The newspaper headline lit up my sleep-deprived eyes at 2am on the
airliner from Mumbai: "LCA flies for the first time". The long wait was
over and the jet fighter designed by Indians was actually flying! But its critics had not
given up. Its time now to take a look at the arguments against indigenous weapon
programs, captured succinctly by Admiral (Retd.) J.G. Nadkarni, who wrote1 with
such passion about the "Sad State of the LCA" after that first flight. Let us
take each of the Admirals points in turn.
1. Cost Escalation of the LCA / How the Public has been Misled by DRDO
According to Adm. Nadkarni, the initial estimate, circa 1983, was
around Rs. 700 crores. Today, it is Rs. 3000 crores. Given the Admirals claim that
much of the technology had to be imported, it is fair to express these costs in US
dollars, the currency of foreign arms and technology dealers. In 1983, $1 was roughly Rs.
10. In 2001, $1 is about Rs. 45.90. So, the cost "escalated" from $70 crores in
1983, to $66 crores in 2001? Taking inflation of the dollar into account, it appears that
the LCA project cost is coming in below the original estimates!
2. All DRDO-developed weapon systems are failures
The Admiral specifically mentions the Akash surface-air missile, citing
continuing testing as evidence of failure. Elsewhere2, ramjet-powered missiles
have taken over 400 tests before field deployment, over the course of a 7-year test
program, with induction of the improved version coming more than 12 years into
development. At this writing, the Akash has already gone into serial production, with
several difficult technologies mastered.
3. Most of the LCA is foreign technology or parts, with very little
The LCA has been tested with an American GE F-404 engine. It is logical
to use a proven engine during the test phase of a new airframe. The engine inlets of the
LCA were indeed tested in French supersonic wind tunnels. A supersonic wind tunnel is an
extremely expensive facility to develop; India's supersonic tunnel at Bangalore is old,
and not large enough to handle large models of the LCA inlets. Thus it was smart of the
LCA developers to enlist French help in the testing. Perhaps for the initial prototype,
various components were indeed imported. Clearly, these components would have held up the
program, had we waited for their development in India. The claim about "very little
indigenous content" is blatantly false.
4. All weapons to be carried by the LCA are, and will be,
The first weapons to be tested on the LCA may be foreign-made. Is there
any reason to believe that derivatives of the Akash, Trishul, Lakshya etc., developed in
India, wont be adapted to work with the LCA? It is our airplane; we do not need
foreign licenses to test missiles with it.
5. It is foolish for India to try to develop an advanced combat
aircraft alone: a consortium of nations developed successful modern fighters such as the
Let us review Item 3, above, where the Admiral pooh-poohs Indians for
accepting so much foreign help to develop the first LCA prototype. So, the Admiral
contends that it is wrong to get technical assistance where needed, but it would be quite
right to spend crores of Indian tax rupees just buying pieces of the production airplane
as part of a consortium, never really getting the technology. Wow!
Why did European nations form a consortium to develop the Eurofighter?
The answer is simple: otherwise American manufacturers would have put each of their
individual defense industries out of business. Given the high cost of European labor, the
economics of developing in Europe are not significantly better than those of developing in
America. We on the other hand, have a unique but limited window of opportunity to develop
defense technology for the next few years, before labor and production costs equalize with
the rest of the world.
6. The LCA is obsolete. All state-of-the-art fighters since 1990 are
This, with all due respect, is false. The Eurofighter, which the
Admiral cites as a stellar example of a state-of-the-art fighter developed by a
multinational consortium, is no "stealthier" than the LCA. Neither uses internal
weapon carriage, the geometric features of the American stealth aircraft, nor the claimed
Russian technology of plasma sheaths for stealth. Stealth comes at a high cost in
aerodynamic performance, which the LCA and Eurofighter designers avoided. It is not at all
clear that in a short-range battle such as may be expected on the India-Pakistan border, a
stealthy aircraft with poor agility will win over a less-stealthy aircraft with better
agility. Stealth will not help dislodge Pakistanis perched on Himalayan cliffs: agility
will. The per-unit cost of a typical stealth aircraft will run to roughly $100 million
(Lockheed-Martin F-22). That is Rs. 459 crores. If we opt to wait for stealth technology
before fielding the LCA, (1) the cost will go much higher, (2) the number of airplanes
bought will be much smaller, and (3) these aircraft could be overwhelmed by larger numbers
of FC-1s and Super-7s from the enemy.
7. 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.
Lets consider this wonderful claim. In the past 20 years, electronic
components have been getting smaller and lighter, while their performance has been
increasing. Even greatly "condensed" electronics, five years from now, will
outperform today's avionics packages. The same logic applies to the engine. There is no
reason to "fit" the LCA with a "bigger" engine. To my knowledge, no
aircraft in modern times has been designed with a larger-than-needed fuselage (like the
shirts I got sewn as a growing kid) on the theory that one may need to fit a
"bigger" engine later on. This would be ridiculous aerodynamic design. As
engines get better, they become smaller for the same thrust, or stay the same size and
deliver more thrust. Thus, advanced versions of the Kaveri engine need not be bigger: they
just need to be better.
