India's LCA - Light Combat Aircraft multirole combat fighter
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SPACE TRANSPORT: Aircraft : LCA

Last Updated : July 29, 2001

LCA is the world's smallest, light weight, multi-role supersonic combat aircraft of the world. It has been designed to meet the requirements of Indian Air Force as its frontline multi-mission single-seat tactical aircraft.

It is India's second indeginous fighter, the first one being the 1960's sub-sonic HF-24(Hindustan Fighter) 'Marut'. 129 Marut fighters were manufactured. The planned supersonic version of the plane(HF-73) was to be inducted too but the program was cancelled after a crash. The LCA is the first supersonic combat aircraft to be built and flown in India itself. If the clearence for production is given by the government in 2001 itself, it can be inducted by 2005 into the Indian Air Force.

TD-1 on its fifth flight, over the skies of Bangalore

The idea for this plane was born in 1983. It's development has been an extremely painful process. The Indians had to develop most of the workings themselves, with some 'hand holding' by foreign firms. The US sanctions following their nuclear blasts only worsened the situation.

If the LCA succeeds, India will go ahead with development of the MCA, a stealthy twin-engined jet.

[Development Plan] [Why India needs it] [Rivals] [The Airplane] [Timeline] [Stats] [Agency List]

Development Plan

On 4th January 2001, India's Light Comabt Aircraft or LCA flew for the first time. The maximum speed achieved was 400 kph and the maximum altitude was 3,000 m. The 18 min long test flight was performed by Wing Commander Rajiv Kothiyal. This plane was codenamed LCA-KH2001/TD-1 in which "KH" stands for Kota Harinarayana - the Inspiring Director of ADA while "TD" stands for Technology Demonstrator. It was powered by GE F404 engines.

TD-1 after its first take-off

Before the design is ready for induction, 5 Prototype Vehicles [PVs] will be constructed along with the 2 TDs. TD-1 is already flying [after an agonising wait of 5 years after its roll-out in 1995] and TD-2 is being readied for its first flight in the month of August this year. While TD Vehicles, as the name itself suggest, are basically to prove the concept and test the technology. PVs will be the final design, though minute changes should be possible still. LCA Prototype Vehicles will be lighter by an impressive 200 kg than TD-1 and will have mid-air refuelling capability. PV-1 will roll-out in early 2002. Work has already begun on the PV-2, PV-3 and PV-4. PV-5 will be a trainer and hence will be twin seat. All seven prototypes will be readied by 2003.

If all goes well, LCA will go supersonic after atleast 25 flights. A minimum of 2000 flying hrs is needed to certify it ready for production. The development phase involving two technology demonstrators is estimated to have cost Rs. 21.88 billion.

Why India needs the LCA

MiG-21

The IAF heavily relies on the 1950's design MiG-21 to maintain its numbers, if not its effective force. The LCA was essentially envisioned as a replacement for it. Delays in LCA's development have caused a lot of problems - The MiGs are old, and unforgiving - pilots are losing their lives each year. Such is its reputation, that it is now called 'the flying coffin' in the pilot's mess.

Part of the problem also arose from the fact that the IAF had to rely on the sub-sonic Kiran jet trainer for pilot's training for last 15 years of the 20th Century. The junior pilots had to jump right from the Kiran to the bisonic MiG. It is not surprising that most deaths were those of young pilots. Only recently did the Government decide to acquire Hawk AJTs [Advanced Jet Trainer] from Britain.

Kiran jet trainer HF-24 in formation

During the decade 1990-2000 the IAF lost 172 MiG series aircraft in crashes, much more than its losses in wartime operations.During the two wars with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971 as well as the Kargil border conflict of 1999, the Indian Air Force lost a total of 115 aircraft. From 1995-2000 alone, the losses due to aircraft involved in accidents amounted to Rs 2.74 billion. During the same period, 52 pilots lost their lives in accidents. India has paid a very heavy price for LCA delays.

Apart from the MiG-21, LCA will also replace MiG-23 and MiG-27, also in service with the IAF.

MiG-21 Upgrade

An $340 million upgrade program was started in 1996. These new aircraft are called MiG-21-93 or MiG-21-Bis. While some will be upgraded in Russia, most upgradation will be done in India itself. The deal was meant to be completed within two years but the first two upgraded MiG-21-93 jets were only delivered to India in December 2000. The first 2 upgraded MiGs done in India were shipped to the IAF in May 2001. These new aircraft have a mix of French, Israeli, Indian and Russian equipment. It is claimed that the fighters are equivalent to any 4th Generation fighter, with the ability to lock on to 8 different targets at once. The upgrading of the 125 MiG-21s is now slated for 2005, with the implementation of the plan expected to enable the IAF to extend the life of the jets until 2015.

Will the LCA itself be obsolete by 2015? Certainly not considering India's main rivals, China and the Pakistan fly aircraft like the Chinese F-7(a copy of MiG-21). Other Chinese fighters include the FC-1 (Fighter China 1) and the J-10(F-10 for foreign markets).

