Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar made references on Monday which indicated the possibility that an aircraft other than the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) could be considered to replace the Indian Air Force (IAF) fleet of MiG-21 aircraft.
Speaking to reporters at South Block, Parrikar said, “At a lower end, MiG-21 can be replaced by LCA or any other… In reality, LCA Tejas is not comparable to MiG-21 – it’s much better. But it is a lighter version, it’s not a heavy version. So in lighter version, we will improve the replacement of MiG by LCA, improve the quality of lighter version also.”
A replacement (for the MiG-21) could be the LCA Tejas or another – I’ll not call it low end – but a single engine lighter aircraft. Tejas is a good aircraft but it has its limitations.
In a separate television interview that followed, Parrikar said further, “Rafale cannot replace MiG 21 which are being phased out in the next six to ten years. A replacement could be the LCA Tejas or another – I’ll not call it low end – but a single engine lighter aircraft,” adding, “Tejas is a good aircraft but it has its limitations.”
In fact for the first time, the defense ministry actually compared the performance of the LCA with three other aircraft; Sweden’s Saab Gripen, Sino-Pak JF-17 and the South Korean KAI (Korean Aerospace Industries) FA-50 when the defense minister responded to a Parliamentary Question, last month.
While the response may be seen as perfunctory, it is significant in that the defense ministry has never officially acknowledged the relative capabilities of the LCA with other aircraft, so far. Significantly, the ministry relied on public domain sources, without mentioning the results of the extensive trials of the aircraft conducted by the Indian Air Force (IAF) in the course of the tender for 126 Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA), which evaluated 643 parameters of all six competing aircraft.
Palvai Govardhan Reddy, a Congress MP representing the state of Telangana in the Rajya Sabha, asked:
Will the Minister of Defense be pleased to state the details of drawbacks and advantages that LCA have when it is compared with other fighter jets in the world?
And here’s what Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar had to say:
From the open sources, it is seen that the contemporary aircraft of LCA developed in other countries are JAS-39 by Sweden, FA-50 by South Korea and JF-17 by Pakistan/China. The engines installed in these aircraft (except that of JF-17) are GE-404 series engines. LCA parameters, such as empty weight, all up weight (except that of JAS-39), thrust, speed (except that of JAS-39) are better than those of the other aircrafts (sic). Similarly, development/unit cost of LCA are less than those of JAS-39 and FA-50 but more than that of JF-17. However, LCA’s Ferry Range is less than those of other aircrafts (sic).
Firstly, the defense minister classed the LCA with three other contemporaries, the Chinese JF-17, South Korean FA-50 (multi-role variant of the T-50 trainer developed by Korean Aerospace Industries and Lockheed Martin) and the Saab JAS-39 Gripen.
In comparison, the LCA is said to be cheaper to develop and manufacture than the Gripen or the FA-50. But the Chinese JF-17 is considered the cheapest of all in this regard. The same response by the minister also adds that ‘The initial cost of Full Scale Engineering Development (FSED) Programme Phase-II of LCA Tejas was Rs.3301.78 crore. Based on modifications required in the aircraft, an additional sanction of Rs.2475.78 crore was granted, which increased the total sanctioned cost of Phase-II Programme to Rs.5777.56 crore’ or USD 930 million in today’s terms.
The defense minister also said that all four aircraft except the Chinese JF-17 are powered by the GE F-404 engine.
But the LCA’s Ferry Range is also acknowledged to be shorter than all the other aircraft. Ferry Range implies an aircraft flying only with crew and fuel, without additional cargo or ordnance as payload. So, the other aircraft powered by the GE F-404 engine can fly further than the LCA. Even the cheaper JF-17 can do it.
Further, the defense minister said, “LCA parameters, such as empty weight, all up weight (except that of JAS-39), thrust, speed (except that of JAS-39) are better than those of the other aircrafts (sic).”
All-up weight is the weight that an aircraft is structurally certified by the designer/manufacturer to be able to handle. It is virtually always higher than the Mean Take Off Weight (MTOW) of the aircraft, which is the practical weight of the aircraft certified for flight, including the weight of crew, fuel, stores, cargo and ordnance and varies with environmental conditions.
The defense minister said that the Gripen does better with the same engine in terms of speed. The LCA Mk II is planned to be powered by the more powerful GE F-414 engine, but remains on paper today. The Gripen E/F will also be powered by the same engine.
The minister also provided reasons for the delays in the program.
The following are some of the reasons for delay in completion of LCA project:
• Ab initio development of the state-of-the-art technologies.
• Non-availability of trained / skilled manpower in the country.
• Non-availability of infrastructure / test facilities in the country.
• Unanticipated technical / technological complexities faced in structural design.
• Non-availability of critical components / equipment / materials and denial of technologies by the technologically advanced countries.
• Enhanced User’s requirements or change in specifications during development.
• Increase in the scope of work.
• Inadequate production facility at HAL.