The LCA programme trundles along with new delays added at irregular points in time. Not only is the FOC unattainable yet, even the HAL assembly line is nowhere near producing 16 aircraft a year as projected. Even when HAL does achieve a rate of 16 LCA per year, the 114 aircraft yet to be delivered to the IAF (out of 123 on order, only nine have been delivered so far) will take more than seven years to be handed over. Meanwhile the IAF, with half its fleet needing replacement, awaits some miraculous breakthrough to bail it out even as the new process for procurement of 114 combat aircraft gets underway (expected to take three to four years to produce results, if at all). Given that the AMCA programme has the same partners (ADA and HAL under DRDO auspices) as for LCA, it is unlikely to come out in a hurry. The current expected date for a technology demonstrator to fly is 2025, but it may slide again. So the AMCA may not be available to the IAF until the mid-2030s.
Exercise Gagan Shakti made a lot of noise about the IAF fighting a two-front war but failed to impress analysts who have serious reservations about the IAF’s current and near future combat worthiness…
In July this year, the Lok Sabha Financial Committee on Estimates under the chairmanship of Dr Murli Manohar Joshi, himself a senior BJP leader, presented the 29th Report of the Committee to the Parliament. Entitled ‘Preparedness of Armed Forces – Defence Production and Procurement’, it contains explosive content, to say the least. It is a comment on the current muzzled state of the media that there was hardly a whimper about the Report’s sensational content before it was swept gently under the carpet. It flagged the lowering of India’s defence budget to 1.6 per cent of the GDP – the level we had before 1962; implicit to the allusion to 1962 is a reminder of the ignominious defeat we had at the hands of the Chinese that year.
The Report says, “…the implications could be ominous”. It goes on to warn that, “India cannot afford complacency when it is a question of defence preparedness”, and accuses the government of “bureaucratic inertia” and “compromising safety and security of our country”. The Indian Air Force (IAF) is perhaps the worst affected of the three services with its squadron strength down to 31 as against the authorisation of 42 squadrons. Exercise Gagan Shakti made a lot of noise about putting the IAF through its paces for fighting a two-front war against a nuclear and biological backdrop but failed to impress analysts who have serious reservations about the IAF’s current and near future combat worthiness.
The main reason for this skepticism is the agonisingly slow and debilitating bureaucratic process of inducting modern combat aircraft into the IAF’s fast depleting squadrons. The acquisition of combat aircraft for the IAF has been entirely from foreign Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) as technology transfer was not forthcoming and the Indian public sector was content to license produce foreign aircraft without imbibing technology. India’s Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas is struggling to get operational and the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) programme is yet to show any promise of success. This article looks at the LCA programme to prognosticate about the AMCA.
The Indian Air Force (IAF) is perhaps the worst affected of the three services with its squadron strength down to 31 as against the authorisation of 42 squadrons…
LCA – A Troubled Evolution
A glimpse of the LCA’s history will help in addressing our focal point. It was in the late 1950s and the early 1960s that the IAF had its first substantive aircraft inductions. Amongst the foreign aircraft was an indigenous beast – the HF-24 Marut. It was indeed a laudable accomplishment for the Indian aerospace industry, but for the fact that it lacked an engine to power it to its full potential. India failed to hold onto the initial momentum provided by the HF-24 programme and lost precious years in the combat aircraft race while globally, technology forged ahead at a blazing pace.
The IAF had foreseen the need for combat aircraft going into the future and started communicating with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) about it in the mid-1970s about the need for a modern fighter, possibly home grown. It looked at the idea as its own ‘baby’ although it lacked the experience or the infrastructure for designing and developing a new aircraft. However, it was fairly lucid about the end product it wanted in the form of a combat aircraft. Some initial proposals were indeed originated by HAL Design Bureau but the initiative was seized by Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) under the patronage of Dr Arunachalam when he was the Scientific Adviser to the Raksha Mantri in the 1980s. The DRDO obtained government approval for the design and development of a Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) in 1983.
In spite of the intentions being good initially, the IAF’s objectives were sidetracked thereafter and the DRDO’s aspirations predominantly moulded the itinerary to a fourth generation combat aircraft. One of the spin-offs of the DRDO commandeering the project was its creation of the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) in 1984, with the sole objective of severing HAL Design Bureau’s linkage with the design of the future combat aircraft. The DRDO went a step further and created a National Flight Test Centre (NFTC) as an entity under the ADA to deal with flight testing thus sidelining Aircraft Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE) of the IAF and Flight Test Group of HAL. All the flight tests and aircraft instrumentation related activities are planned, coordinated and executed by the NFTC which is headed by a Test Pilot from the IAF.