Rivals

DOCTORED IMAGE! FC-1 mockup

FC-1 is based on the MiG-33 which was rejected by the Soviet Air Force. MiG-33 was a single engined version of MiG-29. Pakistan hopes to buy 150 of them to replace most of its existing air force while the Chinese Air Force does not want to purchase it. Lastest reports say that FC-1 may never enter production - Russia has refused to supply the powerful RD-93 engine. Pakistan has given the FC-1 the 'Super-7' designation.

FC-1 has not been flown. Chengdu is working on it though, and models have been displayed at many exhibitions. While FC-1 design itself is not very advanced, the fact is that China will buy many avionics components from outside and hence has the capability of getting the FC-1 into active service much before the LCA. However, recent reports suggest that it might now be replaced by a different design : J-7MF (a MiG-21 upgrade).

The J-10 started off as a chinese attempt at reverse engineering a Pakistan bought US F-16. However, it ended up being a modification of Israel's Lavi (Young Lion) multirole fighter. Lavi program was cancelled in 1987. A J-10 crash in 1995 forced a shift manufacturing plans till atleast 2005 (flights resumed in 1998). The J-10 is believed to be powered by 122.6kN (27,650 lb) Saturn AL-31F turbofans with afterburners.

Interestingly, both LCA and J-10 are due to serve on indigenous Indian and Chinese aircraft carriers, both set to sail by 2010.

Two other contemporary aircraft began in the same period (1982/83): the European Eurofighter Typhoon and Swedish Jas-39 Gripen. The eurofighter first flew in March 1994 while Gripen took off in December 1988. Gripen joined squadron in 1998 while Eurofighter will in 2002. Both faced problems with their digital flight control systems which enable the inherently unstable delta-wing aircraft to fly by using computers to command its flight control surfaces and provide unusual moaneuverability to the jets. Both are being promoted in the foreign markets. Jas-39 has already been chosen by the South African Air Force as their backbone. It is infact regarded as a direct competition to the LCA.

Indians have boldly claimed that the "LCA has more advanced technology than JAS- 39 Gripen and as much advanced technology as the Typhoon." And if it does, then it needs to be proved on the ground and in flight.

The Airplane

LCA has a double delta wing configuration with no tailplanes or foreplanes and features a single vertical fin. The LCA is constructed of aluminium-lithium alloys, carbon-fibre composites, and titanium. It's design has been configured to match the demands of modern combat scenario such as speed, acceleration, maneuverability and agility. Other features of the design include Short takeoff and landing, excellent flight performance, safety, damage-tolerant design, reliability and maintainability.

According to current estimates, the LCA will cost about $17 million and efforts are being made to bring down the cost to $15 million. At this price the LCA has considerable bang for buck value. In comparison, a Su-30 fetches $35 million per piece for Russia, while France's Rafale cost $70 million. USA's F-22 Raptor beats them with a price tag of a cool $150 million.

LCA Components

It integrates modern design concepts and the state-of-art technologies such as relaxed static stability, flyby-wire Flight Control System, Advanced Digital Cockpit, Multi-Mode Radar, Integrated Digital Avionics System and a Flat Rated Engine.

Around 80% of the jet is made in India itself. The rest will have to be imported for sometime. No mistake must be made with regards to LCA's modernity and design. It is truly advanced and has all the necessary equipment and more.

A naval carrier based version of LCA is also being developed.

[Airframe] [Glass Cockpit] [Radar] [Flight control and software] [Weapons] [Engine]

LCA

Air Frame
Among the most significant breakthrough is the use of advance carbon composites for more than 40% of the LCA air frame, including wings, fin and fuselage. Apart from making it much lighter, there are less joints or rivets making the aeroplane more reliable. Fatigue strength studies on computer models optimise performance. National Aerospace Laboratory (NAL) has played a lead role.

Flight Control and Software
The LCA uses advanced digital fly-by-wire technology which essentially employs computers to optimise the aircraft's performance. Foreign companies were consulted. Infact, LCA avionics were first flight tested on a US F-16.

Witout the automatic flight control, the LCA will not be flyable, due to the Delta wing's inherent instability. As more and more flights are conducted, the software is updated to allow the aircraft to do more complex maneuvours.

The Glass Cockpit
Its new-generation glass cockpit has the latest avionics systems for pilot comfort and efficiency. No tangle of dials and switches. Multi-function digital displays provide information of all vital parameters with the click of a button. Critical information is flashed on the head-up display. Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) and NAL were major partner in these developments.

rear cockpit of twin seat LCA

Weapons
The LCA has a choice of seven pylons three under each wing and one under its fuselage to carry a wide range of armoury. It is designed to be a precision launch platform with air-to-air missiles and air-to-ground weapons, including laser guided bombs. Plenty of work to be done.

As the name itself suggests, LCA's delivery capacity will not be high, though the fighter by itself does not comprise the total force. Hence even with LCA's multi-role capability the IAF will need a 'bigger' fighter - the Su-30mki has already been picked as its frontline fighter for the first Quater of the 21st Century.

