Cover Story: India

India’s tryst with design, development and production of an indigenous combat aircraft symbolises the problems associated with the defence industry of third world countries. The initial desire to attain self-reliance in major defence programmes leads to costly development, slippage in schedule delivery, dissatisfaction among the users, and finally to the import of similar systems from advanced countries. The Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), the most ambitious developmental programme in the history of India’s defence R&D, continues to haunt India’s defence establishment, even nearly thirty years after the programme was sanctioned. The Indian Air Force (IAF), which is struggling with its declining combat strength, is yet to give its final operational clearance for induction of LCA. The programme cost including of an indigenous engine development has in the mean time increased from Rs 560 crore in 1983 when the LCA was sanctioned, to nearly 15,347 crore in 2011.

17th Jan 2012


 India

Headline : India’s Indigenous Light Combat Aircraft Programme

Laxman Kumar Behera / New Delhi

India’s tryst with design, development and production of an indigenous combat aircraft symbolises the problems associated with the defence industry of third world countries. The initial desire to attain self-reliance in major defence programmes leads to costly development, slippage in schedule delivery, dissatisfaction among the users, and finally to the import of similar systems from advanced countries. The Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), the most ambitious developmental programme in the history of India’s defence R&D, continues to haunt India’s defence establishment, even nearly thirty years after the programme was sanctioned. The Indian Air Force (IAF), which is struggling with its declining combat strength, is yet to give its final operational clearance for induction of LCA. The programme cost including of an indigenous engine development has in the mean time increased from Rs 560 crore in 1983 when the LCA was sanctioned, to nearly 15,347 crore in 2011.

Journey from HF-24 Marut to LCA
India’s ambition to indigenously design and develop a combat aircraft dates back to 1956, when a German team led by Dr Kurt Tank was invited to develop HF-24 Marut. It took four years for the German-led team to successfully design the aircraft which was successfully flight tested in June 1961. In the process the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), which was the designated as the prime design and production agency for Marut, expanded its design department, which was almost negligible before Tank’s arrival. However, the momentum created in this first ever indigenously designed and produced combat aircraft could not be sustained for long as India’s could not find a suitable engine to give it required power. The expertise gained during HF-24 Marut was subsequently left to dissipate as much of aircraft production was focussed on licenses, technologies and designs bought from abroad. It took nearly thirty years to revive the indigenous capability when the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) was conceived in early 1980s.

The Light Combat Aircraft was borne out of Indian Air Force’s 1981 Long Term Re-Equipment Plan which projected an 11.4 per cent shortfall in its squadron strength in 1990-91 and a 40 per cent shortfall by 1994-95. To close the gap in squadron strength, the government in 1983 approved the LCA programme at an estimated cost of Rs. 560 crore and the programme was formally launched in 1985. The 1983 approval was for building six prototypes with Project Definition Phase (PDP) to be completed by 1988. The management of the programme was handed over to the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) which was constituted in 1984 as a standalone registered society under the MoD-controlled Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). ADA’s key responsibility was to collaborate with various industries and scientific institutions to implement the ambitious programme.

Scope of LCA
The LCA was intended as a single-engine, multi-role fighter aircraft to be indigenously designed and developed to replace the ageing fleet of the IAF’s MiG series. It was also intended to “integrate modern design concepts and state of the art technologies such as relaxed static stability, fly by wire control system, advanced avionics, high strength composite materials and multimode radar.” Short take off and landing, high manoeuvrability with excellent maintainability and a wide range of weapon fit, were also some other features the LCA was visualised to have. As per the original sanction the prototype version of LCA was to be developed around a proven imported engine, with the production version using indigenous engine. For the development of an indigenous engine, a separate programme was sanctioned in 1989 to another DRDO lab with Probable Date of Completion (PDC) of 1996.

