Subject: PD Article from Raghu, DSF

sickle_s.gif (30476 bytes) People’s Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)

Vol. XXV

No. 05

February 04, 2001

LCA Flies—But Will It Take Off?


Just as the previous session of
parliament was drawing to a close, the defence ministry had informed the Parliamentary
Committee on Defence that the prestigious indigenously-developed Light Combat Aircraft or
LCA was likely to be inducted into service only in 2012 and perhaps even as late as 2015
as against the earlier date of 2005, itself a good 10 years later than the originally
specified induction date of 1995. The Parliamentary Committee had understandably pulled
up the ministry at the inordinate delay and the shocking cost overrun to the tune of Rs
2500 crore more than the originally projected Rs 500 crore, while expressing concern at
the impact these would have on India’s defence preparedness and self-reliance in
defence production, echoing similar observations made even in earlier sittings by the
Committee and also by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG).
In addition, the
Committee also put on record its apprehension that despite all this expenditure, given
this delay, the LCA may well be obsolete when inducted in the second decade of the new
millennium. Commentators in the press and elsewhere responded with justifiable anger and
disappointment at the sorry state of this high-profile project.


Almost as if deliberately to take the
sting out of this sharp chorus of criticism, barely a few weeks later, that is a fortnight
ago, the first prototype of the LCA made a dramatic maiden test flight. The test was
immediately proclaimed an unqualified success by the Defence Research & Development
Organisation (DRDO) responsible for the project, the defence ministry and even senior
officers of the Air Force who had hitherto maintained a watchful and discrete silence on
the LCA Project. In an unfortunate extension of the recent trend under the BJP-led
government of leading military officers cosying up to the political leadership of the day,
senior IAF spokesmen even went so far as to sarcastically refer to the Parliamentary
Committee’s observations as the opinion of “non-technical” people.
Presumably the defence minister, Mr George Fernandes, is technically more competent not
only to declaim on the success of the LCA but also to pooh-pooh the opinions of his
parliamentary colleagues on the Defence Committee.

Predictably, subsequent coverage in the
print and audio-visual media, while still expressing some reservations, paid the
obligatory tributes to the efforts of Indian scientists and engineers, and hailed the
entry of India into an elite club of a handful of nations with the capability to produce
modern fighter aircraft. The achievement seemed to have washed away the earlier concerns
in a rising wave of euphoria, even though the status of the LCA Project remained as the
Parliamentary Committee had noted.

In hindsight, the revelations to the
Parliamentary Committee seen in tandem with the LCA’s maiden test flight which had
been scheduled and its approximate date even notified several months earlier, were
intended to achieve precisely this effect. While preparing the nation for an enormous
delay in induction of the LCA, and perhaps even therefore justifying further cost overruns
in advance, the test-flight reduced the impact of the former and sought to signify that
all was well and that Indian science and technology had, once again, delivered when it

Against this background, a sober
appraisal of the LCA Project is

essential. Such an appraisal must
necessarily go beyond immediate

achievements or failures and look at the
LCA Project in the context of

India’s defence R&D, defence
production and self-reliance, more crucial here than in any other sector.


The LCA Project was initiated in 1983 to
indigenously design, develop and manufacture a multi-role, supersonic, air-superiority
fighting aircraft. Apart from providing the Indian Air Force with a versatile and
effective fighting machine, an important objective of the Project was to produce the LCA
in sufficient numbers to replace the ageing and obsolescent MiGs as the IAF’s
front-line fighter while simultaneously promoting self-reliance in the crucial defence
sector and putting an end to dependence on foreign suppliers.

The IAF was faced with the
then-impending obsolescence of its long-serving Soviet-made MiG 21 fighters which
constituted the backbone of its aircraft fleet. The MiGs were manufactured in fairly large
numbers in India by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) chiefly at its Nasik and Koraput
facilities with Soviet collaboration. Today the nation is a helpless witness to the
effects of the obsolescence and sheer age of the IAF’s MiG fleet, with almost daily
crashes resulting in a tragic loss of numerous young trained pilots and cannibalisation of
spare parts in the absence of new spares. From the early 1980s onwards, without adequate
steps to face and counter this eventuality, India went in for a series of outright
purchases of military aircraft, mostly from the West, without an indigenised production
programme leaving the IAF hamstrung and dependent on foreign suppliers. As we shall see,
with the delays in the LCA Project and partly due to its very conception, as well as the
cumulative effects of the various aircraft acquisitions, India’s defence preparedness
and self-reliance today stand seriously impaired.

