My second post is going to be markedly different from the first one. And i can’t help it! This is going to be the pattern guys, just bear with me.
As it so happens, i was reading an article in India Today last week, about the 126 multi-role fighters IAF plans to buy. After much speculation, leg-pulling, hi-level arm-twisting (especially by the US), and after delaying it for almost 2 years since i remember the idea being first floated publicly; IAF finally released RFPs (Request for Proposals) to 6 companies. They are:-
- Rafale from Dassault of the FRANCE
- Typhoon from Eurofighter of the EUROPEAN CONSORTIUM
- Mig-35 from United Aircraft Corpration of the RUSSIA
- F-16 from Lockheed Martin of the USA
- F/A-18 from Boeing of the USA
- Gripen of SAAB of the SWEDEN
Now, one of the interesting facts that many people know, and is quite worrying, is that this purchase (which is anyways going to take 7-8 years to complete) is quite crucial for the IAF. As the aging MIGs keep dropping from the sky (interestingly known as Attrition Rate, where unlike in IT, the plane has no choice but to retire after CRASHING), IAF is now woefully short in terms of numbers. IAF is sanctioned to hold 39.5 squadrons. If the IAF retires all but 100 of MIGs in the next 8 years, IAF would be left with just 26 squadrons, which is just about the size of our neighbour across the borders, the PAF. The order for 126 fighter jets is supposed to be a stop-gap measure to hold a superiority in numbers over PAF.
Now, how did this come to be? Well, the answer lies in a project named Light Combat Aircraft, rechristened Tejas. This project, which started in 1983, was supposed to give IAF an aircraft to replace its aging workhorse MIG-21. But in the year 2007, the IAF is still waiting for full-fledged production to start. Is the project a Failure??
This sparked my interest in the LCA project, and wikipedia has this to say about it. I was at first “Awed and Shocked” to know that such an undertaking was initiated and worked upon in my country. To think that the kind of technologies that are needed to be developed in order to create a 4th generation fighter jet is possible; that too without any previous experience of creating a successful fighter jet, is undoubtedly an audacious thought. A few critical technologies that needed to be developed were:-
Aircraft design :- HAL had a tryst with designing aircrafts in the 1950s mainly a Jet Trainer HT-2, and the multi-role fighter which flew for the first time in 1961, HF-24 Marut. But Marut was not very succesful; not because of its design but because of lack of a capable engine. With LCA, HAL and DRDO wanted to fulfill all of IAF’s requirements of a supersonic interceptor, which was light, cheap and small. I must admit, that despite delays etc ADA (Aeronautical Development Agency, the nodal agency responsible for the development of LCA) has been bang on target on this one. According to their website, “LCA is the smallest light weight multirole combat aircraft in the world“. The LCA is constructed of aluminium-lithium alloys, carbon-fibre composites (CFC), and titanium-alloy steels. The Tejas employs CFC materials for up to 45% of its airframe by weight, including in the fuselage (doors and skins), wings (skin, spars and ribs), elevons, tailfin, rudder, airbrakes and landing gear doors. Composites are used to make an aircraft both lighter and stronger at the same time compared to an all-metal design, and the LCA’s percentage employment of CFCs is one of the highest among contemporary aircraft of its class. Apart from making the plane much lighter, there are also fewer joints or rivets, which increases the aircraft’s reliability and lowers its susceptibility to structural fatigue cracks. As for the cost, each unit is estimated to cost about 100-110 crore Rupees (approx 21-22 million $). Compare that to Gripen from Sweden at Rs. 150 crores and Rafale` from France at about Rs. 270 crores. At the top of the line F-22 Raptor costs Rs. 480 crores. Don’t think i am comparing LCA with much advanced aircraft because many analysts have said that LCA is comparable to Gripen or Rafale`.
Engine for the LCA :- A jet engine is never an easy technology to implement from scratch. And ADA along with Gas Turbine Research Establishment were trying to do just that. Although it had been decided that LCA would initially be powered by General Electric F404-GE-F2J3 afterburning turbofan engine, a parallel program to build “Kaveri” engine was launched. The program which suffered major reversals during the post-sanction era after India’s Nuclear tests became doubly important because the GE engines weren’t forthcoming, delivery was suspended indefinitely. Everyone wondered if LCA would go the way of the Marut, this time on the design board itself? However, the sanctions were lifted by the US in Sep 2001 and in February 2002, the U.S. government agreed to supply an additional 40 F2J3 engines to permit flight testing of several previously engineless LCA prototypes to begin. Again in 2003, contract was awarded to GE, to procure the uprated F404-GE-IN20 engine for the eight pre-production LSP aircraft and two naval prototypes. Kaveri engine failed high altitude tests in mid-2004, which led the Indian Government to order 40 more F404-GE-IN20 engines for the first batch of LCA. In the meantime, the ADA awarded a contract to the French aircraft engine company SNECMA for technical assistance in working out the Kaveri’s problems in Feb 2006. The DRDO currently hopes to have the Kaveri engine ready for use on the Tejas by 2009-10.
