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'The LCA won't take off in the near future'
The Light Combat Aircraft is perhaps the most ambitious of all DRDO projects. But 17 years and four postponements of its test flight later, the multi-role fighter meant to replace the MiG-21 is still a dream.
What has happened to the LCA, the most technologically complex challenge that DRDO had taken up? Air force officers, DRDO scientists and defence experts say it remains grounded because of "scores of technical problems."
The delay has hurt the air force badly and dented the DRDO's image. A country that has not designed a jet fighter in decades had been waiting long for one. India had designed and produced the HF-24 aircraft in the early 1960s, but its engine was British.
Such was the enthusiasm behind the LCA that in 1985 the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi showcased it as a symbol of the new era of co-operation and friendship between India and the United States. Gandhi even overrode the claims of the French and Germans who had been collaborating with DRDO and the Bangalore-based Hindustan Aeronautical Limited for the LCA production.
The original deadline to fly the aircraft was 1993. The cost, Rs 5.6 billion. The DRDO and HAL did roll out an LCA in the presence of then prime minister P V Narasimha Rao on November 17, 1995. DRDO top brass then announced that the maiden flight would take place in early 1997. The dates were revised to June 1998 and then to February 1999.
Years passed by, but no test flight took place. Today the deadline for the LCA has become a joke in defence circles.
The most scathing criticism of the project came from the Comptroller and Auditor General of India who, in his 1999 report, said: 'Even at the end of 1998, the LCA had not crossed the development stage. Its production and induction into the air force remains only a distant possibility.'
The CAG report went on to add that the airframe for LCA developed by the DRDO's Bangalore laboratory, the Aeronautical Development Agency 'is deficient in vital parameters of aerodynamic configuration, volume and most importantly, the weight.'
The first phase of the project consumed Rs 25 billion, overshooting the estimated Rs 5.6 billion. Worse, due to the delay, the air force was compelled to upgrade its MiG Bis aircraft at a cost of Rs 21.35 billion.
Scientists at DRDO, ADA and HAL concede one thing: the LCA has run into some serious technical problems. LCA is a meticulous fly-by-wire aircraft, which is critically dependent on software to fly.
"But over the years, we have not been successful in fully testing the software. Therefore, we face difficulties in integrating the system," admits an engineer at HAL.
Since the aircraft depends on computers, no pilot wants to risk a flight test without thoroughly validating the system. Scientists say the trials intended to test the dynamic stability of the airframe and the LCA's engine-flight control system has been successful. Though the engine and the electronics are in the advanced test mode, the aircraft's ability to withstand low pressure and temperature at high altitudes is suspect.
"There is reason enough to worry that the LCA will not take off in the near future," says Bangalore-based aviation expert P N Srivastava.
"I feel the delay is primarily due to the fact that it took years for a country like India to get the advanced technology for the project," he says. "The idea for LCA was born without having any requisite technology on our side," Srivastava points out.
DRDO officials put forward one reason for the project delay -- sanctions from the United States after the Pokhran nuclear blasts. In a bid to force India to put the nuclear genie back into the bottle, the US has pulled out of the project soon after the tests.
Thus, just one week after the explosions in May 1998, many scientists working on different fields linked to the LCA at aerospace giant Lockheed Martin in Binghamton, New York, were asked to pack their bags for India by the United States. The Indian engineers were working to validate a computerised control law software for onboard computers which will ultimately fly the aircraft.
As it imposed sanctions, the US also denied key components like hydraulic actuators -- that help manoeuvre the aircraft, gain altitude and determine the trajectory -- and the ring-laser gyros to make inertial navigation systems.
"One of the main reasons for the delay is that technological sanctions from the US hit us badly. Had it not been for the nuclear blasts, our deadline to test fly the aircraft would have been successful in December 1998," says a senior DRDO official.
Lockheed Martin refused to give the DRDO the flight control computer, which was in the US for testing, when sanctions were announced, he added.
Another major hurdle for DRDO is the LCA's engine. As per its agreement with the US, India was allowed to purchase frontline 404 engines from General Electric. In fact, DRDO imported 11 such engines and fitted them on to the early versions of the aircraft, pending the development of the indigenous Kaveri engine being developed by Bangalore's Gas Turbine Research Establishment.
But after the nuclear tests, GE withdrew its technical support personnel from India and DRDO was forced to depend only on Kaveri. Sources now say it will take at least two years to determine whether Kaveri engines can withstand the low pressure and temperature at high altitudes.
No one at DRDO, ADA and HAL believes that the LCA will fly before 2005.
Experts say the delay should be examined in the context of a country that has not designed and produced a jet fighter since the 1960s. Development of every vital component of the LCA -- airframe, multimode radar, flight control system, Kaveri engine, digital electronic engine control - are said to be beset with problems.
Scientists at DRDO, for their part, hold the defence ministry partially responsible for the delay. Between 1990 and 1994, all work came to a virtual standstill as the defence ministry refused to release the much-needed foreign exchange because of economic stringency.
But the biggest worry for DRDO is not the bureaucratic delays and sanctions, but the Indian air force. Faced with diminishing number of its ageing fleet, the IAF holds DRDO responsible for promising to deliver the LCA before year 2,000, thereby considerably upsetting many of its aircraft acquisition plans.
Suspecting that DRDO will never deliver the LCA, the IAF has now embarked on an ambitious project to upgrade 100 MiG-21 aircraft.
Despite the heavy odds, DRDO still remains confident that it will roll out the country's first indigenous aircraft before 2002.
"We will induct 200 LCAs into the Indian Air Force between 2003 and 2010," Dr Abdul Kalam told a group of aeronautical scientists before he handed over DRDO's charges to Dr Vasudev K Aatre.
But there aren't many who believe that promise will be fulfilled.
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