Technology Demonstrator (TD-1 and TD-2) aircraft began in April 1993 and was completed in March 2004. During design and development, the higher than planned aircraft weight had reduced the thrust-weight ratio with existing F-404 engine. It affected the aircraft performance including sustained turning rate, maximum speeds at low altitudes, angle-of-attack range and weapon delivery profiles. The GE F-414 was chosen as replacement. The new engine is larger and heavier and will require major changes in intake size and affect weight and CG dynamics.

Air Commodore K.A Muthana, the then Project Director Flight Testing had candidly summed up in a paper published in October 2014, that the legacy of this aircraft’s development had been a challenge at every stage…

The LCA Mk II with the new engine will effectively be a new aircraft requiring considerable fresh testing. The IAF initially placed orders for 40 aircraft with the F404-GE-IN20 engine. The trainer variant prototype flew first in November 2009. In April 2010, the third production aircraft (LSP-3) flew with a hybrid version of the ELTA EL/M-2032 multi-mode radar. The weapon tests including bombing begun in September 2011 at Pokhran range, to be followed by missile firing tests at Goa. Rafael’s Derby fire-and-forget missile will serve as the Tejas’ initial medium range air-to-air armament. Tejas has completed precision bombing with laser-guided 1,000lb bombs and unguided bombs.

On November 08, 2014, the trainer variant PV-6 took to the skies. In December 2014, the LCA Navy successfully conducted shore-based ski-jump trials at Goa. The aircraft can now carry close to three tonne of weapons which include laser-guided 500 kg bombs and short-range R-73 missile. It can reach top speeds of 1,350 kmph, pull up to 7g and reach an angle of attack of 24 degrees. Cost of the IOC aircraft variant is around Rs 180 crore. FOC of the Tejas is held up due not only to its performance specifications but also incomplete flight envelope to meet service requirements.

What Ails The Programme?

Launching the LCA was a major technological jump for India and some amount of delays were bound to be there. The ADA has often blamed the IAF on frequent SQR changes. This is far from the truth. An aircraft, which was scheduled to be delivered in 1995, is still crawling towards induction in 2017. The user can normally not freeze SQRs forever. IAF sources insist the SQRs have if at all been only diluted to accommodate delays and lack of capability. For long, the critical systems sale embargo after the 1998 nuclear tests has been used as an alibi to cover up developmental delays. Undoubtedly, some small delays were introduced by the embargoes. On many occasions, the technical problems were staring into our face, but calls to take outside help were delayed unduly. The Kaveri engine and MMR projects were case in point.

The LCA has been over 30 years in the making but it will be at least another five years before the Tejas Mk II will be available to the IAF with FOC…

Historically, the DRDO has made over ambitious and unrealistic commitments including timelines so that it did not lose the project and the allocation of funds. The DRDO structure is such that the management grows from within through seniority. Most laboratory Directors are in their late 50s and often with very short tenures and incapable of meaningful policy changes. Air Commodore K.A Muthana, the then Project Director Flight Testing had candidly summed up in a paper published in October 2014, that the legacy of this aircraft’s development had been a challenge at every stage. This fine aircraft had been hostage to a series of systemic shortcomings.

The programme has been steered in parallel at three levels, fighter pilots of the IAF, bureaucrats of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and technocrats (ADA, HAL). Coordination was often lacking. The SQRs were beautifully drafted and well ahead of time and based on US standards. Two design agencies ADA and HAL had their own organisation-specific outward facing pulls. The responsibility for post-deployment, maintenance of documentation, software and their periodic upgrade remained vague for long. The IAF is the only repository of comprehensive military aviation knowledge in the country; yet its expertise was taken only in small bits. As a result, while the designers concentrated on getting the technology airborne, the design necessities of turning the aircraft into a maintainable, deployable and employable weapon platform were missed to a large extent. Excessive concentration on basic platform design and lack of attention to avionics had resulted in patch repair modules. Lack of operational expertise in design teams led to replicating the Mirage cockpit logic on the aircraft without exploiting the significantly advanced hardware architecture of the Tejas.

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Transition from design to manufacture is a complex process that requires to be handled carefully. Correct manufacturing tolerances are important for quality of end product. Concurrent development of support systems such as Tools, Testers and Ground Equipment (TTGE) was vital to deploy the aircraft quickly. Flight and maintenance simulators are important for training. Their development has been unduly delayed. Yet the Tejas is a wonderful flying machine. It deserved to be in squadron service years ago. Remedial action on many of the shortcomings will favorably impact the end product, Air Cmde Muthana concludes.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Air Marshal Anil Chopra

Air Marshal Anil Chopra, commanded a Mirage Squadron, two operational air bases and the IAF’s Flight Test Centre ASTE

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8 thoughts on “LCA Tejas: Still a Long Way

