Saturday, January 15, 2011

Plodding Progress On India’s LCA

Aviation Week & Space Technology Jan 17 , 2011 , p. 26
Neelam Mathews
New Delhi

Printed headline: Troubles for Tejas and . . .

The euphoria over the initial operating clearance for India’s Light Combat Aircraft, achieved Jan. 10, is dying down as concerns arise over whether the design has lost the edge it promised the Indian air force when it was launched 25 years ago.

India’s cabinet has approved 20 purchases of the initial version, the Mk. 1 powered by a General Electric GE-F404-IN20 engine, but it is still considering purchase of 20 of the evolved type the Indian air force wants most, the Mk. 2 powered by GE F414s.

“The air force will probably use the LCA Mk. 1 as a flying club aircraft,” says one cynical defense official.
The initial operating clearance (IOC) for the LCA, or Tejas, came with only 55% of the fighter, a project of government-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL), actually airworthy. Still missing are clearances for weapons and systems that remain to be integrated for the single-engine, multi-role fighter. The defense ministry says they will not be cleared until December 2012.

The Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), which oversaw the Tejas development, calls it a fourth-generation fighter. But during the final stage of its IOC, the head of the Indian air force, Air Marshal P.V. Naik, said that designation comes with footnotes, given its performance shortfalls.

“Considering the technologies involved, [Mk. 2] will be a MiG 21 + + aircraft,” he says, referring to the widely produced 1950s-era Russian fighter that in its later versions achieved a third-generation status.

While the engine upgrade stands out for the Mk. 2, there will also be upgrades to its avionics and mission computer, added weapons hardpoints, a greater emphasis on line-replaceable units, and structural changes (including the addition of a canard). DRDO says first flight is set for December 2014 and service entry, mid-2016.

The Tejas offers supersonic performance, but its full Mach 1.4 capability has yet to be achieved, Also behind schedule are integration of guns and missiles and its beyond-visual-range radar. “It will be some time before [the Tejas program] can amalgamate all these requirements of the Indian air force,” says a senior air force official.

HAL, whose role as prime contractor includes responsibility for LCA’s design, systems integration, airframe manufacturing, final assembly, flight-testing and service support, is bearing the brunt of the criticism for delays and cost overruns. Since the program’s inception, costs have ballooned 300% to $3.8 billion.

The company’s dated production processes are commonly cited as the prime cause. “Their technology is based on aircraft of the ’70s, like the Jaguars,” says a design engineer who thinks HAL’s factories need sweeping changes. “What is required is more automation—the use of robotics to keep errors to a minimum.”

Even with the F414 upgrade, there is concern the Mk. 2 will be underpowered for takeoff with full weapons loads. “It will be limited in its operational services unless the engine is boosted by another 10K,” says an official close to the project. The F414’s maximum thrust is 22,000 lb.

“The reality has yet to sink in. When the aircraft is manufactured and the engine is new, it will meet its parameters,” he says, adding that as performance degrades, the thin operational margins will become clear by the first overhaul. “Nobody is facing the issue boldly,” he says.

Besides engine issues, the air force needs to upgrade the Russian AA-111 Archer missiles the LCA is to carry, he says, suggesting the Diehl BGT AIM-2000 IRIS-T as an alternative.

Missiles and engines aside, the difficulty is that the LCA has simply come too late. The answer is to shift to another platform, converting the LCA to a lead-in fighter/trainer role with an eye on export sales. Many new entrants are pursuing that market, though, including Korea Aerospace Industries with its supersonic T-50.

How can HAL attract sales? “They will need to bring down the price,” says an official at a prime contractor watching from the sidelines.

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