LCA Concept and Key Decisions
The aircraft project was now called the Light Combat Aircraft in order to create an identity distinct from the Light Weight Fighter concept.
However, it was evident that the concept suffered from the IAF’s fixation with the original idea of it replacing the Gnat and MiG-21 FL aircraft. That’s why the size and weight limitation of remained close to the original idea. This created a contradiction in the programme, which the IAF failed to notice, at first.
The aircraft was destined to have a Radius of Action no better than the 40-year-old MiG-21 because of its low weight and small size.
While the size was kept small to cater to the primary imperative of low cost, it became impossible to achieve because of the introduction of high technology requirements. The challenges were timeframes, cost and performance. Bringing in high technology development requirements made huge time overruns inevitable. This was either not foreseen or the authorities and agencies concerned refused to acknowledge and recognise it.
The net result is that the relevance of the LCA concept, envisaged more than three decades ago, is now in question in terms of the operational and technical environment of the IAF today.
Although hindsight analysis is always easier than decision-making at a particular time, subsequent analysis of development projects remains important in order to learn the right lessons for the future, particularly when the product developed fails to meet the core objectives.
In that context the following questions/observations need to be answered:
(a) What was the original objective of the programme? Was it to fulfil the operational imperative of the IAF with a suitable indigenous replacement for its obsolete and ageing fleet or was it national imperative that an advanced fighter aircraft is made in India?
The former was an operational and time-sensitive imperative while the latter was a technology-acquisition imperative.
Why were these two contradicting requirements not balanced?
(b) The concept of LCA was to have been based on the successful Light Weight Fighter programme of the USAF.
It is now evident that more in-depth research would have allowed strategic foresight in defining the size and weight limitations of the aircraft with a focus on cost. Misplaced beliefs about the Gnat’s invincibility as a low-cost Light Weight Fighter had an unreasonably overarching influence on decisions on the size and weight of the LCA.
The ASR 2/85 was approved in 1985 after more than two years of deliberations. During this period the IAF was fully aware of the performance, technological sophistication and operational relevance of the F-16 and Mirage 2000 fighters. The development of the Lavi by Israel also had significant lessons for us. Better research and analysis could have led to more considered decisions.
(c) When DRDO inserted the need for state-of-the-art technologies to be developed in the LCA programme, why were timelines not estimated with reasonable accuracy?
It was apparent that some of the technologies would take nearly three decades to mature, which became evident, finally. But project managers repeatedly asserted that the LCA would enter service in less than decade!
Scrutiny of these claims in detail could have led to strategically wiser decisions. To say that these assertions were simply errors of judgement would be either a gross understatement or purposely disingenuous.
(d) The IAF did voice its concerns repeatedly but these were overlooked.
Interested parties portrayed the IAF’s concerns about the serious impact to its force structure by the long delays in the LCA programme as almost being an obstruction to the national endeavour. As a result, the IAF simply stayed away. This was a serious blunder.
Instead, the IAF should have convinced the government and taken full control of the programme, as is done in other programmes around the world. It was critically important that the User drive the programme in order to balance operational needs and technology development needs.
(e) The LCA began as a programme from scratch. The long development period and the possibility of consequent slippage were inherent in these decisions and that’s why, it should have been foreseen naturally. However, periodic statements made by project managers over the last 20 years belie such understanding.
Given the urgency and priority of the air force’s requirement it is surprising that the IAF went along with such decisions when alternate courses of action were available.
The HF-24 was a proven airframe but ended prematurely due largely to its underpowered engines. Since the US GE 404 engines were decided and procured for the LCA even before work on the first prototype began, it is surprising that the same engines were not considered as an immediate option to power the revised and upgraded HF-24 airframe.
This could have given the air force a very viable frontline fighter aircraft that could have entered operational service twenty years ago while the LCA continued in its realistic development phase.
Such a derivative based approach would have been the most logical strategy to follow as the two would have complimented and strengthened the development process. Instead we frittered away the lessons, skills and human resources of the HF-24 experience.
LCA Development – Achievements and Shortfalls
The LCA programme became primarily a technology development programme and its operational performance was unintentionally relegated to second priority. That’s why, although there are significant achievements in the technology area, there are also serious deficiencies in the performance area.
Development and mastering the digital Fly-By-Wire flight control system is the most significant achievement of the programme. The concept, forming a national control law team for development, its execution and the final result have all been done in an exemplary manner, overcoming enormous challenges.
The LCA has a significantly large share of its structures and surfaces made of carbon composite material. The process of developing the required fibres and converting them into the required structures were mastered over a period of time. This is another significant achievement.