Delays and Cost Overrun
After government approval in 1983, the IAF outlined the Air Staff Requirement (ASR) in October 1985. The ASR indicated a requirement of 220 LCAs that included 200 units in a fighter version and the remaining 20 in trainer configuration. ADA, which was created to manage the programme, began consultation with international firms but found the developmental effort would consume significant time (126 months from the date of sanction in 1985). The Project Definition Phase (PDP) document prepared by the ADA was finally released in 1988. However the IAF while reviewing the document found it “deficient in the crucial parameters of aerodynamic configuration, volume and weight” which led to a heated yet protracted negotiation between the Air Force and ADA. To resolve the differences between these two organisation, an Expert Committee comprising members from DRDO and IAF was set up which recommended in 1990 that Full Scale Engineering Development (FSED) be “undertaken in phased manner to demonstrate confidence levels in critical technology areas before making major investments in multiple prototype manufacture, full flight test and full scale production.” The Committee also recommended that the prototypes to be built under FSED were to “incorporate all technologies except radar, electronic warfare system and weapons.”

Although the ADA-led team started working on Phase-I of FSED from April 1990 onwards its formal approval by the government came in April 1993 at an estimated cost of Rs. 2188 crore, including the Rs. 560 crore sanctioned in 1983. Four major milestones were laid down to be achieved: (1) Roll out of first technology demonstrator (TD) by June 1995; (2) 1st flight of the first TD by December 1996; (3) 1st flight of 2nd TD by September 1997; and (4) Completion of 210 hours of flight by June 1998. However all the milestones could not achieved by the end of 1998 as there were delays in development of various systems. Sanctions imposed after India’s Pokhran nuclear test in 1998 also contributed significantly as nearly 40 crucial components planned for procurement from the US suddenly stopped flowing. It took another six years for the first phase of FSED to be completed in March 2004.

In the meantime ADA with great deal of difficulty managed to unveil the first Technology Demonstrator in November 1997, which was put to the historic maiden flight on January 04, 2001, some 40 years after HF-24 Marut made its first flight. Based on this success the government gave its approval in November 2001 for the Phase-II of FSED at the estimated cost of Rs. 3301.78 core with probable date of completion (PDC) in December 2008. The Phase-II involved the building of three prototypes (including one trainer), integration of weapons, sensors and flight test leading to Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) by 2008 and Final Operational Clearance (FOC) by 2010. It also involved establishment of production facility for eight aircraft per year and manufacture of eight pre-production aircrafts. In the meantime the government also sanctioned another programme in 2003 for FSED of a naval version of LCA at an estimated cost of Rs. 1714.98 crore. The naval programme envisaged two naval LCAs (one fighter and one trainer), capable of operating from an aircraft carrier with 14 degree ski-jump take off and arrested recovery.

The above decisions notwithstanding, the crucial Phase-II also witnessed delays, forcing the governed to extend the PDC. In the midst of Phase-II, it came to light that the original design of LCA needed to be significantly modified to make it contemporary and meet the IAF’s requirements. The non-availability of the Kaveri engine, for which a separate decision was given in the PDC of 1996, also contributed to design changes so as to accommodate the GE404 engine imported from the US. The above imperatives were accepted by the government and the IOC and FOC were accordingly revised upwards to December 2010 and December 2012. The upward revision of timeframe also necessitated revision of funding, this time by an additional amount of Rs. 2475.78 crore to the programme.

While deciding on the revised PDC, it also came to notice that the LCA needed a more powerful engine than American GE404. The Kaveri engine being nowhere in sight, the government allowed the programme mangers to look for a suitable engine from abroad to power LCA. Because a new imported engine would require further modifications of the LCA, the government sanctioned Phase-III of FSED, to develop what is now called LCA Mark-II (all LCAs with GE404 engine are called LCA Mark-I) with an estimated cost of Rs. 2431.55 crore, and allowed programme to continue till December 2018. The government also sanctioned Rs. 395 crore to continue with further technology upgradation.

FOC not before 2013
While the Phase-II aircraft was in operation and - especially after the selection of GE404 engine to power LCA - the Air Force agreed to buy 40 LCAs (in Mark-I version with GE404 engine), 20 each in IOC and FOC standard. IOC being finally accorded in January 10, 2011, the delivery is planned from 2012 onwards. The next big test for LCA is FOC. However the expected time in December 2012 for FOC seems to be unlikely as the IAF has raised some concerns. The IAF chief has recently indicated a delay of at least a year, which will push delivery not before 2013.

