New Delhi, 12 Jan 2001

At long last India’s LCA did take off on 4 January, under intense pressure from the Defence Minister George Fernandes and clearance from Air Marshal Kumar, who has been assiduously in charge of the Flight Testing Centre. 

Indians can rightly be proud of this first step taken by the DRDO, like the belated and long awaited first step of a beloved toddler. But flight-testing is an arduous and long-drawn process not altogether devoid of pitfalls. This will be more so because the LCA is expected to do better than the MIG 21s and the Mirages we already have in service since the 80s. The media is full of the great news but here we attempt a simple commonsense review of the programme and its details. As big money is involved in this project and the stakes are high, IDC feels the media reports have not done full justice to the prognosis and explained some issues in lay terms.

India's LCA is a small but state-of-the-art ‘fly-by-wire’ fighter which has the latest inputs of aircraft technology. When it comes to designing and manufacturing, there are three major components of a fighter aircraft. Firstly, the fuselage whose design critically revolves around the engine as the fulcrum. Then there is avionics and computer Flying Control Systems (FCS), which make the aircraft fly safely with agility –– and finally the weapon systems which need a tremendous amount of integration and tested accuracy, through very minute trials to see that the weapons hit their targets.

In today's warfare with computer aided devices and very high cost of weapons, the accuracy level required is very high. Fly-by-wire means the aircraft is totally unstable like a piece of cardboard set up in the air, but the quadruplex computers ensure that the engine gives off such power in the right proportion that the machine flies, turns and twists beyond what the human being can bear in terms of pressure on his body called ‘G’. Pilots wear G-suits. DRDO has two LCAs as technology demonstrators (TD) at present.

This technology demonstrator aircraft has been under development for the last fifteen years by the DRDO run Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) under Dr Kota Harinarayan at Bangalore and K G Narayanan of the ADE. Indian test pilots are gung-ho guys and love flying; being very good at their job. The LCA-TD 2 made its historic maiden flight successfully, flown by test pilot Wing Cdr Rajiv Kothiyal for some 18 minutes and IDC offers congratulations galore.

Present at the Bangalore airport were the Defence Minister George Fernandes, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam India's missile man and now the Principal Scientific Secretary to the Prime Minister and Dr V K Atre, the Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister –– a soft spoken brilliant sonar specialist trained in Canada.

The technology demonstrator has almost 70% indigenous technology hence Rs. 3000 crores spent on the project has benefitted many civilian and other agencies, in their quest to supply the components and technology. The time frame for the date of flying was delayed by some eight years and costs have escalated. The persistent criticism led to low morale amongst the people working on the project, which indeed made their task more challenging. Now, suddenly with the revised predictions and over-confidence being displayed by the Defence Minister, there is optimism all round. DRDO claims, if all goes well, the third prototype with systems and weapons will fly in the next few years, enabling the IAF to receive its first operational fighter between 2008 and 2012.

The LCA development is the largest research and design programme undertaken by India's DRDO and the targets can be met if the designers decide to bring in some foreign partners who have experience in completing the weapons integration and other leftover systems tests. On the other hand if the DRDO team attempt to do it themselves, there could be delays as the tasks ahead are mammoth.

As the DRDO has been denied GE engine technology and are pinning their hopes on the indigenous KAVERI engine –– which if not proved, could put the project back on the drawing board. Air Commodore Jasjit Singh of IDSA has suggested that DRDO should decide on a proven engine for the first 50 machines, even if it be a Russian Tumansky or such like and then lean on the Kaveri as and when it succeeds. This is quite a valid suggestion. Furthermore, to amortise the huge costs, India must bring in partners like Singapore, Viet Nam and Malaysia to join in the venture, who if the project succeeds could buy some of the series production. This is the philosophy being followed the world over.

Singapore as early as 1990 had signed defence MOUs with India's DRDO and wanted to take part in the programme's multi-mode radar, with a long term clause to produce some equipment at their Singapore Aerospace which has Government investment but runs totally like a private company –– like we hope to run Air India. Singapore has vast experience of upgrading the F-5s and A-4 Sky Hawks with Italian radars. This they have done for themselves as well as some South American countries. Of course, Taiwan which flies two squadrons of their home designed Chung Kua like the LCA, wish to help but our political masters may not feel comfortable, even if it is offered as a commercial venture.