The Kaveri engine, to be developed by Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE), for which the programme was launched almost alongside the LCA in 1986, was a non-starter…
The NFTC has IAF and Indian Navy test pilots and flight test engineers along with scientists and engineers for instrumentation. The IAF resentfully and reluctantly came around to accept the idea that it would be a DRDO project and issued an Air Staff Requirement (ASR) in 1985. The DRDO was over-ambitious and included a Fly-By-Wire (FBW) controlled inherently unstable platform, a glass cockpit, a multi-mode radar, a Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC) managed engine, ECM/ECCM/weapon systems/missile systems, substantial use of composites in the airframe and was over optimistic in its plan to induct the aircraft into the IAF by 1995.
The IAF aimed at receiving an aircraft to replace the MiG-21 and would have been happy to do so by 2000. The Project Definition Document produced in 1989 (with French OEM Dassault Aviation as consultants) for building five prototypes, was not in line with IAF thought and for four years there was an interlude with no activity at all until in 1993, it was decided to shelve the five prototypes and first build two Technology Demonstrators (TD) as proof of concept.
Subsequent progress on the LCA Tejas has been a saga of stumbles and setbacks. The Kaveri engine, to be developed by Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE), for which the programme was launched almost alongside the LCA in 1986, was a non-starter and is yet to fructify into an engine. The IAF would have liked to delink the Kaveri engine from the Tejas, but the DRDO thought otherwise. Similarly, the IAF and DRDO had divergent views on the route to follow for the FBW technology. While the IAF wanted to partner with France who was willing to cooperate with India for this purpose, the DRDO, for some reason, favoured the US route. The DRDO bulldozed its way and in the bargain, we lost French support not just for FBW; but the whole project. Our nuclear endeavour in 1998, put paid to US collaboration and we were left on our own to develop FBW. Support for the US GE-404 engine also dried up as a result of the nuclear test at Pokhran. The IAF was impatiently waiting for the first LCA, the TD 1, which flew in 2001. This was followed by TD 2 in 2002, which was hailed as a big accomplishment notwithstanding the delays and disruptions much beyond DRDO’s projected date (1995). The first Production Vehicle (PV) flew in 2003.
However, almost two decades later, the LCA is yet to fly as an operational aircraft that the IAF had visualised. A Series Production-1 (SP-1) LCA was handed over to the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS) in 2015 amongst much fanfare by the Raksha Mantri. The event was driven by the DRDO’s characteristic yearning for self aggrandisement. However, as far as the IAF was concerned, it was not an operational aircraft, nor anywhere near being one. The Initial Operational Clearance 2 (IOC 2) was obtained in 2013, but the Final Operational Clearance (FOC) is yet to be granted. A deadline of June 30, 2018, declared by HAL earlier this year, went by without that happening. The original timeframe for the FOC was 2012.
HAL, understandably, is resisting tooth and nail claiming that its autonomy will be subverted…
All the same, the IAF has had to place an initial order for 40 LCA Mark-I, 20 in IOC status and the next 20 in FOC status. This was followed in 2017, by an order for another for 83 Mark IAs (73 single seat and ten twin seat trainers). Several major deficiencies were listed out by the IAF in the Mark I and the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) also flagged 53 deficiencies in a report in 2015. These were waived off for the IOC version and HAL had promised to rectify them by the time FOC was obtained. Hopefully, these will be redressed in Mark IA. While the Mark I and Mark IA are powered by a GE-F404-IN20 engine and are considered underpowered by the IAF, the Mark II is to be fitted with GE-F414-INS6 engine. The former produces 84 kilo Newton (kN) of power and the latter, 98 kN.
To install the more powerful, heavier and hence, larger engine on the Mark II, the aircraft needs to have a modified fuselage, larger wing span, more fuel capacity and this translates to a major design update. Indeed, the Mark II is not an LCA at all but, with a MAUW of 17.5 tonne, needs to be shifted up to the MCA category! It is thus more of a replacement for the Mirage 2000 than the MiG-21. The first prototype of the Mk II is expected to undertake its maiden flight in 2022-2023, and obtain the IOC and FOC in the next five to ten years. The current target is to have the first squadron ready by 2028. However, given the tardy progress of the Mark I/IA, the Mark II could take longer than the planned timeframe to become effective.