BHARAT RAKSHAK MONITOR - Volume 3(5) March-April 2001

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The LCA: With All Due Respect to the Naysayers…

Narayanan Komernath

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 Admiral’s 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 Admiral’s 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 indigenous content.

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, foreign-made.

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, won’t 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 Eurofighter.

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 radar-stealthy.

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 cancelled.

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 of India.

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 LCA’s 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!

References

1. J.G. Nadkarni, J.G., (Admiral, Retired, Indian Navy) "Sad State of the LCA". Rediff.com, January 13, 2001. http://www.rediff.com/news/2001/jan/13nad.htm

2. Fletcher, C.F., Lane, D.R., "Service Experience With Three Generations of Ramjets". In "Ramjets and Ramrockets for Military Applications". AGARD Conference Preprint No. 307, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Neuilly Sur Seine, France, October 1981.

3. Wollen, MSD, "The Light Combat Aircraft Story". Indian Aviation, Opening Show report, Aero India 2001.

Copyright Bharat Rakshak 2001