With this background, it is appropriate to discuss some other aspects of this project.

The LCA weighs only 4 tons and incorporates advanced technologies like CAD/CAM design for compound delta, unstable configuration, proven T-300/914 C composite material system, quadruplex digital fly-by-wire FCS in a tailless delta configuration. The final operational version will have a state of the art multimode coherent pulse Doppler radar and a scanning antenna, 30mm cannon and five weapon pods. Each plane is expected to cost US$17 to 20 million, much cheaper than imported counterparts, but then costs are always unpredictable. Hence it is a gamble, which must be pushed through with great thought. Already the IAF is committed to some US$ 7 billion for the SU-30 and AJT programmes. In the coming years the defence spending should not pull the economy down as it did in 1987–90, thanks to Rajiv Gandhi's profligacy and the Sri Lankan Operation Pawan fiasco –– the cost of which no one has totted up. It took a Dr Man Mohan Singh to curtail the defence expenditure but the MOD or the Services did not take a hard look to change their procurement policies which to say the least are lopsided even today. In western countries inquiries are sent out openly, agents take active interest to educate the Services about the options available and healthy competition ensues. In the LCA too there has been major foreign participation.

The programme has seen support from some 50 of India's laboratories, universities and companies. The foreign inputs of consultancy came from Dassault for the definition, Onera for wind tunnel testing, GEC-Marconi Avionics for the multimode radar, Dowty for the FADEC and Snecma for the indigenous Kaveri engine which is under testing. High hopes are being placed on this engine, which as explained can be critical. In the LCA TDs the present engines are from GE, which supplied 10 F- 404 GE F 2J 3 Turbofan engines. Lockheed supplied the fly-by-wire system, Moog the flight control logic systems, Souriou the wiring connectors and Honeywell the H423L ring laser gyro based internal navigation system. However, US sanctions hit the programme and Indian scientists resorted to self-help to complete the FCS which has computer logic and language comparable to Mistd 1521 and 267a standards.

A Belgian firm supplied the actuators. For the prototype Sextant Avionique has provided the multi-function cockpit displays and standby horizon and head-up displays. The plane has the K-36D ejection seat. The weapon and EW fits will see help from the Russian Rosvoorouzhenie now called Rosoboronprom for the 30mm cannon, Dassault Electronique for the EW -21 radar warning receiver and Alkan for Chaff/flare counter-measures. The development systems integration will be a long process and as Air Chief A Y Tipnis cautioned, euphoria should not overtake us.

The plane will be on display at the Aero-India 2001 where the Indian Air Force and India's aviation industry will showcase itself alongside foreign companies at Yelahanka airbase near Bangalore from 7 to 11 Feb 2001. The bi-annual show the third in the series has gained an international status. This year again the show expects to see some 100 International agencies from 14 countries and 66 Indian organizations. The major exhibitors besides HAL who have taken large stalls are Rosoboronprom, DRDO from India, SIBAT from Israel, SBAC from UK, QFB and SIATI of France. USA, except for Boeing will be absent. India's small scale and private industries will also be represented. A seminar on "Aerospace Technologies; Development and Strategies" organised by the DRDO in association with the Aeronautical Society of India will be held concurrently on 8 and 9 February. The IAF’s Surya Kirans will perform aerobatics and UK is fielding a Tornado and a Nimrod along with a large contingent.

Lubricants Break Through

The supply of various lubricants had posed many problems for the IAF as over 42 varieties are required and their supply is big business. Many lubricants had to be imported. Now India is self- sufficient and AVI-OIL a Government joint venture with NYCO SA of France has come of age. AVI-OIL is the only company in India whose products are approved by the Centre for Military Airworthiness and Certification (CEMILAC). Major aero-engine manufacturers like MIG, Kanor, Avator, MIL, Rolls Royce, Turbomeca, Snecma, HAL and CMF have approved the quality and now after some hassles the lubricants for the SU-30 have also been cleared. Tests are on in the civil sector for Allison, General Electric and other engines. This has added to operational readiness in IAF. Lubricants for the LCA, must have also been supplied by AVI OIL.

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