  1. The Commies in India has entered every nook and Corner of the Govt departments. Where ever they work they expose their true character by writing this kind of myth. In any future war, nobody gives any importance to the dogfight. He wrote “The limit angle-of-attack will increase from 24 to 28 degrees” IAF officers have raised this kind of issue in order to delay the project. Has anybody tested the angle of attack of Gnat fighter plane before raising this issue? In the future war, this not a big issue because there will be no dogfight using a gun. In a dogfight, f16 fighter plane performed better than F35 stealth plane. The USA did not reject F 35. because they give importance to stealth body, BVR missiles, radar, sensors, jammers and connected avionics.Perhaps Tejas angle of attack claimed to be less due to stealth body. So whatever issues raised by IAF against Tejas is not a big issue.at all. Nobody is talking Tejas​ stealth capability and Unit cost of Tejas. If we analyze Tejas it is ​a ​far​ ​better plane than J20. How many IAF officers know the basic thing required to get stealth effect on fighter plane.?​ I say Tejas is superior to J 20 in many ways.​

  2. Though I am a civilian but an engineer, I must say that first and foremost duty apart from manufacturing of 48 planes is to concentrate everything on “Engine Kaveri”. Take help from anyone, steal from anyone but make it. Then only eighty percent problem is over. No one can blackmail us not even the lobbyists inside IAF.

  3. Too long Mr Chopra. Keep it small and direct next time. But Tejas needs to be kept alive and encouraged. We canot go running to foreign powers when war is started. The supplies and manufacture must be able to provide the Aircraft and ammo in Thousands. Not a few squadorns. Planes will fall from skies like flies and will need to be replaced. The one with most planes will win as most wars are fougt with air force fiore power first. Missiles also will play an important role and so do AWACS. India is going in the right direction. Tejas must be made better and manufacturing faster. Modi Govt needs to increase defense expenditure.

  4. Dear Sir

    With the highest respect to the defence force of which you were serving.Speaking against the slant in your article.
    Unlike the indian navy IAF has not imbedded itself fully in the LCA programme from its inception. ASR is not quite enough

    The small size and range of this aircraft are what the airforce stipulated.
    The size was stipulates so that the LCA could use the ground structures that currently house our mig21s When you ask for a small size that has its advantages and disadvantages.

    The only way the IAF can reach its designated strength of 42 squadrons if if we buy locally designed and produced craft.

    All airforces use multiple types of aircraft for the different threat perceptions they face.
    The LCA even with its current capabilities outmatches nearly all the aircraft that the PAF and PLAF have, Get real and get behind the programme,The deficiencies of the aircraft if any are to be blamed on multiple agencies the airforce being a large partner in this aspect.

    Which major airforce in the world consists only of imported aircraft.
    Since all of us are rooting for our airforce to attain the status of a major airforce, you might want to reconsider your slant.
    Life is not perfect never was and never will be. It might be in the interest of all if the IAF gave firm orders of a large magnitude such that the supplier base andmanafacturing capability can be generated to achieve our 42 squadron strength. Otherwise if we are still alive 20 years hence we will still be crying that our squadron strength is slipping

    JAI HIND

    • “The LCA even with its current capabilities outmatches nearly all the aircraft that the PAF and PLAF have,”

      This is the type of idiotic and unfounded comment that clearly shows why Indians are the butt of all jokes. It obviously is the other way around. PLAAF’s J-10, J-11, J-16, clearly are on par or superior to India’s Tejas, Su-30MKI,MiG-29, and Dassault Mirage 2000. And while PLAAF continues to induct more of their 5th gen J-20s to their already numerous lethal arsenal inventory, IAF’s is still hesitating on the purchase of Russian Su-57 or on the drawing board with AMCA.

  5. The IAF is the only repository of comprehensive military aviation knowledge in the country, yet its expertise was taken only in small bits.
    I totally disagree with the above view. The problems with the IAF officers are they think matters like pilots and not like managers. Their writings have no base. I think they lag the capacity to find out the truth. They have enough time for reading. There was no war after Kargil war in 1998. The majority of the public including you do not know the background of Tejas development and writing all sorts of comment against Tejas. So far as my knowledge goes the designer of Tejas has made the plane almost a stealth. In a stealth plane, the size of the plane is also a big factor. This we have observed in the case of Gnat fighter plane. After the 1971 war, the PAF reported that their radars were not able to detect the movement of the plane because it was very small. The designer has taken this aspect very well and designed the aircraft as small as possible and also used stealth material and paint. Similarly, Tejas manoeuvrability also good like Gnat. But all these good points never discussed by the media.
    “The airframe’s high usage of composites (which do not reflect radar waves), a Y-duct inlet which shields the engine compressor face from probing radar waves, and the application of radar-absorbent material (RAM) coatings are intended to minimise its susceptibility to detection and tracking.” Perhaps they want to keep as a war secret. The following deficiency noticed in Gnat fighter plane.
    1) Fuel tank capacity and range. Its range was 800 Km
    2) Its gun was getting a jam in the nick of the moment. On two or three occasions they lost the golden opportunity to shoot PAF starfighter planes.
    3) The dash light illumination in the cockpit was so poor pilots used
    torchlight
    In Tejas most modern cockpit has been provided.
    4). Wireless communication. failure was very frequent.
    GPS has solved the problem of Communication.
    Tejas

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