Light Combat Aircraft : Unduly Long Wait

06 Sep, 1999    ·   257

Wg. Cdr. N. K. Pant (Retd.) says in the post Kargil security scenario this high technology project is taken up on a war footing

In the early 1980s, Indian defence planners visualized the need for an indigenously produced next generation multi-role combat aircraft which could replace the MiG-21 fleet, which is the backbone of the IAF combat arm after their obsolescence in the early 1990s. The Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) in Bangalore was entrusted with the task of developing the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). This project has been beset with problems from the very beginning.



The LCA will be a signal-engined, single-seater, all-weather, air superiority, multirole fighter. The aircraft uses advanced carbon fiber composites for its airframe to improve structural endurance and anti-radar capabilities, in place of heavier metal alloy. 



The first batch of aircraft will be powered by US made General Electric F-404 turbofan engines. A dozen had been imported before the American sanctions came into forces following the May 1998 nuclear tests. In fact, the GE- F–404 has already been integrated into the LCA's airframe powering the electrical system, avionics, hydraulic pumps and the fuel system. But the eventual power plant for the aircraft will be indigenous 'Kaveri' GTX 35 engine being developed by Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE). According to the Defence Ministry's latest annual report, five prototypes of this engine have undergone extensive ground testing for about 900 hours so far.



The LCA will carry four tonnes of weapons load, air-to-air laser-guided and radar-guided missiles as well as conventional bombs and smart ammunition. For its air defences missions, the machine will carry two types of missiles as its main weapons, while in attack roles it will carry multiple bombs. Its forward looking infra-red sensors would provide a better source of target information. The LCA may also have capabilities to deliver nuclear warheads, and may hence form part of the IAF's deterrent fleet. 



The final development cost is expected to be approximately Rs. 3000 crore. More than half will be in foreign exchange. Prior to the sanctions, technology and equipment worth more than $200 million has already been acquired from the US firms. The LCA is likely to be the most cost-effective aircraft in its range with an estimated price tag of Rs. 75 crore per machine.



Though the aircraft should have been inducted into service in the early 1990s, it was only in 1992 that the design could be 'frozen', to be followed by extensive wind tunnel tests. The first LCA model under Phase-I rolled out in November 1995. Phase-I consisted of design, fabrication and flight testing of two technology demonstrators called TD-1 and TD-2 for proving key technologies such as aerodynamics, composite structure, fly-by-wire system and core avionics. The machine has to undergo integration tests, including ground resonance tests. Phase II comprise the manufacture of five prototypes, integration of multi mode radar weapons, the 'Kaveri' engine and electronic warfare system. 



The first test flight after a long delay was planned in December 1996, but for reasons best known to the DRDO it is yet to take place. Strangely, just before the present Parliament was dissolved, its Standing Committee on Defence was informed by MoD that the maiden test flight of the LCA would take place by July, but this seemed to be the usual over-optimism. The Standing Committee has desired that all resources should be pooled towards early production of the advanced jet fighter to achieve self reliance in this vital sector of national defence. Subsequently the government is understood to have sanctioned an additional grant of Rs. 500 crore to infuse a new lease of life in this tardily moving project. 



The unduly long delay in induction of the LCA is certainly a cause for worry. The ageing MiG-21 fleet, which should have been phased out, is proving to be a flight safety hazard. Moreover, as the LCA is nowhere on the operational horizon, the IAF has initiated an upgradation plan for about 125 MiG-21s with Russian assistance. This, too, has lagged behind schedule which will effect force levels in the immediate future. The security scenario in the post Kargil era must act as an eye opener, and defence planners must ensure that this high technology project is taken up on a war footing.