In the global air power ranking, with focus on a balanced air force, the IAF stands third after the USA and Russia. One of the contributing factors is the level of indigenous technological capability demonstrated by the LCA. Sohu, the Chinese social media platform was abuzz with posts denigrating this ranking and how LCA was a disappointment, compared to the Chinese J 10.
Why do we need the LCA? The LCA is a Light aircraft and because of that the cost of manufacture will be lower and so will be the operational cost. It will be smaller in size and hence only well selected specific features can be incorporated. A well designed LCA will be able to match heavier fighters at a lower cost. What matters in air combat is who sees the enemy first either by radar or visually.
Also Read: Forcing IAF To Accept LCA MK II?
Smaller the size, harder to see. Larger fighters are visible at 11 Km and smaller ones only at 6.4 Kms. The smaller aircraft will have the advantage of firing the decisive first shot. Smaller the aircraft, larger the numbers that can be produced and launched against a larger attacker. Numbers matter in air combat too. Smaller aircraft have better manoeuvrability to position itself for the kill. LCA would be a strategically valuable asset to have.
Designing, manufacturing and operationalising a modern fighter aircraft is more difficult than getting up in the morning. Besides the technological breakthrough that is needed during development in various fields, organising the supply chain with failproof delivery of components for timely manufacture is a gargantuan effort. Operationalising such a platform with the desired weapon systems is another herculean task though it has been inbuilt to an extent in the design of LCA. Even now most weapons used by the IAF are of foreign origin as our weapons are under development and can be expected to be integrated on LCA with ease but with difficulty on other platforms.
The LCA was intended to be a technology demonstrator and it has succeeded in its task. Spin off from this technology will be used in further endeavours like the AMCA (Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft) or any other platform of the future. This would reduce the time frame for rolling out such platforms. Conversion of the Technology Demonstrator to Prototype itself is a mark of success of the objectives that were set. The Aeronautical Development Agency, many other DRDO & CSIR labs and Private Industry with Aircraft Research and Development Centre (ARDC) of HAL designed the aircraft.
The airframe is made of aluminium-lithium alloys, carbon-fibre composites and titanium alloys. Carbon fibre composites make up almost 45% of the aircraft by weight. The cockpit has a night vision goggles (NVG)-compatible “glass cockpit” with three 5” x 5” multi-function displays and two Smart Standby Display Units (SSDU). It has a Head Up Display (HUD) by Central Scientific Instruments Organization (CSIO).
It also has a "get-you-home" panel with fail-safe air data computer (ADC) manufactured by Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) that uses computational intelligence-based auto-land system to provide the pilot with essential flight information in case of an emergency and is connected with IAF ground station network to take over emergency controls of an unstable aircraft.
The Flight Control System (FCS) is entirely Indian and so is the Mission Planning System. The Naval version of Tejas successfully performed ski-jump assisted take-off and arrested landing on the aircraft-carrier INS Vikramaditya. Technology for hands free automatic take-off and landing system was proven on Naval Tejas. Indigenous content can be pegged at about 60%.
The components that went into it were sourced from various agencies, Indian and Foreign. HAL designed and built most of the internal systems with many components sourced from about 500 private sector companies. The engine is from GE, USA since the Gas Turbine Research Establishment could not develop the engine in the required time frame. The ejection seat for the pilot is from Martin Baker of UK, Radar from Israel etc. There are many more components from friendly foreign countries. However, the main Intellectual Property (IP) for the aircraft is Indian.
The question that arises is why do we have so many foreign components. There are many reasons for it. It will be extremely expensive for the country to invest in infrastructure, research and development to manufacture the few numbers that we need. It will not be prudent to invest so much when the quantity that is needed is very small and hence it will not be cost effective. For manufacturing the components, the investment in infrastructure, research and development could be termed as “fixed” costs as it does not vary depending on the numbers produced.
The cost of producing the components can be termed as “variable” costs as it varies depending on the number of components produced. If we add these two, we get the total cost. That divided by the numbers produced gives the cost per component. Larger the numbers, lower is the cost. Despite the aim for “Atmanirbharta”, at this juncture, it will be reasonable and prudent to procure these at lower cost from friendly foreign countries so that development delays are minimised.
Investing in the entire eco-system of fighter aircraft manufacture is proving to be too expensive even for European countries. There is a Eurofighter programme with many participants. The risk of failure is too high for a country to invest so much. Even in USA, the government invests in infrastructure (all civil works) and in many cases research and development. In case the private sector achieves a break through the government infuses funds for development. The government is involved in deciding the transfer price to its own forces. It is sold to foreign entities as FMS (Foreign Military Sales). The company cannot sell the product without government clearance and the component of fixed costs is factored into the selling price.
