Every major power – and there are just a handful of them – have the capability to aspire to design, develop and manufacture fighter aircraft by themselves. Now, ideally, this would include all critical technologies – aero-engines, aircraft design, metallurgy, radar, sensors and weapons. However, very few countries have mastery and control in all these areas; the early birds or leaders – USA, Russia, UK and France are closely followed by Germany, Japan, Italy and Sweden.
Aspirants after the Second World War included Argentina, Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Israel, Iran, South Korea and Taiwan, of which only a few have emerged as successful late entrants into the aerospace club.
These are Brazil, China, India, Israel and South Korea. While China and Israel lead the pack, all of them have built capabilities and strengths in a few domains but no one has comprehensive mastery of all the relevant technologies.
The most complex challenge involves design and development of aero-engines and aviation grade materials. Except for China to some extent, none of the others have achieved any meaningful control of technology in these two domains. The mastery of aerospace technology will continue to remain a huge challenge for emerging powers like India.
Good beginning but poor follow-up
India’s aspiration to build its own fighter aircraft began well with the HF-24 programme. India took the prescient decision to bring in Dr Kurt Tank to head the design team in the fifties, when denial regimes were yet to take shape.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, Dr Kurt Tank had offered his services to Argentina which gladly accepted. By 1948, he had designed the fighter Pulqui II, a state-of-the-art fighter in its time. A prototype was built but its development was cut short by Argentina’s political turmoil.
That is when he moved to India and taught at IIT, Madras before he was entrusted in 1957 with the task of designing the HF-24 for Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). Until then, the only aircraft designed and built by HAL was the basic trainer HT-2. Attempting to develop the HF-24 after the HT-2 was an audacious leap in aspiration.
Dr Kurt Tank was allowed to bring his small team of German engineers who formed the nucleus of the final design strength of 150 HAL engineers by the end of the development. The project was sanctioned in 1957 and the first prototype flew in 1961, a mere four years later and the first squadron of series production aircraft went operational in 1967, only six years later!
Though handicapped by underpowered engines, the HF-24 acquitted itself well in the strike role in the 1971 Indo-Pak war.
The HF-24 was, in its time, a brilliant design and a state-of-the-art aircraft. The programme met an untimely demise in 1982 due to the short-sightedness of the User, Government and the Industry.
The User’s leadership displayed singular lack of foresight and national perspective when it decided to phase out the aircraft in 1982, a mere 15 years later. The political leadership and the bureaucracy displayed ignorance and strategic blindness during the course of the HF-24’s development and operational life. Decisions on engine development with foreign collaboration were shelved under the pretext of being too expensive, when the cost involved was a mere Rs 5 crores.
The industry failed to follow a strategy of developing improved derivatives in order to sustain the huge leap achieved with the help of Dr Kurt Tank’s team.
The net result was withering away of precious talent. The entire 1970s was a lost decade.
HAL shifted its focus to license production of MiG-21s and when the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) decision was taken in 1985, HAL’s design capability was at an all time low. It lost the control of the design process and management to the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), which created the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) to manage the LCA programme.
LCA – Genesis and Flawed Decisions
Of late there have been frequent articles written by a few self-proclaimed champions of indigenisation and Tejas patriots. Although they presume a license to comment on how the Indian Air Force (IAF) must learn to fly and fight any war with the Tejas as its backbone and not pursue the MMRCA or FGFA, their views are spectacularly misinformed and reflect their ignorance of aeronautics, air combat and strategy and military aviation. They would do well to study the LCA programme’s genesis, development, hurdles, indigenous content and its true performance in order to appreciate its possible role and potential. The following narrative is for their benefit as well.
The Light Combat Aircraft concept was earlier referred to as the Light Weight Fighter (LWF). This concept has been a source of much study and research throughout aviation history to try and achieve performance requirements at affordable cost. This became more feasible in the jet age as downsizing of engines was relatively easier.
The Folland Gnat, which the IAF flew successfully in its 1965 and 1971 wars, was a classic Light Weight Fighter whose performance, in its age, was excellent at minimal cost, although it also brought with it large compromises in safety and reliability.
The MiG 21 has effectively proved to be the most successful Light Weight Fighter since its introduction. The IAF will have operated the MiG-21 for almost six decades if it phases out the last of them by 2020. The focus of the concept of the light weight fighter has always been low cost balanced by acceptable performance.
The genesis of modern Light Weight Fighter development goes back to the late sixties and early seventies, which ultimately resulted in the production of the most efficient Light Weight Fighter of the century, the F-16. The “Fighter Mafia” led by the late John Boyd and his Energy-Manoeuvrability theory laid the foundation for future light weight fighter development.
This radical change in concept became necessary because of the poor performance of technologically advanced, heavily armed, expensive and large aircraft like the F-4 Phantom against the low cost, technologically inferior but much smaller, highly nimble and agile aircraft like the MiG-15 and the MiG-21. A process of competitive prototype development was adopted. At the core of the LWF’s design requirement was performance.
The YF-16, which won the prototype competition in 1972, was the first aircraft design to be based on unstable platform and fly-by-wire control system. It was also the first to use composite material for structures. The rest is history.
The prototype programme began in 1971 and the series production F-16 was in operational service by 1978. Fundamentally, the F-16 programme validated the relevance of balancing technology while keeping performance and low cost as the drivers of the programme.
By the late 1970s the IAF was looking for a replacement for its accident- prone and unreliable Gnat and its Indian version, the Ajeet. The requirement was a low-cost, conventional aircraft to replace the Gnat/Ajeet and the early MiG-21 fleet (Fishbed) by the late 1980s.
Based on its experience of the Gnat and the need for a low-cost fighter, the IAF projected the requirement for a small fighter of 5 tonnes empty weight. This would have left the aircraft only marginally larger than the Gnat and even smaller than the MiG-21.
This was a flawed approach and indicated that the Light Weight Fighter concept had not been studied in depth and could have been due to inadequate information at that time.
But that is only partially correct, as HAL did the feasibility study with consultancies from all leading aircraft design houses of Europe.
After the initial feasibility studies the IAF and HAL concurred on the plan for a conventional fixed wing fighter to be developed. The DRDO then stepped in to suggest that the fighter development programme be used to bridge technology gaps – Fly-By-Wire (FBW) control system, airborne radar, aero-engine and composite structures.
By the early 1980s this was agreed to and an ambitious plan to develop a fourth generation platform with high performance was put up to convince the government. The approval was followed up by the formulation of the Air Staff Requirements (ASR) in tune with the performance expected of a fourth generation fighter.
This is where the anomalies in decision-making crept in.
To develop a fourth generation fighter within a 5-ton lightweight airframe was a tall order. And although it was revised upwards to a 6-ton empty weight requirement, even this was difficult to achieve.
The projected time frame of less than a decade for the completion of development and operational induction of the aircraft was not only over-optimistic but also almost foolhardy, given the status of the technical base that existed with respect to FBW, aero-engine and the airborne radar.
Starting from scratch, each of these would have required nothing less than two decades of focused research and foreign assistance.
Ultimately, two of the major technology objectives were not achieved: the Kaveri aero-engine programme floundered even after three decades of work and has now been declared foreclosed, while the airborne radar did not make any headway and was dropped in 2006 in favour of the Israeli Elta-2032 radar.
The second part of this analysis was published on Tuesday, December 09, 2014.