Failure of Kaveri Engine Development
The programme for indigenously design and develop an engine for the LCA was sanctioned in March 1989 at an estimated cost of Rs. 382.81 crore. The programme was given to the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE), which was already working on aero engine project since 1982. The PDC of Kaveri was December 1996 with several milestones to be achieved by that time. However the PDC has been revised several times - with negative consequences for the project. By March 2010, the cost has been revised upwards by 642 per cent to Rs. 2,839 crore. The cost and time overruns apart, the Kaveri engine developed by GTRE is not up to the mark. The most vital shortcomings of the engine are its weight and power. As per the original plan, the required engine weight was not more than 1100 kg where as by January 2009 the weight of Kaveri is 1235 kg. As regards power, LCA requires an engine of 90 kilonewtons of thrust where as Kaveri provides 80 kilonewtons or about 11 per cent less power. In terms of technical shortcomings, the GTRE has not been able to overcome the problems in developing vital components such as compressor, turbine and engine control system.

The above problems have forced the LCA programme managers to delink Kaveri from LCA development and look for alternative engines. The initial plan for developing prototypes with imported engines culminated in procurement of 41 GE404s, which will power the Mark-I version of LCA. Since the decision was taken to power the Mark-II version of LCA with a more powerful engine, another contract worth $844 million was signed for 99 GE414 engines. The import of successive engines has however not deterred GTRE in making further efforts to develop a more powerful Kaveri engine, with the ultimate aim of powering LCA Mark-II. In its latest movement, the DRDO has now proposed to form a Joint Venture with French engine maker, Snecma which had incidentally declined an earlier offer of 2001.

Delay in LCA Programme and its Impact on IAF
The LCA was intended to replace the MiG series of aircraft that were to be phased out beginning from the early nineties. However delay in the LCA programme has forced the IAF to continue with the ageing and accident-prone MiG aircraft till now. This has taken a heavy toll on the IAF at force level. Of the 950 MiGs that India has procured over the years, nearly 50 per cent have met with accidents, severely depleting IAF’s combat force, which at present stands below 30 squadrons from the approved strength of 39.5. This has led the IAF to either upgrade its old Russian aircraft or procure newer ones. In 1995, the Defence Ministry signed a $626 million contract with Russia for the upgrade of 125 MiG Bis aircraft. One year later, it singed another contract worth Rs. 6310 crore with Russia for 40 SU-30 fighters. As these contracts have not been enough to replace the vast MiG inventory, the government again in 2007 floated a $10 billion tender for 126 Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA). Even after the induction of MMRCA into the IAF, there will be still gap, as nearly 470 MiGs (21 and 27 variants) are waiting to be phasing out.

From LCA to AMCA
No doubt LCA programme has witnessed inordinate delays, cost overruns, and has adversely impacted the force level of the Air Force. The biggest failure is the Kaveri engine, with no distant sign that it will ever fly with LCA. All these point to LCA’s failure. But at the same time LCA development was never going to be an easy process. The industrial and technological muscle required for developing a combat aircraft had simply dissipated in the 40 year gap since Marut was last designed and produced indigenously. The programme managers of LCA had to start from the scratch and fight against all odds - especially after the US embargo in 1998 - to develop the key technologies for the ambitious combat aircraft. To the credit of ADA, many technologies including digital fly-by-wire, advanced carbon composite structures, integrated avionics architecture, advanced testing facilities were developed indigenously. Having produced these technologies, the next question is: can India build on the LCA’s progress or will it be left to meet the Marut’s fate. The DRDO, on its part, has proposed to develop the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) with additional features including stealth and super cruise. This tempting offer on one side and the bitter delay and cost overrun of LCA on the other side, it will be a catch-22 situation for the policy makers in the Defence Ministry to decide the future of India’s aeronautics industry.

 

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