As of January 2015, the LCA had flown more than 2,800 test flights and achieved speeds of Mach 1.4. In December 2014, the LCA Navy successfully conducted shore-based ski-jump trials at Goa. As of August 2013, Rs 7,965 crore had been spent. The aircraft can currently carry close to three tonnes 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 angle of attack of 24 degrees. For FOC, pending issues are the integration of Derby and Python BVR missiles, GSh-23 gun integration, the angle of attack increases from 24 to 28 degrees, wheel braking system improvements and the nose cone change from composites to quartz model in a bid to increase the current radar range of 45 to 50 km to more than 80 km.
With the new engine, the LCA Mk II will effectively be a new aircraft requiring considerable fresh testing…
The FOC stage has been repeatedly delayed because there are areas in which the ADA does not have full expertise. The most difficult seems the increase of angle-of-attack to 28 degrees. Issues with the braking system have safety implications. A big issue for the FOC is all-weather trials. It will be an achievement if the FOC can be awarded by end 2015. As Tejas’ FOC continues to slip, EADS help has been sought to expand the flight envelope to meet the SQR.
What Ails the Program?
Launching the LCA was a major technological jump for India and some amount of teething delays were expected. ADA has often blamed the IAF on frequent SQR changes. The IAF insists that the SQRs have, if at all, been diluted to accommodate delays and lack of capability. In all fairness, the SQRs for an aircraft to be delivered in 1995 cannot remain frozen for an aircraft to be delivered in 2015. Often the technical problems were well known but seeking external help was unduly delayed. The projected timelines were over-ambitious and unrealistic and impossible to meet. 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 therefore, are incapable of effecting meaningful policy changes or aggressive change of direction.
Air Commodore K.A. Muthana, the Flight Test Project Director recently summed up in a paper that the legacy of this aircraft’s development has been a challenge at every stage. The SQRs were beautifully drafted and well ahead of time. While the path to certification evolved along with the aircraft, the extent of analyses and testing required, remained a little open ended. While the designers concentrated on getting the technology to get the aircraft airborne, the design requirements of aircraft maintainability and operational deployment, have been missed to a large extent. Excessive concentration on basic platform design and lack of attention to avionics has resulted in patch repair modules. Lack of operational expertise in design teams led to the LCA cockpit being a replication of the Mirage cockpit logic on the aircraft without exploiting the significantly advanced hardware architecture of this aircraft.
Inability to meet manufacturing tolerances and lack of trained manpower will directly affect the quality of end product…
Transition from design to manufacture is a complex process. Inability to meet manufacturing tolerances and lack of trained manpower will directly affect the quality of end product. Concurrent D&D of maintenance support systems such as Tools, Testers and Ground Equipment (TTGE) are critical for field operations. Generating flight and maintenance manuals are important both for training and exploitation. These are far from ready. No representative flight simulator is available for use by aircrew. The situation will be aggravated by the non-availability of a trainer variant of the aircraft in the required timeframe. Operational infrastructure definition is also behind schedule. Two design agencies ADA and HAL, had their own organisation-specific dynamics. Who will be responsible for periodic software upgrade is not clear.
Unless resolved, this story of an inconvenient marriage would continue to have adverse effects during its entire lifetime. The IAF is the only repository of comprehensive military aviation knowledge in this country. Its expertise should have been used. A program of this magnitude requires specially selected top-of-the-line professional program management. The Tejas is, otherwise, a wonderful flying machine. Remedial action on many of the shortcomings can improve the end product, Air Commodore Muthana concluded.
By early 2016, the IAF may form the first Squadron. In anticipation of teething problems, it is proposed to be collocated with ADA and HAL at Bengaluru. No. 45 Squadron, the ‘Flying Daggers’ will initially get four aircraft. The IAF’s Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE) will receive four aircraft for user evaluation and operational flight testing. The squadron will have full strength by end 2017. Physically, the aircraft may move to the first designated IAF base at Sulur only in 2018.
The Road Ahead
The IAF has to first operate the LCA Mk I. More than the FOC, the basic flight safety critical shortfalls must be eliminated for the line-pilot to operate safely. The IAF is initially pushing only to fix the flight safety critical systems. The loss of a single aircraft or crew could push the program backwards. Weapons integration and aerial refueling are operationally important but of lesser immediate concern. On the issue of training and maintenance manuals, in March 2015, the Minister of Defence, Manohar Parrikar reportedly set a one-month deadline for the handover but the same has since passed.
