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Will LCA Be Another MBT?

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 IAF has accepted to place the demand for additional LCA MK-IA with HAL, however, it is to be seen whether HAL will be able to ramp up the production rate and fulfill its promise to meet the SQR or it will go the MBT way…

HAL worried about the future of its production line after it delivers 40 Mark I fighters by end-2019 has managed to convince both MoD and the IAF to accept 120 improved Tejas Mark IA fighters despite its flaws, as it continues to grapple with thrust issues, fuel capacity and protection to pilot against small arms etc. HAL has promised that the Tejas, once productionised, will meet the SQR requirements of air-to-air refueling, improved radar & missiles to strike enemy aircraft beyond visual range and electronic jammers to blind enemy radar. IAF chief Arup Raha on October 8 said: “We are ready to take 120 Tejas for six squadrons as soon as they (HAL) can provide it. That means they have to ramp up the production rate, which is running behind schedule… But we will take all 120.” Though, he retains the IAF's conviction that it is essential to have at least six squadrons of the Rafale. The government has however turned down the IAF's request to expand the acquisition of 36 fighter planes from Dassault Aviation to plug vital gaps, convincing them to accept an indigenous combat plane 35 years in the making.

HAL envisages the Mk 1As will be around 1,000 kg lighter than the Mk1 by shedding 200-300 kg of ballast secured in the aircraft's nose to stabilise it and another 700-800 kg by reducing its heavy and 'over-engineered' landing gear. The platform would also be fitted with Israeli firm ELTA Systems' active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, replacing the heavier and less capable 'hybrid' version of ELTA's EL/M-2032 lightweight multi-mode radar, which was developed jointly with DRDO. They maintain that these changes would make the Mk 1A operationally more agile and proficient - despite being fitted with the less powerful F404 engine - and more closely aligned with the IAF's QRs.

20 MK-I which was scheduled to be delivered in 2017 is going to be delayed further and thus delivering 120 Tejas may take decades as LCA MK-IA is yet to be productionised for evaluation trials. In a report in May 2015, an independent investigation by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India into the LCA programme identified 53 "shortfalls" in the plane.

There is a requirement of having a minimum number of aircrafts at all times and with this conviction both MoD and IAF think this is the best option due to resource constraint and because the Tejas Mk II planned with a more powerful GE F-414 engine is unlikely to fructify in the given timeframe. Accordingly, a fresh agreement, setting the LCA programme on a new course, was signed on September 15 by all the stakeholders, including Indian Air Force, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), Centre for Military Airworthiness and Certification (CEMILAC) and others.

Will it be another MBT?

The LCA programme was sanctioned in 1983 with project cost of Rs 560 crores to replace the Mig -21 and to be inducted into IAF by1994. The project budget has since been increased to Rs 10,397 crores and project is not yet complete in 2015.The programme was riddled with delays right from the Sanction and as a consequence of delay in development and induction of LCA, IAF had to go for up-grade MiG Bison, MiG-29, Mirage-2000 and Jaguar aircraft at a cost of over INR 20,000 crores and revise phasing out of MiG-21 to ensure credible combat potential.

The developmental history of project LCA by HAL and project MBT by DRDO are almost similar, as both even after 35 years failed to produce a viable product and had serious fallouts by way of time and cost overruns. Project MBT started almost at the same time with sanctioned amount of $2.3 million to replace old vintage T-55 & T-72 tanks, the project budget was increased to $3 billion, however, the MBT was never delivered in the given time frame and as interim measure India had to buy T-90 for replacement. Somewhere in 2005, 60 MBTs  and in 2011 another 60 were thrust upon the IA much against the wishes of users and when it did not fulfill the requirement of users, DRDO promised them with MBT MK2 which is still undergoing developmental trials. As a result of delays and not meeting the user's requirement, the IA initiated a case for FRCV on their own visualizing the tardy progress of MBT. This was also a blow to DRDO's FMBT project.