The Composite Manufacturing Division (CMD) of HAL is truly a world-class facility and addresses the requirement of both the LCA and the Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) and its derivatives. There are also private sector players who have established similar facilities that have created increased capacity.
However, there exists vulnerability due to the import dependence on the raw material (Carbon Prepegs). This is an area where research should have commenced at the same time as the LCA programme.
Other significant achievements are in the areas of system integration, glass cockpit and mission computer, components development and engineering such as jet fuel starter, accessory gearbox and indigenisation of imported critical equipment such as the actuator.
Major technology shortfalls have been the non-realisation of the aero-engine and the multi-mode radar. In spite of major achievements in critical technology areas like the FBW and composites, the LCA as a weapons platform is still critically dependent on imported equipment when it comes to the power plant, materials, fire-control radar, EW, sensors and weapons.
Serious shortfalls also lie in the area of operational performance. The lack of an early focus on operational issues has resulted in poor weight management.
As a result, the LCA is significantly overweight and cannot meet the thrust to weight requirement in the air-combat configuration.
It would actually have been prudent to choose a canard-delta design considering the severe size and weight limitations. This was also the recommendation of the consultants in the early phase. It is strange that this was not followed. Instead we chose to rely on a pure tail-less delta design and thought that the combination of unstable platform and digital FBW flight control system would generate enough performance. This was not possible, as subsequent results have shown.
Interestingly the Gripen, which is almost similar to the LCA and uses the same engine, has a canard and delta combination. So do the Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon.
It is now clear that one of the reasons as to why the LCA will never fully meet the ASR is due to the basic choice of the platform design.
The aircraft also suffers from high supersonic drag and poor intake efficiency, as well as significant shortfalls in performance related to turn rates, acceleration, top speed and rate of climb.
While the aircraft may have excellent flight controls, good sensors and weapons, these critical deficiencies have a placed a question mark on the operational relevance of the aircraft.
Quite naturally, the IAF would be worried about LCA’s ability to provide the necessary operational strength.
Why is India losing the plot?
It appears that history is repeating itself. The HF-24, although an excellent design, failed to meet a significant part of its operational requirement – the air defence role – due to its underpowered engines. A failure to address this critical need was the primary reason why the air force phased it out prematurely. It resulted in discontinuity in the indigenous fighter development capability.
The expertise created from the HF-24 programme was allowed to decay. Work on the LCA began from scratch.
Given the serious shortfall in the performance of the LCA, a focus on its inability to meet the ASR would result in a repetition of the HF-24 story. That’s why, it is important to recognise the larger strategic need, which is consolidation of the indigenous fighter aircraft development capability.
For this, the LCA needs to be audited appropriately, taking into consideration its strengths and deficiencies. Here the original Light Weight Fighter programme offers the right lessons. This programme focused on developing a Light Weight Fighter at a low cost but with the performance parameters of a frontline fighter that could compliment the more expensive, larger and technically far superior F-15. This is how the Hi-Lo mix evolved.
In a similar manner if the LCA had met the ASR, it would have complimented the higher and expensive mix of Su-30 and MMRCA. The crux is in performance.
But since there are serious deficiencies in performance, the LCA cannot become the IAF ‘s frontline fighter in the Lo segment. Neither can the LCA fill the slot of the MMRCA or its equivalent role. More importantly, the IAF cannot afford to look for a one-to-one replacement of its ageing MiG-21.
India’s profile and its environment of the 1970s and early 80s may have sufficed with a one-to-one replacement for the MiG-21. India’s increasing stature and global role, its threat environment and rapid technological developments in the world mandates an aircraft with better performance and radius of action in this segment.
One can see this in the Chinese case. The JF-17, similar to the LCA, is developed for export customers and has no place in the PLAAF’s inventory.
What is the solution?
The solution is to re-strategise the LCA’s slot in the IAF’s operational force structure, while keeping the need to continue, consolidate and stabilise India’s fighter aircraft industry.
This will call for a realistic assessment of the LCA’s operational role.
More importantly, the need to develop the next version as the first main frontline indigenous fighter aircraft should be realised quickly. A broader strategy will need to be put in place for this to happen.
The LCA MK II should be seen as the vehicle that will address the requirements of larger operational radius, better performance and greater indigenisation.
It could either be a single-engine aircraft with a redesigned airframe and a larger fuel capacity on the lines of the Gripen NG or it could be a twin-engine version of the LCA with just incremental technology.
A cost-benefit-performance analysis of the two needs to be deliberated seriously.
This can only be achieved if industry is allowed to take full charge, with private industry playing a major role and a foreign OEM is brought in as a risk-sharing partner and technology provider.
This would also have the advantage of providing continuity further on to the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) programme.