If inducted in large numbers to arrest the depletion of combat squadrons, the LCA Tejas Mark-2 would definitely make a difference to IAF in the event of a two-front war
An overview of the current state of operational preparedness of the Indian Air Force (IAF) is a good first step towards situating the indigenous light combat aircraft (LCA) into its strategic planning, especially for a worst-case scenario of a two-front war or conflict short of war. The strength of combat squadrons in the IAF has dwindled to 33 from an authoried level of 42 and, statistically speaking, is snaking towards 25 squadrons in less than a decade, as some disconsolate strategic soothsayers predict. The reason is that the rate at which IAF aircraft are expected to be retired from service is much higher than the pace at which future inductions are discernible over the visual horizon.
The MiG-21/27 fleets are dead or dying, the contract for 36 Rafale jets from Dassault of France, less than a third of the original acceded requirement of 126, is coming up against new impediments ever so frequently. The Indo-Russian joint venture fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) shows all symptoms of being stillborne and the existing backbone of the IAF, the Sukhoi Su-30, is suffering from low serviceability. The plaintive gripes of the IAF over the years, some loud and some muted, have failed to get the ear of the establishment to the extent necessary to produce nimble procurement actions. Bureaucratic delays in capital defence procurement procedures have meant denial of foreign combat aircraft while internal inefficiencies of a protectionist public sector regime have led to there being no indigenous combat aircraft of note. Buoyantly named Tejas (brilliance) has so far failed to emit any photon of effulgence.
On Tuesday, May 17, 2016, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), Indian Air Force (IAF), made history when he became the first Air Chief to fly the indigenously designed, developed and produced light combat aircraft (LCA) Tejas at the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), Bengaluru. The LCA Tejas is a home-grown, advanced combat platform featuring a quadruplex digital fly-bywire control system and state-of-the-art avionics. More than 50 per cent of the airframe is made up of composites.
Occupying the Instructor’s Seat, i.e. the rear seat in a trainer version of the LCA Tejas, Air Chief Marshal Raha got airborne at around noon for a 30-minute sortie, along with test pilot Group Captain M. Rangachari in the front seat.
A fighter pilot with enormous and wide ranging experience, the CAS took over controls right at the beginning of the sortie and carried out the take-off, assessed the climb performance as well as the handling qualities of the aircraft by putting it through a series of aerobatic manoeuvres covering the entire flying envelope of the platform. He also carried out simulated air-to-air and air-to-ground attacks.
Although the mission was of a short duration, the CAS had the opportunity to see for himself the integration of avionics and weapon systems as well as to get a feel of operational capability of the indigenous product which is the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the Indian aerospace industry. He could also assess the advanced modes of the radar and Helmet Mounted Display Sight.
Air Chief Marshal Raha appreciated the flying qualities of the aircraft and congratulated the entire team of the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and HAL for their hard work in getting the LCA programme to this stage. He went on to state: “It is a good aircraft to fly and fit to be inducted into the IAF.” This initiative by the CAS helped raise the spirits of the Indian aerospace industry that has been under continuous flak. Said T. Suvarna Raju, Chairman and Managing Director of HAL: “It is a morale boosting gesture from the CAS that reposes great confidence of our valuable customer in our abilities.
—By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)
The Story So Far
The fact that the MiG-21 had a finite life and would need replacement was projected in the 1980s by the IAF; but it took quite a few years for the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) agencies to get going on a project to produce an indigenous aircraft. Foreign collaboration was a non-starter in those years and DRDO was starting from scratch. The programme was spearheaded by the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), a DRDO outfit designated as the Project Manager for LCA, and supported by the Central Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), some academic institutions, public and private sector industrial units. The Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) was the principle production partner. It was recognised early that the power plant would be a major challenge and Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE) was tasked to produce a suitable engine for the LCA. Unfortunately, GTRE has still not been able to put together an engine that could be used by the LCA. A GE engine, the F404-GE-IN20, was selected to power the LCA.
The LCA Mark-1 was given the initial operational clearance (IOC) in December 2013 and a ‘Release to Service Document’ was handed over to the IAF for 20 of these aircraft. In May 2015, a Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) report brought out that, “LCA Mark-I, which achieved initial operational clearance has significant shortfalls (53 permanent waivers/concessions) in meeting Air Staff Requirements (ASR) as a result of which it will have reduced operational capabilities and reduced survivability, thereby limiting its operational employability when inducted into IAF squadrons.” The aircraft is not much of a combat machine, but is seen as more of a training platform for later, improved versions (Mark-1A and Mark-2). The final operational clearance (FOC) is yet to be given to the aircraft. It would appear that the LCA is not really a cause for delight to the main user, the IAF. However, the IAF is under pressure from the Defence Ministry to order 100 LCA Mark-1As that are expected to come equipped with a modern active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, an electronic warfare suite, a Derby BVR missile, a GSh 23 automatic cannon, an air-to-air refuelling probe and an improved quartz radome. Meanwhile, there are plans to produce a Mark-2, possibly with private collaboration.
Soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise move in Paris on procurement of 36 fully-built Rafale jets, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar reportedly declared “Rafale is not a replacement for MiG-21. Tejas is a replacement for MiG-21.” While the Rafale deal continues to simmer, there are noises being made about an LCA Mark-2, a machine a metre longer than the Mark-1/1A and with a better engine than the GE F404-GE-IN20 used on Mark-1/1A. From the foregoing it is evident that the LCA is not an illustration of ‘Make in India’; many critical parts of it are not within our manufacturing capability yet. These include the all important engine, the radar, the radome and the undercarriage. Past record does not augur well for the future inasmuch as the capability of the Indian aerospace industry to develop leading edge technologies in aerospace manufacturing.
Realising this, the Defence Ministry very pragmatically, opened doors to public-private partnership in the further development of the LCA. The idea was to fast-track the LCA Mark-2’s entry into service. During July last year, an international magazine reported that the Indian Defence Ministry “envisages the possibility of a private Indian company forming a joint venture (JV) with a foreign fighter manufacturer to reconfigure the Mark-2 with the more powerful General Electric F414-GE-IN56 engine.”
In September 2015, the IAF indicated the requirement of 100 Tejas LCA Mark-1A aircraft, for which a formal order is yet to be placed. The plan of manufacturing and completion is from 2018 to 2023. The project for design and development of LCA Tejas Mark-2 was sanctioned in November 2009 at a cost of Rs. 2,431.55 crore with probable date of completion (PDC) of December 2018. However, because of delay in finalisation of engine contract, the project could start only in December 2013. As a result, maiden flight of first prototype and operational clearance are likely to be completed by December 2019 and December 2022, respectively. However, the Defence Ministry wants the project to be completed by 2018 and hence the search for a foreign collaborator.
In some ways, there has already been some foreign collaboration on the LCA project. European Aeronautic Defence and Space renamed Airbus Group, provided consultancy on flight testing while Lockheed Martin and Dassault made some contribution in the design stage. Back in 2013, DRDO had asked Swedish company Saab to submit a proposal for partnering on designing the Mark-2 and establishing a manufacturing line for the fighter. Saab did so promptly, but, with a change in the top management of DRDO in June 2013, the new incumbent Avinash Chander was hesitant to award a contract without competitive tendering. However, reportedly T. Suvarna Raju, Chairman and Managing Director of HAL has recently stated: “For enhancing the capability of the indigenous LCA, HAL is in talks with the Saab.” Sweden and India have signed several agreements last year in pursuit of ‘Make in India’ campaign and Sweden is looking for ways to invest in the Indian defence sector. Senior Saab officials have expressed willingness to help the LCA project and it appears that such a collaboration may come to fruition in the coming months. During April 2016, a high level Saab delegation was reported to be in India to discuss the modalities of a possible partnership with HAL on further versions of LCA. However, once stung by their past experience, Saab is likely to insist on a government-to-government deal if they assist India in developing and manufacturing a light fighter aircraft.
What could be the tenor and texture of a foreign collaboration? It is unlikely that the design and development function would be abdicated by ADA to a foreign entity for two reasons. Firstly, ADA would like to stay in the saddle as far as the LCA project is concerned and secondly, a foreign collaborator is unlikely to transfer technology without a quid pro quo. That brings us to the next question: What role then could a foreign collaborator play? Ideally, the design and development could be brought to an acceptable standard with minimal foreign help and the production could be parceled out to a foreign entity willing to set up an assembly line. This option would take the load off an already overburdened HAL as also introduce a higher level of production quality than HAL has been able to achieve. Although HAL has facilities matching international standards, production has suffered in the past in respect of quality, delivery schedule and inefficient work culture that pervades the public sector. The IAF definitely feels that a move to produce LCA Tejas overseas will enable timely result and yield superior production quality than that of the HAL. Cost could be a speed breaker with this option but HAL is not an inexpensive option so far with its monopolistic hold over the Indian market. Reportedly, HAL has been directed to look for alternatives like more outsourcing and creation of joint ventures to enhance rate of production.
On the occasion of the LCA Mark-1 getting IOC, then Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne had reportedly stated, “The final goal for all of us is not just LCA Mark-1, but LCA Mark-2. While our air warriors are fully geared up to induct and operationalise the two Mark-1 squadrons, IAF keenly looks forward to induction of four squadrons of LCA Mark-2 as the final version in its projected force structure.” The future trajectory of the LCA Mark-1A and Mark-2 is not yet convincingly certain and, even if all the items in HAL’s wish list for LCA Mark-2 are ticked off successfully, it is not meant to perform like the Rafale or the Su-30. But, if inducted in large numbers to arrest the depletion of combat squadrons, it would still make a difference to the IAF in the event of a two-front war. Indeed, if the numbers are adequate, even with its modest performance, the LCA Mark-2 could make a significant contribution to averting an ignominious IAF performance in the aerial war.