Military & Aerospace

Light Combat Aircraft: Going the Marut way?
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 17 Dec , 2015

LCA Tejas

When I hear the sudden roar of the LCA fighter jet’s engines in the skies above here in Bangalore, I often wonder why did the LCA programme take so long to reach the stage in which it is now. India is often termed as a nation, which has a predominantly young population, and one would wonder why does such a country lag behind in aerospace and defence technology when compared with the West or even countries like China. That, India is a country which has always had to deal with external threats and challenges will automatically raise questions as to why have our young population failed to build a formidable military-industrial complex which could ably support our armed forces.

…India’s defence R&D and production agencies haven’t received enough backing from its primary customers, i.e., the armed forces.

A lot of articles and commentaries are available related to the failures of the much famous or rather infamous LCA programme. Most of these articles have something in common – they all blame the DRDO and it’s associated labs for the mess that the LCA is finding itself in. This is when I realised the need to view the LCA programme from a different perspective. Anyone who has keenly followed the growth of India’s defence industry would realise that India’s defence R&D and production agencies haven’t received enough backing from its primary customers, i.e., the armed forces.

This is why the nation will have to learn from the mistakes it made during the development of the HF-24 (Marut) fighter jet in the 1960s and 70s, which was India’s first combat aircraft development programme. The HF-24 and the LCA programme have two things in common.

Firstly, the ASRs (Air Staff Requirements – specifications demanded by the Indian Air Force) based on which the aircraft is designed, were quite ambitious. The ASRs for the HF-24, for e.g., demanded an 800 kms combat radius and all-weather fighting capability – capabilities which hadn’t matured even in the western world during that time. For the LCA too, the Air Staff Requirements were too ambitious, since the IAF this time demanded Digital Fly-by-wire Flight Control System, Multi-Mode Pulse-Doppler Radar and a home-grown afterburning turbofan engine – which was later known as the Kaveri engine. And secondly, both the projects had to suffer mid-way because of external sanctions imposed on India as a response to India testing nuclear weapons. The Marut project got its setback in 1974 and the Tejas in 1998. On both the occasions, the foreign aviation giants who were assisting the local agencies in both the projects had withdrawn their cooperation.

The Marut project got its setback in 1974 and the Tejas in 1998. On both the occasions, the foreign aviation giants who were assisting the local agencies in both the projects had withdrawn their cooperation.

Although Marut Mk1 was an underpowered aircraft that was used predominantly in the ground attack role during the 1971 Bangladesh war, it was known for its safety, reliability and serviceability. The feasibility of the development of improved versions of Marut (with more powerful engines) was completely ignored by the IAF and the Govt. What this meant was that the Indian aircraft industry, which had tremendous growth potential, was left dormant until the development of the LCA started. Because of this short-sightedness, India’s defence labs had to do a lot of catching up in terms of absorbing latest technologies and methodologies related to combat aircraft development. This wouldn’t have happened if the industry was kept alive with the development and sustained orders from IAF for the planned HF-24 Mk2 and Mk3 versions.

One major mistake that the Indian policymakers made during the initial stages of the LCA programme was to club it with the Kaveri jet engine programme, which was a major cause for the delays. It was too ambitious to start the development of the LCA with an engine in mind, the development of which hadn’t even started. In spite of all these problems, one critical technology which won praises from the LCA test pilots was the Automatic Flight Control System (FCS) system.

One major flaw in the ASRs can be linked to the IAF’s never-ending love for multi-role capable aircraft. Upon analysing the successful aircraft development programmes of the advanced countries, one gets to see that these aircraft were required to fulfil their primary role very well and a secondary role, if any, moderately well. If at all the primary user wants the aircraft to fulfil the secondary role equally well, they would try to attain this capability by going in for the development of subsequent versions of the aircraft. Also, they would plan for such versions by providing a firm order for the initial version of the platform so that the assembly lines will be activated, thereby giving more meaning to all the time and money spent on the R&D for the initial version. This is at variance with the policy of the Indian Air Force, which stresses on getting 100% flawless aircraft, before giving the go ahead for series production of aircraft.

One major flaw in the ASRs can be linked to the IAF’s never-ending love for multi-role capable aircraft.

Similar behaviour can be seen even in the case of the Arjun MBT programme wherein the Army was reluctant to order a good number of the Mk1 version of the tank citing major problems in performance. Even after the DRDO proved the Army wrong by fielding a much improved Arjun Mk2 (which won hands down in comparative field trials against the Russian T-90) in a short span of 2 years, the Army has been reluctant to order a good number of tanks citing logistical problems.