Similarly, IAF has been reluctant to an order for 100 more LCA fighters mainly due to Shortfall in accomplishment of Air Staff Requirement and expressed desirability for some of the undermentioned subsystems, however they had to agree for LCA:

  • Increased weight, reduced internal fuel capacity, front pilot protection system weakness, and reduced speed key deficiencies.
  • Performance issues with the radar warning receiver and counter-measure systems.
  • Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar to track incoming targets
  • Integration of a long range beyond-visual-range missile
  • Air-to-Air refueling capability to enhance its range
  • Modern electronic warfare capability to enhance survivability of the aircraft.

Besides the LCA still does not have a certified trainer version to coach pilots and the lack of a full-mission simulator for the aircraft also a hindrance to training.

Indigenous Content only 35%

CAG Report on Defence Services (Air Force) Performance Audit No.17 of 2015 has mention though ADA claimed achievement of 70.percent indigenisation, half of these sub-systems are developed with imported electronic components and accessories etc, hence only about 35% are the indigenous contents. Main subsystems of import origin are:-

  • Engine GE 404 powerplants from the US.
  • Flight control system actuators.
  • Multi-mode radar: Israel
  • Radomimported from the UK.

The emphasis has been on increasing the indigenous content of LCA but no road map was drawn or adhered for indigenization during LCA development. As a result, indigenous content of LCA estimated by ADA as 70 percent actually worked out to about 35 percent. LCA systems such as Kaveri engine, Multi-Mode Radar, Radome, Multi-Functional Display System and Flight Control System Actuators taken up for indigenous development could not be developed successfully, resulting in LCA's continued dependency on import of these systems. Development of Jet Fuel Starter, though achieved indigenously, had performance issues which are yet to be resolved. Similar was the case with project MBT. It was supposed to be an indigenous tank, however, except the outer box i.e. hull, turret, gun etc. all vital & important assemblies are imported (engine, txn, FCS etc).

The  amount of money spent on these projects are approximately $2 billion, it will be anybody's guess that for this price the country would have bought and absorbed  contemporary  technology, and we would not have been struggling for nearly outdated technologies and that also at a exorbitant price.

Way Forward

Thirteen squadrons of MiG-21s and MiG-27s are required to be replaced by 2022; which may increase the number of  LCA further to 250 once the obsolescent MiGs retire and if the navy's demand of 56 Tejas Mark II for its two indigenous aircraft carriers is included then it will add up to well above 300. With the present capacity of HAL this is almost impossible.

It is obvious that the LCAs cannot possibly be built in such large numbers, in an acceptable time-frame by HAL, unless they establish another assembly line to double their efforts, which is again a question mark. Goal posts, mission objectives, time-lines, costs and specifications have, over 35 years, melded into an amorphous, self-defeating paradox and these facts are indicative that the LCA project may also go the MBT way, where the IAF after a decade may have to go in for an alternative. The IA still can wait for FRCV to come up as they are not in such bad condition as IAF is presently. If LCA MKI-A backfires, then the aircrafts for the 13 squadrons will have to be imported which may not be economically feasible? Some report also quotes the LCA as obsolete and a potential burden on a reluctant IAF like MBT Arjun to the IA.

The more viable option for the defence ministry, in case the LCA MK-IA has to be inducted, is to give a chance to private sector as competitor to HAL. The private sector may be selected on the lines of other MAKE projects and transfer the technology needed to build the Tejas beyond the capacity of HAL. While HAL's single production line would not meet even the IAF's requirements, adding a parallel line would not only deliver the aircrafts in time filling up a worrying operational gap but also open up exports.

The ministry is already attempting to build a private sector aerospace manufacturer, something like Tata-Airbus consortium to build 56 transport aircraft to replace the IAF's venerable Avro fleet but the later will require setting up of full-scale production infrastructure, including an airfield, for just 56 aircrafts, which may not be viable. However, a parallel Tejas production line would be a perfect launch pad for a private aerospace corporation, which will develop a network of vendors and sub-vendors for systems, sub-systems and components, while reserving for itself only final integration. Private sector competition would make the Tejas cheaper and now with the IAF accepting it; it will brighten the prospects of exporting Tejas and thus adding attraction for international vendors. But the private sector will have to accept this challenge, which as per HAL, once they issued a proposal offering the private sector full technology transfer to build the Dhruv advanced light helicopter in India, not a single private vendor accepted the challenge.

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