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…
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.