Radar for tracking targets and potential threats :- This has been the other major technology which has added to LCA woes. HAL and Electronics and Radar Development Establishment (i don’t know why its acronym is LRDE), started development of MMR (Multi-Mode Radar) in 1997. By early 2005, air-to-air look-up and look-down modes — two very basic modes — were confirmed to have been successfully tested. In May 2006 it was revealed that the performance of several modes being tested still “fell short of expectations”. Acquisition of an “off-the-shelf” foreign radar like Elta’s EL/M-2032 is an interim option being seriously considered. However, others are suggesting that the MMR programme be dropped altogether in favor of an advanced electronically scanned phased-array (AESA) radar such as the solid-state L-band Irbis (“Snow Leopard”) AESA radar which the LRDE is co-developing with Tikhomirov NIIP of Russia.
Flight Control System :- One of the prime requirements from the design by IAF was it to have RSS (Relaxed Static Stability). It meant that without the onboard computers, the Jet has a tendency to go unstable, which might sound scary but is extremely useful for a Pilot in dog-fight. Of course, that meant the design was a Delta-wing design with just an upright Tail rudder. The designing of software of the onboard computer (a.k.a Fly-by-wire system) required a complex understanding of flight laws and fluid mechanics. Of course that took time, and complete testing of the software got delayed due to various reasons. The good news is that after much refinements the maiden flight of TD-1 on 1st Aug’ 2003 proved the system entirely air-worthy.
The Avionics and the Ejector Seat mechanism :- Tejas has advanced avionics displayed on an indigenously build “Glass Cockpit”. For a more detailed, description go here or here. Similarly, a Martin-Baker zero-zero ejection seat is slated to be replaced with an indigenous ejection seat. To improve pilot safety during ejection, the Armament Research and Development Establishment (ARDE), Pune, India created a new line-charged canopy severance system, which has been certified by Martin-Baker. This system, which is the first of its kind, can be operated from outside the aircraft, an important consideration when the pilot is trapped or unconscious.
Now, each of these technologies need state-of-the art sci/tech knowhow. Something which we Indians didn’t have prior to the start of the project. An excellent study of the LCA project and its direct and indirect effects is given here. Granted, that many of the inferences and conclusions of the study are outdated, and much water has flown under the bridge since 2001. However, I believe this painful process of learning how to create a fighter jet ourselves will pay rich dividends in the long run.
And why is that? Well, for starters we have the capability to build World-class technology and noone denies that. But why you may ask, do we need to develop the aircraft from scratch, and not through a joint development project like the Pak-China’s JF-17 project. Well, for one that project is not an equal one, China is the primary contributor and Pakistan has at times just piggy-backed the effort. Credit must still be given to Pakistan for coming up with a customized version of the aircraft for themselves named “Super 7”. If India had followed a similar strategy, we wouldn’t have allowed adequate knowhow of aeronautical engineering to develop in our country. This knowhow would most certainly trickle down to the civil aviation, and also the project has managed to establish a base for aeronautical technology dependent industries. From this platform, India has the chance to catapult itself as a powers of reckoning in the aero-space, the same way ISRO has managed to carve a niche for itself in the Space Science.
Secondly, having developed a fighter jet, now we have the confidence to negotiate equal terms in a deal like the JF-17 project. And this happened not so long ago. In 2001, Russia proposed to India, joint development of a 5th generation fighter to compete with the Joint Strike Fighter of the US. After initial apprehensive talks, India asserted that this is not an equal deal, and that Russia is in advanced stages of design. This would mean, that India’s requirements would have no room in the design, putting India at a disdvantage. However, Russia pursued with better deals (the project named PAK-FA, is in serious cash crunch), and in Jan’2007, a deal was inked for joint development of the project. Besides, India would pursue its very own 5th generation fighter tentatively named MCA (Medium Combat Aircraft) in parallel; which is an enhancement of the LCA platform, and might have Stealth characteristics, in addition to being Tailless.
As of last heard, the Limited Series Production of LCA has started, and Flight tests are underway for IAF’s Initial Operation Clearance. After the IOC, IAF will take over the first batch of LCAs (powered by the GE engines) and do some rigorous testing before granting Final Operational Clearance (FOC). After that 2 squadrons might be inducted in IAF (possibly in Tamil Nadu), and the timeline expected is around 2010. For the latest news on LCA, goto.