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LCA economics

REGULAR READERS of The Hindu may remember the article `Saving the light combat aircraft' that appeared on August 9, 2001 arguing that the only way to save the then floundering LCA was to purchase about fifty GE 404 engines, enough to equip two squadrons along with some spares, until the Kaveri engine was ready. It now appears that the defence ministry was already thinking on those lines and has decided, in principle, to buy about forty engines from General Electric of the United States.

One needs to go back about a quarter century to understand the background to the LCA programme. As Pushpinder Singh has pointed out in Vayu, that was when the IAF drew up an Air Staff Target spelling out the need for a fighter to replace the MiG-21 which, even today, continues to be the backbone of the air force. The agile new aircraft was essentially for air defence with a secondary close air support capability. It had to incorporate state-of-the-art avionics and weapon systems while being pre-eminently affordable, considering that at its peak the IAF's order of battle included over 400 MiG-21s in 19 squadrons. This Target had become an Air Staff Requirement by the mid-1980s calling for a far more potent fighter than the "Super Gnat'' originally envisaged. That was also when the LCA programme was launched with the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) formally constituted to manage it.

ADA recognised right at the beginning that the LCA programme was predicated on five critical technologies: The carbon composite wing, the high performance multimode radar, the propulsion, the flight control systems, and a glass cockpit. Looking back, development of advanced carbon composite has been very successful, with specialised software having even been sold to Airbus Industrie, and the critical flight control system has been developed in spite of Lockheed Martin withdrawing their assistance thanks to the Pokhran blasts of 1998.

On the other hand, development of the Kaveri engine has fallen behind, but engine development is always slow and unpredictable. Even Snecma of France, with half a century of successful jet engine development experience, took nearly 13 years to bring the Rafale fighter's engine, the M 88, to low volume production after bench testing had begun.

Fast-forwarding to the present, two LCA "technology demonstrators'' have already flown with GE 404 engines, the maiden flight having taken place on 4th January 2001. The first aircraft, TD 1, completed its initial flight test programme after a dozen flights and is now being upgraded to expand its flight envelope. TD 2, with an "indigenous cockpit'', had completed nine flights by the end of August.

The LCA has been described as the world's smallest and lightest, supersonic, multirole fighter. Modern aerodynamic design with static instability (controlled by a quadruplex flight control system), a "full glass'' cockpit, full authority digital engine control (FADEC), and up-to-date weapons systems including beyond visual range air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles make it comparable in performance to the latest versions of the American F-16 or the French Mirage 2000. Small size and the extensive use of composites also make this agile aircraft much stealthier than its formidable competitors, without having to resort to the aerodynamically inefficient compromises of, for example, the American F-117 "stealth'' fighter.

Estimates last year put the LCA's cost at about Rs.100 crores per aircraft. One needs to compare this with an aircraft of similar capability like the multirole Mirage 2000-5, which Taiwan bought paying French franc 333 million apiece in 1997. At current exchange rates, that amounts to approximately Rs. 245 crores with inflation easily taking that up to Rs. 300 crores today. In other words, assuming Indian and French inflation rates are similar, the LCA would be one third the price, or Rs. 200 crores cheaper, when it enters service. No mean achievement.

Some of those critical of the LCA do not seem to realise that affordability is something that even the United States has learnt to accept as shown by the launch of the Joint Strike Fighter programme last year. The JSF is in some ways less capable than the US Air Force F-22 or the US Navy's F/A-18 E/F, but its affordability makes it unbeatably essential to both services.

A major advance with the LCA programme is the complete transparency that has recently been achieved between the IAF, ADA and Hindustan Aeronautics with the former realising that it was not being forced to accept an aircraft of unknown capability at an uncertain future date and that, on the contrary, it really needs the LCA soon. However, other important programmes such as those for unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs) should also be given importance.

All this does not mean that everything is hunky dory. For the LCA to demonstrate initial operations capability including successful weapons release trials and full integration of the avionics suite, at least another thousand test flights will be essential. If that is to be achieved by the end of 2007, five more "near production standard'' prototypes will have to be flying soon in addition to the two technology demonstrators that have already taken to the air.

Some systems will have to be imported, at least initially, from secure sources, but great efforts urgently need to be made to ensure that the development of all indigenous systems and production facilities needed for the aircraft is put on a war footing. This will not happen unless and until realistic estimates for the various activities involved are made, and stuck to thereafter, by committing adequate physical, financial and, not least, human resources to the programme.

Past experience does not suggest, unfortunately, that that will happen unless the defence minister gives immediate political direction to that effect. Even assuming that the IAF only needs 250 aircraft of the type, that means that a saving of at least Rs. 50,000 crores is involved in initial acquisition costs and at least as much again over the aircrafts' lifetime.

The nation's financial health and a sustainable air defence capability demand that nothing less is acceptable.

C. Manmohan Reddy

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