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January 13, 2001
Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)
The sad tale of the LCA
Last month, Indian defence authorities quietly announced that India's prestigious Light Combat Aircraft, originally to have become operational in 1995, will not achieve that status before 2015. The euphoria over the first flight of the prototype a few days later, however, helped to push that stark news off the front pages.
The LCA programme was initiated in 1983 by the Defence Research and Development Organisation, with three widely publicised assertions. One, that it would be an indigenous project catapulting India into the rarefied ranks of global aviation powers. Two, the aircraft would enter frontline squadron service by 1995. And three, the project would only cost Rs 700 crores (Rs 7 billion).
What actually happened between 1983 and 2000? First, let us take the promise of indigenous development. In 1986 an agreement was quietly signed with the United States that permitted DRDO to work with four US Air force laboratories. The to-be-indigenously-developed engine for the LCA -- Kaveri -- was forgotten and the US made General Electric F-404 engine was substituted. Radar was sourced from Erricson Ferranti, carbon-fibre composite panels for wings from Alenia and fly-by-wire controls from Lockheed Martin. Design help was sought from British Aerospace, Avion Marcel Dassault and Deutsche Aerospace. Wind tunnel testing was done in the US, Russia and France. As for armaments -- missiles, guns, rockets and bombs -- every last item was to be imported.
As for operational induction, anyone who knew anything about fighter aircraft development or the capabilities of the DRDO would have known that the envisaged 12-year time frame (1983-1995) was /pure make-believe.
Yet, as late as 1990, DRDO asserted that the 1995 target would be met. It was only when 1995 drew closer that the talk shifted from operational induction to test flights. In 1998, the defence minister stated that the first test flight would take place in 1999. The first flight finally took place a few days ago, 17 years after the project started.
As for the project cost, the original budget was Rs 700 crores. It was later revised to Rs 3,000 crores (Rs 30 billion). It would easily go past Rs 10,000 crores (Rs 100 billion) before the aircraft is inducted into operational service. And that is with DRDO incurring only about a quarter of the overall development costs. Not included are the cost of the huge amounts of foreign equipment being fitted; engine, radar, electronic warfare and communication equipment, high-stress body panels, cockpit displays and the entire range of armament.
Initially it was stated that the per copy price of an LCA would be Rs 10 crores (Rs 100 million). It would be a miracle if the LCA can ever be produced at less than Rs 150 crores (Rs 1.5 billion) a copy. And if the LCA is eventually inducted in 2015, what will the Indian Air Force get? It will get an aircraft at best comparable to first generation F-16s.
One of the DRDO's favourite phrases is 'state of the art,' and according to them everything of the LCA is state of the art. In the fighter aircraft field, to be state of the art, at least from 1990, an aircraft must be designed for 'stealth', that is having virtually no radar or thermal signature. Not even DRDO has so far claimed that the LCA is a stealth aircraft, or that it is capable of being made into one. Forget stealth, the LCA is incapable of any significant upgrading at all during its lifetime. It is a very small, single-engined aircraft tightly packed with equipment. It cannot be fitted with a bigger engine or expanded avionics.
What prompted the DRDO to conceive the LCA when Israel, technologically far more advanced than India, had abandoned its Lavi fighter project after spending more than $ 2 billion on it? Aircraft development costs had mounted so much by then that far richer-countries compared to India such as Britain, France and Germany had realised that unless they formed multinational consortia it would not be possible for them to develop sophisticated, modern aircraft. That is why beginning the late 1970s we have had Eurofighters and Eurocopters, where three or four countries share costs and buying commitments.
It can be said with certainty that the LCA will never become a frontline fighter with the Indian Air Force. The Mirage 2000s and the Mig-29s that the air force has been flying from the 1980s have superior capabilities to any LCA that might be inducted in 2015, 2020 or 2025. So the most prudent thing for the government would be to immediately terminate the LCA project. National and individual egos have been satisfied after the first flight.
The Rs 3,000 crores or so that have spent so far could be put down as the price of a valuable learning experience. We would have undoubtedly gained valuable knowledge in many areas of aircraft design and engineering. But of much greater value, we would have gained the understanding that defence R&D is not a make-believe game to be played by exploiting the fascination for techno-nationalism.
The LCA ranks alongside DRDO's other monumental failures such as the Arjun tank, the Trishul and the Akash missiles, and the Kaveri engine. The time and cost overruns on these projects have been enormous. The story of the Arjun is well known.
With the induction of the T-90, there is no way the Arjun is going to spearhead India's armoured divisions. In fact there are many who believe that the T-72 inducted two decades ago is a better tank than the Arjun. The reality of Arjun seems to be finally sinking in, and it would appear that it might end up not as a battle tank, but as a platform for a 155mm howitzer.
The short-range, surface-to-air-missile Trishul was to be fitted on three Indian Navy frigates in 1992. A decade later, the missile is still carrying out "successful" tests, long after the frigates have been completed. The same story goes for the medium-range, surface-to-air missile Akash and the anti-tank missile Nag.
During the last 20 years, DRDO has fine-tuned the art of selling projects. To start with, don't be timid and aim low. In true Parkinsonian style, the more ambitious the project, greater the chance of it being sanctioned. When the presentation is made to the minister, be generous with phrases such as "state-of-the art". Also mention that we will be the third country in the world to produce the equipment. (It is always the "third" as even the minister knows that the USA and Russia already produce the same).
If a service chief demurs, make snide remarks about how the services want to import everything. And keep the estimated cost of the project absurdly low. Once the project is sanctioned, feed the media with a steady stream of unverifiable tidbits. Bring out a mock-up model and show it round at the Republic Day parade and defence exhibitions.
In recent times DRDO and India's defence services have evolved a modus vivendi. No longer does DRDO oppose imports, provided they are allowed to continue with their projects. Thus, import Su-30s and develop the LCA. Import T-90 tanks and produce Arjun. Import Israeli UAV and continue with a similar indigenous project. The only victim in this you-scratch-my-back-I-scratch-yours game is the Indian taxpayer, who unfortunately does not seem to care.
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