Avro fitted with LCA radar Radar
The multi-mode radar is to take care of detection, tracking, terrain mapping and delivery of guided weapons. To be jointly developed by State owned HAL and Electronics Radar Development Establishment (ERDE) the project has run into major delays and cost escalations. It was to be completed by 1997 but despite hand holding by foreign companies is yet to reach fruition.

Two Avro aircraft - HS 748 have been modified for the purposes of testing the radar. The idea of doing these tests on an Avro is that these planes can fly for a longer time and hence collect a lot more data.

Engine

The most worrying aspect of the project. Currently, the protoypes are powered by the US made GE F404 engine. India's Defence Research and Development Organisation [DRDO] had purchased 11 F404 engines for the LCA project in the 1990s but further collaboration with the engine's manufacturers is no longer possible due to sanctions imposed by the US in the wake of India's nuclear tests of 1998. The US sanctions against India are expected to end soon, though.

Kabini core of the engine Kaveri

The State owned Gas Turbine Research Establishment [GTRE] was to indigenously develop the Kaveri engine to power the LCA. But there have been major slippages in all the milestones apart from cost overruns of Rs 380 crore. It is difficult work but is finally getting underway.

It is expected that a LCA (TD-3) with a Kaveri engine will fly in Q3 of 2002. GRTE has made four Kaveri engines and one of these, the K4, will be sent to Russia [which has inexpensive testing facilities] for high-altitude tests in the second half of 2001. The test-bed is a Tupolew Tu-16 bomber. These airborne tests will allow Indian scientists to study the functioning of the engine in flight. Some 80 hrs of airborne testing had been completed by February 2001. Atleast 1000 hrs are needed for air-worthiness certification.

The Jet Fuel Starter [JFS] GTSU-110 is indigenous and has the capability to provide in flight starting of the LCA main engine up to an altitude of 6 km. It has been successfully tested at Leh, which has the world's highest altitude airport.

Timeline

Note: Rs 1 crore = Rs 10 million, $1 = Rs 47

1985: LCA launched with a time frame of 10 years after the Union cabinet sanctioned Rs 560 crore for the project in 1983. Aeronautical Development Agency to be the nodal agency.

1988: ADA prepares project definition phase (PDP) after consulting MBB, France, on some aspects.

1990: Air HQ finds PDP deficient in crucial parameters. Expert committee formed to resolve deadlock. It is agreed that two technology demonstration aircraft to be built before investments cleared for production.

1993: After three years of uncertainty, Phase 1 is sanctioned at a cost Rs 2,188 crore. Milestones include a roll out of first aircraft by 1995 and first flight by 1996.

1995: Roll out does happen but there are serious doubts as to whether the first flight would occur as major problems bedevil flight control systems as well as mastery over composites.

1998: With the aircraft far from ready, the US sanctions after Pokhran tests cause setbacks in flight control technologies and systems integration.

1999: Low speed and high speed taxi trials are done. But flight trials delayed because of minor fire caused by overheating valve near cockpit.

2001: First flight on January 4. More flights follow, including one on Feb 9 at Aero India 2001 [Bangalore, February 7 to 11]. It completes it's first block of tests on June 2.

Along with the LCA, India is also developing aircraft like Saras, a 14 seater civilian turboprop aeroplane, Hansa trainer and Intermediate Jet Trainer [IJT]. The sub-sonic IJT, whose first flight should take place in 2002, will replace the aged Kiran jet trainers. IJT shares some 100 parts with the LCA. The IAF has placed orders for 225 such aircraft which cost $5 million a piece.

Total number of LCA TD-1/KH2001 flights(upto June 2, 2001) : 12

Next LCA Flight : August 2001

First LCA supersonic flight : October 2001

Stats
LCA in its 4th flight
Length :13.2 m
Height :4.4 m
Wingspan :8.2 m
Weight :5.5 ton
Max. Speed :Mach 1.8
Propulsion :GE-F404 F2J3 18,097 lbs
GTRE GTX-35VS Kaveri 20,200 lbs
Armament :7 stations, 4 ton
Altitude :50,000 ft
Fuel capacity:3000 L
Flight Record
1.January 4, 200118 min
3100 m
(wheels down)
2.January 30, 200152 min
3.February 3, 200123 min
4.February 9, 2001
(Aero India 2001)
~20 min
4000 m
560 kmph
5.2001
6.2001
7.March 20, 2001
8.2001
9.2001
10.2001
11.May 31, 2001
12.June 2, 2001

For first 12 flights:

Max Velocity: 610 km/h

Max Altitude: 8 km

Max Angle of Attack: 80 degrees

The development effort for the LCA is lead by ADA. Apart from govt labs and agencies, many educational institutes and private companies also have a role. A list of some of the government agencies involved in the LCA and MCA projects:

Some of the people associated with LCA development:

Also See :
Aircraft:MCA
Spacecraft:AVATAR

The Kavrei, Kabini, Avro, LCA Cockpit pictures used here are all from bharat-rakshak.com

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