Military & Aerospace

The LCA Tejas Programme: Leading to Indigenous AMCA: Quo Vadis?
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
Issue Vol. 33.4 Oct-Dec 2018 | Date : 20 Feb , 2019

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.

http://www.lancerpublishers.com/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=1589

Click to Subscribe

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.

Current State

According to a contract between the HAL and the IAF signed in 2006, 20 IOC LCAs were to be delivered by December 2011, and 20 FOC LCAs by 2016. The LCA production line has recently produced SP-10. Production up to SP-20 would be the IOC version and, thereafter, would start the FOC version i.e. SP-21 onwards. However, it is unlikely that HAL will be able to deliver the sixteen aircraft that are scheduled to be delivered within this financial year despite an optimistic forecast from HAL’s LCA Division. Once the FOC is granted, there may be more changes needed to the manufacturing line which will undoubtedly cause further delays. Meanwhile, HAL has been asking the IAF to accept some of the initial FOC variants even pending the FOC process completion based in a provisional Drawing Applicability List (DAL), a document based on FOC and released in 2017.

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…

A lot of noises are being made by HAL about how the LCA will be the backbone of the IAF’s combat power. However, to add to the delays is the question of cost of each aircraft. The 83 Mark IAs are expected to cost Rs 50,000 crore, an exorbitant price tag. The Raksha Mantri has formed a costing committee to review this pricing. At the time of writing this, the government is on the brink of handing over control of the LCA project to the IAF to prevent more time overruns and cost upsurge. There is also speculation that the entire HAL complex in Bangalore may be placed under the IAF and that modalities are being worked out. In addition, three institutions – ADA, GTRE and Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE), which are under the DRDO, are likely to be brought under the direct control of Chief of the Air Staff, IAF. Thus, the entire development cycle of the LCA will have the IAF’s oversight and will ensure timely execution and prevent blame game over delays.

HAL, understandably, is resisting tooth and nail claiming that its autonomy will be subverted. Those in the know of course see HAL’s apprehension being based on the fact that it may have to improve its productivity which is infamously and unacceptably low. This was manifest in Dassault Aviation’s point blank refusal to guarantee schedules if HAL was the partner for the now cancelled MMRCA tender. Harking back to the 1970s, the IAF had envisioned an aircraft project all under its own steam but was edged out by DRDO’s stronger lobby. Even today, the placement of a serving Air Marshal at the top of a characteristically low productivity organisation, is unlikely to produce the results that the IAF’s dwindling squadron strength ordains. What is required over a period of time is that the entire sequence of design, standardisation, development, production and supply chain be placed under the total control of IAF with the organisational culture of public sector enterprises purged from the whole process. So will that happen in the case of the AMCA project in the pipeline?

AMCA – The Future

Having looked at the LCA programme and status, let us examine if it encourages optimism about the AMCA project. While the LCA was planned to be a fourth-generation aircraft with a Maximum All Up Weight (MAUW) of 13.3 tonne, the AMCA is projected as a fifth-generation aircraft with an MAUW of 25 tonne. The LCA is a single-engine machine while the AMCA is a twin-engine one with stealth and all-weather capability. The LCA was envisaged as a MIG-21 replacement while the AMCA is expected to be a substitute for the ageing Jaguar, Mirage 2000 and the already-dead MiG-27s.

With India having withdrawn from the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) joint venture with Russia, the AMCA assumes even more importance…

In 2008, the IAF had asked ADA to initiate a project for the development of a Medium Combat Aircraft (MCA) with the aim of replacing ageing aircraft by 2020. The aircraft was to be a 20-tonne machine with two indigenous K9/K10 engines. The project was renamed in 2010, as AMCA and the IAF issued an ASR stipulating that the AMCA be a 25-tonne aircraft. In April 2013, the Raksha Mantralaya put the project on hold, wanting to make up for the protracted delays incurred by ADA and DRDO labs and establishments during the development of the LCA. Five design proposals completed low-speed wind tunnel testing, supersonic wind tunnel testing and Radar Cross-Section (RCS) testing and a finalised design was ready by 2014. The Engineering Technology & Manufacturing Development (ETMD) phase started when work on AMCA had again commenced after LCA attained IOC. It was announced that the AMCA will be developed by 2018. The configuration was finalised in 2014, with the first flight scheduled for 2018. The product design work of the AMCA was started by the DRDO and the work on the prototype as the part of proof of concept stage was expected to be ready in 2018.

At Aero India 2015, DG – Aeronautical Systems, DRDO, Dr K Tamilmani confirmed that work on three major technological issues which included Thrust Vectoring and super cruising engine, AESA radar and stealth technology, was going on in full swing and the availability of the technology on the aircraft would occur on schedule. Reportedly, in 2015, 700 ADA employees were working on the project along with 2,000 employees of DRDO and 1,000 employees of HAL supported by over 500 employees of subcontractors of both Indian and foreign firms. During that year, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) through Government to Government (G-to-G) route between India and Russia was signed in which various Russian firms agreed to help Indian firms in various technological fields.

The Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE) set up a joint-venture with Klimov for the development of Three-Dimensional Thrust Vectoring (TDTVC), Electronics and Radar Development Establishment (LRDE) with Tikhomirov Scientific Research Institute of Instrument Design (TSRIID) for the AESA Radar and ADA with the Sukhoi for stealth technology and other various key technological fields. In support of the AMCA programme, engine development on K9 and K10 engines for AMCA started in August 2012, by GTRE. A tender of joint venture on development of the engine was issued to engine manufacturers in 2015, for a foreign partner to help in developing the engine by combining both Kaveri engine technology with the joint venture partners engine to create a 110 – 125 kN thrust engine by 2019. Since then, efforts are on to produce the K9/K10 but, at the time of writing this, such an engine appears distant. Thus, the AMCA appears destined to fly, at least in its initial avatar, with a foreign engine, possibly a GE variant.

The IAF, the main user, is skeptical about the capabilities of HAL/ADA to fulfill promises made – both on quality and time frame…

Concluding Remarks

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.

The AMCA programme uses a modular approach like many of the foreign manufacturers do and has a consortium of about 140 entities as partners. In April this year, the government invited the private sector to participate in the design and manufacture of two TDs and four prototypes. The first TD is to be ready within three and half years from the date of execution of the contract with ADA and the second TD within four years. The flight tests of these TDs are likely to be completed in six years, followed by the development of the prototypes. An entirely new manufacturing infrastructure is expected to be set up in Tamil Nadu as part of its defence industry corridor. This is a radically different approach from the LCA, but HAL’s track record does not encourage confidence in the programme. As it sluggishly plods towards consummation of the AMCA project, it is time for the government to look afresh at the management and control of the programme. The excessively late and half heartedly adequate contemplation of putting an IAF officer in control of the LCA programme should be a pointer towards the need to take away the reins of the AMCA programme at this stage from HAL/ADA so that progress stabilises at a satisfactory velocity.

With India having withdrawn from the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) joint venture with Russia, the AMCA assumes even more importance. But the IAF, the main user, is skeptical about the capabilities of HAL/ADA to fulfill promises made – both on quality and time frame. Even with a majority of the production endeavour for AMCA outsourced to the private sector, HAL is unlikely to meet the IAF’s requirements with the urgency the situation demands and in full compliance of the ASR. While the IAF publicly goes along with the Raksha Mantralaya and DRDO about the AMCA, privately many of its officers speak disparagingly about it. HAL’s and ADA’s previous past performances bolster this view. It is for HAL and ADA to do something to prove these skeptics wrong. The ball clearly lies in their court.

Rate this Article
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Gp Capt AK Sachdev

Director - Operations, EIH Ltd.

More by the same author

Post your Comment

2000characters left

4 thoughts on “The LCA Tejas Programme: Leading to Indigenous AMCA: Quo Vadis?

  1. The present Indian Government has made a gross mistake by withdrawing India from the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) joint venture with Russia. This was a great project for making India powerful and great. Now India is lacking in 5th generation fighters, while USA, China, Russia are developing 6th generation fighter.
    The Indian Govt does not even research about fighter planes. They should at least follow what Israel has the fighter planes to fight all of his enemy countries successfully. They use US F SERIES r multi-role fighters and their best fighter is F-35 Lightning ll. Now USA, UK, Australia, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Denmark, Belgium, Norway,Turkey, r using F-35 lightning II as their main superb fighter planes. China has SU- 35. But India even does not have low cost F-16 falcon fighters (which Pakistan has got from USA on Credit purchase under certain terms & conditions). Please see the YouTube video on “TOP 10 BEST AIR SUPERIORITY FIGHTER in the World |HD|” in the link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5zGkk8KNIQI No.7 fighter is F-16 Falcon and no.6 is Rafale. It looks that F-16 Falcon combat & performance is better than that of Rafale fighter. Really, India has a lot of fighter planes, but not the good one; whereas Israel has a few fighter planes, but very good fighter plane like F-35 Lightning II. To protect the country, India should immediately upgrade her fighter planes to the 5th generation fighter like F-35 Lightning II, F-22 Raptor and SU-35 or re-validate the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) joint venture project with Russia. Otherwise the country will lag behind the modern Air Warfare technology very soon.
    I should say, Dassault Rafale or HAL Tejas are not sufficient at all and IAF should not expect too much from the HAL AMCA project; it may have all the qualities of 5th generation. Good Luck Indian People.

  2. India should ink deal with France to assist our ADA/HAL to make Tejas-1A incorporating best of Mirage-2000-9 and Rafale-F3R technologies. In retune we should award them 114 Rafale-F4 and 60 Rafale-M order under make in India. Actually we need MMRCA competition for 120 single and 120 twin engine fighters. We should select F-21 of lockheed Martin for single engine and Rafale-F4 for twin engine fighter requirement for IAF If both companies start production in India our Tejas-1A,MWF,AMCA and PMF can be a realty otherwise we can’t make fighters solo !

  3. “Aeronautical Systems, DRDO, Dr K Tamilmani confirmed that work on three major technological issues which included Thrust Vectoring and super cruising engine, AESA radar and stealth technology, was going on in full swing and the availability of the technology on the aircraft would occur on schedule.” –

    What is that “stealth technology”? Can a fighter pilot fly with the machine’s engine turned off ???? … Gee if not, there there is always the infrared signature generated by the heat of combustion in the engine in the envirnonment around it to be picked up by any modern receiver system on ground ! … And this is not to refer to the additional independent acoustics of the flying aircraft which is always there. It seems anything goes about the claim of AESA in the same vein.

    What is going on ????

More Comments Loader Loading Comments