8. Now that the first prototype has flown, the project should be
This was the most astonishing declaration in the article. Clearly, the
first prototype of the LCA is a technology demonstrator and test vehicle. This prototype
will not go into mass production. However, subsequent prototypes announced by DRDO/HAL are
very interesting, since they advance the technology level substantially. Thus, it is
possible that LCA prototype version 3 or 4, or 5, may be much closer to the aircraft that
will see the most mass production. To cancel the project now would serve only the enemies
9. It would be a miracle if the LCA can ever be produced at less
than Rs 150 crores each
Rs. 150 crores is less than $33 million per aircraft (the current
estimate is $26million). A modern F-16 goes for about $60 million per copy; an F-22 for
$80 to 100 million. A BAE Hawk jet trainer aircraft, which India is now buying for license
production over the next 5 to 10 years, costs $24 million per copy, and is an obsolete
design, with no weapons, no ability to fly supersonic or execute high-angle-of-attack
combat maneuvers of the type the LCA will perform. In contrast to the Hawk, where much of
that money goes abroad (except for the commissions to assorted arms agents) to develop
newer weapons to be sold to Pakistan later, the LCA development money stays in India,
multiplying wealth through economic turnover. The American rule-of-thumb for defense
expenditures is a factor of 3 in economic benefit from turnover. Therefore, even if we
take the Admiral at his word, the LCA will clearly deliver on the cost/performance front.
10. The LCA will only be equivalent to a first-generation F-16
Assume for a moment that this is true. It would still be a good reason
to induct the LCA in large numbers. This is because the primary threat to be countered by
this mass-produced aircraft is the Chinese-supplied FC-1 or "super F-7" which
the PLAF and the PAF may field. Both would fall in the same general category as the
first-generation F-16s. So the LCA is accurately focused on realistic threat perceptions.
Secondly, the statement is false. Initial development of the LCAs
fly-by-wire control system was done using the F-16XL Advanced Fighter Technology
Integrator. This is a research airplane developed from the F-16 in the 1980s-90s to
demonstrate technologies which were obviously unavailable on first-generation F-16s, such
as high-angle-of-attack maneuver recovery, supersonic cruise, and digital feedback control
for artificial stability. In addition, later prototypes of the LCA will demonstrate thrust
vectoring, learned from the Russian Su-30 technology.
11. Defence R&D is not a make-believe game to be played by
exploiting the fascination for techno-nationalism.
How soon we forget! In 1999, when nuclear-armed Pakistan invaded the
Kargil heights, what allowed Indians to laugh off the blatant Pakistani threat of nuclear
attack? My guess is that it was our belief in our nuclear-armed fighter-bombers and
ballistic missiles. These weapons were not built with foreign assistance. In other words,
where there is national urgency, and where no foreign purchases can be made nor
commissions sought, our military is willing and able to accept the products that our
scientists/engineers turn out. Perhaps there is a lesson here?
Admiral Nadkarni perhaps reflects the frustration felt by many
patriotic Indians, especially those in the Armed Forces, that our indigenous technology
lags that of the West, and our efforts to give our fighting men and women the latest and
best weapon systems invariably suffer from delays, technical problems, etc. This is
understandable. However, it would indeed be a catastrophe for India if these frustrations
added to the already-severe burdens shouldered by our technical people, and discourage
them. The result might be that we give up trying, when in fact there is every reason for
us to give our technical people the greatest encouragement!
In protecting our nation and way of life, we have no permanent friends.
Air Marshal Wollen3 , tracing the history of the LCA, had concluded years ago: "the
development of a suitable engine is the Achilles Heel of the program". This is
still true today, but consider that the LCA prototype is flying with American engines
today. Is it entirely luck that enough GE engines were obtained to permit airframe flight
testing, but no mass purchase agreement was signed (which would have killed the Kaveri
program), and enough flight-controls were tested on the F16 XL to permit program
completion within 2 years, all before May 1998? Thomas Jefferson said: "I am a
strong believer in luck. And the harder I work, the luckier I get". Perhaps the
Indian aerospace program is "getting luckier" too.
All Indians should be proud of the LCA. This airplane is
ours! With each flight, our knowledge will increase; as each imported component is
replaced with indigenous innovation, the money spent will stay inside India, generating
Indian jobs, technical infrastructure and experience. Senior leaders like Adm. Nadkarni, I
hope, will be more supportive of Indian indigenisation programs in future. Indian kids
expect and deserve it! Congratulations to the LCA team. Jai Hind!