The IAF requires 14 squadrons with 294 aircraft…
The IAF initially proposes to have six squadrons of LCA Mk I and four squadrons of LCA Mk II. Finally, the IAF requires 14 squadrons with 294 aircraft. Meanwhile, to create competition in the light-weight fighter category, Parrikar said, “some other single-engine, light fighter” other than Tejas could also be considered for a “Make in India” project to replace the MiG-21s. Even Saab of Sweden had offered to help India develop a single-engine light fighter, a variant of the Saab Gripen but the cost was exorbitant. The Gripen also uses the GE-F414.
The LCA Mk II would have a fuselage a metre longer than that of the previous version and further refined aerodynamics. It will reportedly incorporate some features of a fifth generation fighter. External stores capacity will go up to 5,000 kg from the current capacity of 4,000 kg. $542.44 million (Rs 2,431.55 crore) has been sanctioned to develop the Tejas Mk II. The IAF has committed to procuring 83 Tejas Mk IIs initially and the Indian Navy for 46 LCA Mk II (Navy).There is also a plan to develop the indigenous Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar ‘Uttam’ and a development partner is under selection. Europe’s Airbus Defence and Space and Israel’s Elta are contenders.
Even Saab of Sweden had offered to help India develop a single-engine light fighter but the cost was exorbitant…
The Tejas is also to be equipped with Infra-Red Search and Track (IRST) sensor pod, FLIR targeting pod, ECM pods, flare and chaff pod and EO/IR sensor pod. The EW suite ‘Mayavi’ is to be developed by the Defence Avionics Research Establishment (DARE). In view of delays, unspecified numbers of EW suites have been purchased from Israel’s Elisra. All this indicates that the LCA has a long way to go. Optimistically, the LCA Mk II will not be ready before 2022. A stealthier LCA Mk III is also planned for later.
Success with the LCA is of great national importance in terms of driving the ‘Make in India’ effort. The IAF and the Indian Navy await the aircraft with fingers crossed. “It is better to wait and get a good fighter than accept the Mark-I in its current state,” say some. The LCA handed over to the IAF till now can, at best, be termed as airworthy but not combat ready. Some analysts contend that India went fundamentally wrong in simultaneously attempting to build a fighter quickly to replace the retiring MiG-21s, and also by attempting, to leapfrog technology ambitiously.
Some critics have even blamed the IAF for not showing adequate trust in the program for many years. They claim that the Indian Navy which joined the program in 2003 has maintained a ‘Make It Work’ approach. The CAG report notes that, as early as in 1989, an LCA Review Committee had recommended, “the need for a liaison group between Air HQ and ADA to ensure closer interaction between the design team and the user.” Such a group was set up only in November 2006. Meanwhile, ADA defends itself by saying that it has not only developed the LCA but has also created an aerospace ecosystem – DRDO laboratories, private industry, academic institutions and test facilities such as the National Flight Testing Centre. All these will come in handy during AMCA development.
Some critics have even blamed the IAF for not showing adequate trust in the program for many years…
The IAF’s asymmetric advantage over the Pakistan Air Force is down from 3:1 to 1.5:1. China is moving forward rapidly with many state-of-the-art aircraft programs and has two fifth generation stealth aircraft already under flight testing. The development of Sino-Pak JF-17 began later than the LCA yet 150 JF-17s are flying in PAF squadrons. As LCA Tejas is India’s replacement for the MiG-21, similarly Pakistan’s JF-17 Thunder is replacement for the similar class Nanchang A-5 bombers, Chengdu F-7 interceptors and Mirage III/5 PAF fighters.
While India’s was an indigenous program, Pakistan joined in the already ongoing Chinese project of FC-1 Xiaolong fighter aircraft development. India uses the American GE engine and Pakistan has taken all the technology from China and engines from Russia. The LCA is undoubtedly a generation ahead in technology vis-à-vis the JF-17. At Rs 200 crore ($32 million) a piece, the LCA is not cheap. It is certainly much more expensive than the JF-17. Meanwhile, negotiations for the Rafale continue to be mired in complexity. To improve numbers, Parrikar also directed the IAF to improve serviceability of the Su-30MKIs which is floundering at around 55 per cent.
As things stand, the IAF will, at best, have a full Tejas Mk1 operational unit only in 2019 and a Tejas Mk II squadron around 2025. In view of the uncertainty and further delay with the LCA, there is a need to accelerate procurement of the Rafale. Also, a specially selected, well-paid professional ‘Task Master’ needs to be appointed to head and fast-track the LCA programme. From its current strength of 34 squadrons, the IAF must quickly reach the authorised strength of 42. With rapid depletion of IAF assets, further delays will have serious implications for flight safety and national security.