It has been called the "Last Chance Aircraft", and worse. Its designers and developers have been excoriated for endless delays. But the time has come to say it: In the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), India may finally have a winner.
We say "may" because the "last mile" is often the most difficult one to cross. This requires first, an emphatic ownership of the step-child by its primary operator, the Indian Air Force(IAF), its chosen manufacturer, the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) and its parent, the Ministry of Defence. Second, and most importantly, it needs a serious managerial boost so that the production of the aircraft- whose significant bugs have already been worked out-can be undertaken on a modern industrial scale.
But the payoffs are tremendous. The country gets a highly capable multi-role fighter which it can acquire in significant numbers at a reasonable cost. It also gets a potential weapons system which it can export, for commercial gain, as well as to push its military diplomacy. It would be fair to say that the LCA is the only significant weapons system created by the country's vast defence research and production base which can compete with contemporary products -including the Chinese JF-17- and win.
Though the IAF says that it is committed to bringing the aircraft into squadron service, its current plans cater for just two squadrons of the aircraft, where they ought to be really talking of several. But that is not entirely the IAF's fault; the process of productionising the aircraft has been excruciatingly slow and past delays have made the IAF leery of putting their eggs in the LCA basket.
Till now, the ADA and HAL have built eight prototypes and six limited series aircraft and it has undertaken some 1800 takeoff and landing cycles without (touch wood) a single accident. Pilots swear by its ease of handling and maneuverability. However, according to reports, the true initial operational clearance (IOC) of the LCA has been delayed yet again. The IOC, which means the aircraft can be flown by any military pilot-not just test pilots- was technically available since January 2011, but there are a range of issues that have yet to be sorted out to the air force's satisfaction.
Now, say reports, the final operational clearance will only be available by the end of 2014. This provides an invaluable opportunity to set in train steps that will ensure that the LCA emerges as the first class product that it intrinsically is.
Simultaneously, the efforts to come up with a Mark 2 version of the aircraft with a more powerful GE F414 turbofan engine, have been completed, with the prototype slated to fly by 2014 as well. And, the naval version of the aircraft which is expected to be used by the country's indigenous aircraft carrier is also in its last stages with two prototypes to take to the air soon.
It is important to see the aircraft in comparison with the others that are flying, both as potential adversaries, as well as competitors for the export market. The aircraft under 10 tons of operational empty weight are the American F-16, the Chinese JF-17, the Swedish Gripen. Of these the LCA is the lightest at just 5.9 tons.
In part this is because of its use of carbon fibre composites. The US and the Chinese aircraft have a carbon composites content of near zero, while the more modern Gripen has 30 per cent content by weight. The LCA has 45 per cent, but as much as 90 per cent of the surface of the LCA is made of carbon fibres. This makes it light, strong and rugged, since the carbon fibre composites neither age nor corrode.
But its most important quality is that it does not reflect radar beams, unlike the metallic components of aircraft. In other words, this gives the LCA a naturally low radar signature or 'stealth' characteristics. Given its small size anyway, it is, in the words of a former fighter pilot, "virtually invisible" to adversary fighters.
The use of carbon fibre gives the LCA another advantage: with its low operational empty weight, and compared to an aircraft with similar engines, the LCA has greater thrust to weight ratio. The LCA Mk 2 is likely to have 1.53, compared to the other agile fighter, the F-16's 1.64. The Gripen has 1.44 and the JF-17 has 1.28. Indeed, the LCA's rate of acceleration compares favourably with heavy two-engined fighters like the Eurofighter, which has a thrust to weight ratio of 1.64.
Carbon fibre parts do not deteriorate with age or corrode and hence the navalised version of the LCA will prove a big advantage. But it is true that carbon fibre parts are expensive to make and ideally, the process should be automated and procured in large numbers to keep their prices low. India has already invested a great deal in this technology beginning with the Dhruva programme in the mid-1980s and it is one of the world leaders in such technology.
Clearly, its natural stealth characteristics, low operating costs, maneuverability and its sensor and weapons suite make the LCA a real player in the global market. Indeed, according to an air force officer, the performance of the LCA as a fighter exceeds that of the Mirage 2000, even when the latter is upgraded.
Although the IAF has committed itself to inducting two squadrons of 40 LCAs, its actual needs are much greater. As of now the air force puts "close air support" or missions in support to the army in a low priority. But there is great need for the IAF to take up that mission seriously, especially in the mountain areas, and for that the LCA is the ideal machine. Further, the IAF's reliance on heavy and expensive fighters would make its reaction time to emergencies-cruise missile or UAV ingress at the country's periphery-rather slow because they cannot afford to base their expensive assets too close to the border. Here, the LCA provides a quick reaction option as it can be forward based.
The most interesting aspect of the LCA is in relation to exports. This is clearly the one worldclass product which can be used to woo friends and allies, especially in the neighbourhood. The LCA gives India the option to compete with the Chinese JF-17 in a score of countries including Egypt, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka.
Indeed, there is a wider market, too, if HAL is willing to dream big and do something about it. There is a market for some 3,000 fighters to replace the MiG-21s, F-5s, early model F-16s which will retire in the coming 10-15 years in countries of Eastern Europe, Asia-Pacific and elsewhere. Getting even ten per cent of that market would be a stunning achievement for India.
But to reach that goal, India needs to think big. HAL, is still making its current limited series aircraft by hand, as it were, and it has no experience in sales and marketing abroad. As it is, there will be a need to transform HAL's work culture to make a product to the highest world standards. Equally important would be product support, again an area in which the HAL has not done too well in the past.
But all this cannot be done by the HAL itself. The LCA programme was a national endeavour to lay the foundations for India's aerospace industry. If it is to meet that mandate- and it is on the threshold of doing that- it needs attention right now from the topmost levels of government and the Ministry of Defence.
Mail Today December 15, 2011