Before looking at these issues, let us
first look at the LCA Project’s definition itself, especially as it has unfolded over
the years, undergoing several modifications on the way as indeed should happen in any
dynamic project.

At the outset, the notion of the LCA
being an “air-superiority” fighter

needs to be dispensed with outright.
The term implies a fighting machine far superior to all other rival aircraft and one which
can boldly and aggressively reign over the skies and command the respect of foes. The US
F-16 introduced in the 1980s typifies such air-superiority and the Soviet MiG-29 and
MiG-33 and the French Mirage-2000 were attempts to establish equivalence. There is nothing
in the configuration of the LCA, or in the IAF’s specifications or Air Standard
Requirements (ASRs) as they are called, or indeed even in its maiden test flight which
would even remotely suggest that the LCA would match these aircraft’s performance
capabilities, leave alone the next generation of fighter aircraft now being developed in
the US or Europe to replace the F-16s and Mirages and which will be in service by the time
the LCA operationally enters the scene. In trying to justify the delays in the LCA
Project, the defence minister and DRDO boffins have argued that even the
design-development of advanced fighter aircraft in other countries have taken 20-odd
years. But the fact is that comparisons with the US’ Lockheed-Martin F-22, the
Eurofighter or the Russian Sukhoi-35 are simply misleading and untenable.


Whether or not the LCA ends up being
obsolescent when it is finally inducted in 2012 or thereafter, as vociferously denied by
the ostensibly technical defence minister, can be left hypothetical or for future
developments to pronounce on. In fact, there has never been any need to impose such a
heavy burden of expectation on the LCA and its design team just to stave off some
criticism. Can one realistically talk of air-superiority and replacing MiG-21s in the same
breath? This identity crisis is one of the factors that has bedeviled the LCA Project from
the beginning. If the LCA was to be a bread-and-butter aircraft, the backbone of the IAF,
as the MiG has so faithfully and successfully been for over three decades, then the time
taken has been far too much and simply cannot be condoned. The IAF has been compelled to
go in for expensive imports and, wiser by experience, for license-production deals for the
Russian Su-30 MkI precisely because of the delay in induction of the LCA which is even now
over a decade away.


If the LCA Project had been strictly
conceived and consistently implemented as one to develop a bread-and-butter fighter
capable of dealing with foreseeable adversary situations in the neighbourhood, it would
have yielded useful results sooner and also provided valuable design, development and
manufacturing experience and a base for future more advanced projects. Indeed, it is
precisely such staged design-development which has characterised the US, Russian and
European military aircraft industry. The 20-year time frames there, so casually compared
with the 30 years of the LCA’s development, have witnessed the development and
delivery of different aircraft each more advanced than its predecessor while a futuristic
aircraft is designed and the base for its manufacture assiduously and progressively built.
Has the LCA at least laid such a foundation, and can the enormous cost overruns be
justified at least by such potential self-reliance?

Nobody has ever argued for an autarkic
go-it-alone policy under which India would design and build every part of the aircraft
totally on its own which is just not possible given the complexity of contemporary
aircraft and the state of India’s aeronautics industry. Yet the areas and partners
chosen for collaboration on the LCA have posed a serious threat to the goal of
self-reliance and indeed even to the fruition of the LCA Project
. At the outset of the
project, many foreign aviation companies were envisaged as collaborating partners such as
the USA’s Northrop and General Dynamic Corporations, France’s Marcel-Dassault
and British Aerospace. Such collaboration in design could indeed have been useful and
commensurate with achieving self- reliance if full Indian participation was built-in along
with an active production and upgradation programme of this and other aircraft so that a
cumulative bank of experience and capabilities could have been built up.

Unfortunately, a much better Soviet
offer to help design an LCA based on the MiG-series technology which would have readily
enabled such synergies was rather contemptuously turned down in the “look-West”
atmosphere of the mid-1980s. Such was indeed the vision when the design-development of the
HF-24 was initiated in the early 1950s at HAL under the guidance of a team led by the
famed German designer, Dr Kurt Tank, responsible for the much admired Focke-Wulf warplanes
in World War II. Unfortunately, the British Rolls-Royce Orpheus-803 engine used rendered
the aircraft gravely underpowered and worthless in combat situations, but such was the
British stranglehold over India’s fledgling aeronautics industry and the
international pressure they exerted on both India and other possible engine suppliers that
India could not replace the Orpheus with a more powerful power plant. The British
certainly played a nefarious role in all of this, but equally no serious effort was made
in India to build on the design and manufacturing skills then acquired with, as noted
above, deleterious consequences for India’s defence aeronautics industry has been
badly and needlessly emasculated, and India’s self-reliance seriously impaired.