In spite of the long delays in the LCA programme we have the aircraft inducted into the IAF with adequate point to point range of 1700 Kms and a radius of action of 500 kms. There were concessions granted initially. Concessions are temporary acceptance of deviations from what was desired. These concessions have been closed to the satisfaction of the user within the time frame. If concessions cannot be addressed, they become shortfalls and are addressed in the next version.
When Mirage 2000s were inducted, they too had concessions which were gradually closed over a period of time. All aircraft are expected to have concessions and shortfalls as no aircraft can meet all the qualitative requirements. This is the norm in any aircraft induction process. LCA now has Full Operational Clearance (FOC) and the photographs are of FOC aircraft. Initial maintainability issues have been resolved and the LCA is flying a lot with good serviceability.
Enhancing production rates is another challenge as more investment is needed for the production line. It is also linked to supply timelines of foreign components. HAL needs to have water tight contracts with foreign suppliers so that our production schedule as planned does not get disrupted. HAL needs to enhance vendor management to meet the timelines. HAL is the only aircraft manufacturing entity in the country. It was nationalised and made a PSU with social needs (employment) as the aim.
The country has grown out of that era and now a transformation is needed to change the aim to manufacture world class aircraft, with an eye on profitability. A de-novo organisational redesign needs to be undertaken in view of the revised objectives. Government needs to induct professional management including project management specialists at the top level and revamp its functioning by including a robust marketing division which can bring in orders from across the globe and thereby become self-sustaining.
LCA programme has matured to a state where the Mk II is on the drawing board which will probably be followed with the AMCA. These will definitely be equipped with futuristic systems. Design for these is also linked to timely government funding.
LCA is a very ambitious project. Everything about it had to be designed and developed from scratch. The intended platform was untried, the systems that go into it were never designed earlier for any aircraft in India whether it is the structure, composites, components et al, yet we attempted all of them in one go. Risk involved was extremely high. Time and hence cost overruns were anticipated. In the 75th year of our Independence, our team has delivered a product which forms the fountainhead from which other projects can bloom.
In retrospect, if Project Management specialist analyses the entire project, he would probably come to a conclusion that it was not optimum use of resources like time, money, manpower, skill sets etc. How do we correct this for the future is the question?
The Government is clear that imports have to stop. Our professionals are exemplary in facing the challenge and being successful in getting the FOC (Final Operational Clearance) for the LCA. There is no doubt that given an opportunity they will live up to the expectation reposed in them like they have done in case of Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme, Space programme, BrahMos Missile etc. In the field of Aeronautics, what is probably lacking is an institutional authority who has adequate authority to guide and integrate aeronautics in the country and be accountable to the Nation through the Government. The design, development and manufacturing agencies need to be accountable to this institutional authority for delivery in the planned time frames.
This may reduce the time and cost overruns in any aviation related projects and make our aircraft cost effective for exports like our satellite launch capability. We need to institutionalise this mechanism at the top management level. The need for the ultimate user’s representative to be in the driving seat of a project with adequate powers, till fruition for all such projects cannot be over emphasised. In the instant case a relatively young test pilot with adequate management skills especially in nuances of Project Management is suggested for such projects. There is a crying need to develop standards and enforce them for better quality control. The need of the hour is to design an organisation at the apex level to integrate the agencies for aircraft research, development and production.
Given the right kind of leadership supported by enough delegation of powers to the appropriate levels, the Nation is capable of delivering complex technological solutions like the Space programme, IGMDP, BrahMos etc. AMCA and future aircraft should be no exception.
About The Author
Gp Capt Johnson Chacko is an IAF veteran with 30+ years of service. He was commissioned in 1975. He has specialised in Aerial Weapons Employment, Offensive Operations, Strategic Reconnaissance and Surface to Air Missiles. He has landed a Canberra bomber on its belly as the wheels did not come down, landed a MiG 25 with no forward visibility as the front wind screen had frosted up and come out of many other situations successfully using his flying skills.
As a Base Missile Controller in an exercise, during a saturation raid over the base, his squadron achieved 85% kills in a live exercise. He has been on the faculty of Defence Services Staff College, College of Defence Management and National Defence Academy. He has a patentable mathematical derivation to his credit. He has effectively utilised the principles of management in operations and training with commendable effect. Presently he is a part of a think tank on enhancing Leadership and Military Effectiveness.
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