The relatively less talked about arm of the military, the Navy, though is quietly pursuing indigenization for the equipment that it needs. As of now, the Navy boasts of 40 odd warships being constructed at Indian shipyards, which includes Aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, stealth surface combatants etc. The IAF, rather reluctantly opting to go for the improved Mark1A of the Tejas is a welcome sign. Talks of the Mark 2 version and the on-going work on the 5th generation AMCA (Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft) are also good signs, which seems to suggest that the Indian military establishment has learned from its past mistakes. What would be a much-required boost to the defence industry is the Govt. supporting the participation of the Private industry in developing and manufacturing critical technologies for the military as this would reduce the dependence on foreign assistance by a very good amount in the coming decades.

If all these measures are pursued with the right intent and political will, we will be able to say in the near future that the LCA hasn’t followed the HF-24 Marut and is on the path to glory.

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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

Sachin A

An IT professional and Military enthusiast, and have been following the events in India’s defense industry and strategic affairs.

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5 thoughts on “Light Combat Aircraft: Going the Marut way?

  1. Exactly, the LCA was to replace the Mig-21. The IAF put in the ASR for that, while being amazed with the newly arrived Mirage-2000, copying it. Delta wings etc. But once the LCA design was frozen and development started, IAF wanted an F-16 beater, ADA obliged. Once Tejas LCA production has started , IAF wants a Rafael equivalent. Now Tejas Mk.2 will be made. Once that is in production, I am goddamn sure, IAF will want it to outperform the F-35 Lighting. Mark my words.

  2. Because Indians and people of the subcontinent just don’t have in them the creative brains to create something new…..Right from school Indians are taught to mug up ,copy rather than find out themselves ………people who cannot design a chair are entrusted with designing aircarft…. research is something Indians face first when they are in Phd …,,,, The ASRs are cut copy paste, the plans are cut copy paste ,the designs are cut copy paste, the aircraft are built out of assembled components and manages if at all to fly due to jugaad……employ foreigners to design and build aircraft …even the Marut was designed by a German scientist who built a beautiful airframe but our scientists couldnot build him an engine… the game of competitive advantage just accept that we Indian are no good at aircraft design and lump the reality…..It takes the creativity and brilliance of an Nobel prize winner to build aircraft which are futuristic…..leave alone bulding aircraft we cannot even assemble them properly….. the difference between Russian assembled aircraft and the indegineously assembled junk exemplified by the poor rigging for starters …….We can actually wind up the LCA programme and save the nation a lot of money….The last fighter pilot is already born….manned fighter aircraft are obsolete the sooner we admit and change our strategy the better…

  3. The author needs to get his facts correct. LCA is a classic case of overreach attempted by the R&D community at the expense of operational readiness of the service for which the system was being developed. While the IAF envisaged a replacement for Mig-21, the R&D community wanted to utilize this opportunity to kick-start the aviation sector in India. So, the target of developing FBW system, Multi-Mode Radar, Engine and composite structure were aims decided by the Scientific community. And not IAF. In fact, IAF had clearly highlighted the challenges in doing all this given the state of India’s industrial base. On top of it, when Dassault offered a lesser performance FBW, the scientific community rejected it in favor of all digit 4 channel FBW by the Americans. IAF has it share of blame but they do not extend to drafting ambitious ASR for the project.

  4. R & D has suffered a lot .As the use, the Army nor the Air Force tend to encourage the arms & aircraft manufactured in India. Not only they dissuade them they simply won’t place orders. They won’t go JV but are content to buy arms from abroad. The brass must get rid of this reliance & think of long term policies. Every one knows they do it for why they do it.

  5. Agree with Author’s assesment of the Marut problems. One, element that is more critical than failures is a strategic sense of continuity after the failure. Great breakthroughs come out sweat and tears of failures and not out of a blue sky of wisdom. Just gloss over the development of great technologies, such as semi-conductors, integrated circuits, advancement in combustion engines, nuclear energy and jet propulsion. In each case there was and is a relentless pursuit to make it better. The Lockheed, Boeing and others are examples of never ending search for technological excellence.The Indian mindset need to reorient itself to the thinking of the Western nations that are leaders in virtually all fields for decades. India seems to have many false starts but what is lost is not just success but a will to continue even harder and find answers when we fail. The ISRO can be a role model that keeps producing bigger and better rockets regardless of few that cannot get up into the heavens. India needs many such institutions. It is time India import some key leaders from the successful enterprises in the West for guiding technological transformation similar to Japan and Germany which rose from the ashes of the second world war but rapidly became leaders in their fields. These leaders from Western technological conglomerates may be surprisingly Indians with proven skills and knowledge. They may be more sympathetic to the environment but with determination to help India pick up by it’s boot straps.

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