Specifically, the involvement of US
firms in crucial aspects of the LCA Project, much against numerous cautionary voices, has
led to a further undermining of self-reliance and has seriously endangered the very
project. India has itself had bad experiences with denial of US military hardware as and
when India wanted to buy the Swedish Saab-Scania Viggen fighter in the 1980s but was
prevented from doing so by the US refusal to permit use and sale of US-made engines in the
Swedish plane. The US policy of using control over military supplies as a Damocles sword
over its clients is well known as even with its then close ally, Pakistan, in the
notorious F-16 deal in which the US neither delivered the planes nor returned the money
after it imposed sanctions against Pakistan over missile proliferation. The ill-considered
collaboration on the LCA with Lockheed Martin for the flight control systems, both
hardware and software, badly crippled the Project when the US imposed sanctions after the
Pokhran-II nuclear tests, threw out Indian scientists and engineers working with Lockheed
in the US and prohibited the US firm from transferring any knowhow or hardware developed
for the LCA to India. It is indeed a tribute to Indian capabilities that these systems
have now been indigenously built and incorporated into the LCA, but the delay has been
long and costly which a more directly self-reliant approach may have obviated.

An even more grave threat, and one which
bodes ill for its future, is the LCA’s engine, the very heart of any fighting
machine. As originally conceived, the LCA was to use the indigenous GTX-35 VS Kaveri
engine being designed by the Gas Turbine Research Establishment or GTRE. The engine
development has been plagued by even worse delays than the airframe, and there have always
been serious doubts about whether it is ever going to actually materialise and, if it
does, perform to requirements. In its absence, the LCA Project has been pursued with the
use of a US- made engine, the General Electric F-404-GE-F2J3. The Kaveri is now
“undergoing tests” in Russia and informed sources have it that Russia is also
assisting in its further development.

The problem is that aircraft engines are
not so easily interchangeable unless they have been essentially designed and built with
broadly similar configurations and performance specifications, such as, for instance, the
General Electric and Rolls Royce engines powering Boeing-747 aircraft. Adding to this is
the fact that the Kaveri engine is a through jet (in which all air taken in is compressed,
ignited along with fuel and expanded through turbines to provide the forward thrust) while
the GE F-404 engine is a turbo-fan (in which the front fan or propeller sends a relatively
smaller proportion of air like a through jet while passing the larger proportion to mix
with the former’s exhaust, thus combining the virtues of both jet and
propeller-driven engines). Since the two engines would behave quite differently and it is
difficult to see one substituting for the other, and that too after so many years of LCA
prototype development with the GE engine.

The greater likelihood therefore is that
the LCA will be stuck with the US-made F-404 engine. It is difficult to imagine a greater
threat to long-term self-reliance than India’s front-line fighter aircraft being
equipped with a US-made engine and all that this entails.


Unfortunately, there are too many such
indications that the LCA Project may also end up the HF-24 way, as a one-off exercise
which is not integrated into the defence production system or the aeronautical industry in
general. If, for the various reasons apprehended, the LCA does not get productionised or
is finally not acceptable to the IAF in 2015 or whenever it is ready, not only would a lot
of money and effort have gone down the drain but the defence aeronautical industry may
suffer irreparable damage to its morale and future capability.

It is time that the entire LCA Project
is reviewed in all its aspects. But

this can happen only if the traditional
shroud of secrecy, non-accountability and non-transparency covering all Indian strategic
and defence research and industry is at least partially lifted, even if only to parliament
or its appointed committees. Parliamentarians may generally be
“non-technical” but there are sufficient “technical” people among
them, and numerous technical experts who can be consulted, for parliament to form an
informed opinion as it does about many other technical issues. Only good can come out of a
comprehensive review, especially at a time when the air is filled with the sweet smell of
success, such as after the LCA’s maiden test flight, rather than at more inopportune

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