LCA: Impact on Indian Defense
Sukumar R. Iyer
In the development of air power,
one has to look ahead and not backward and figure out what is going to happen, not too much
what has happened.
-Brig. General William 'Billy'
Mitchell, USAS, the father of modern air power
Indias Light Combat Aircraft (LCA)
flew for the first time on January 4th, 2001, almost a full forty years since
the last major Indian designed fighter took to the skies. The occasion marked the
culmination of the scientific dreams of many in India. That day also perhaps marks the
rebirth of the Indian aerospace industry and will have a significant impact on Indian
defense for many years to come. The future of Indias aerospace abilities and
confidence in hi-tech defense research and manufacturing rests on the success of the LCA
Rebirth of the Indian Aerospace industry
We would be remiss to analyze the role of
the LCA without looking at the past attempts, failures and shortcomings of the Indian
aerospace industry.The HF-24 Marut was Indias first and last foray in the
last century into developing an indigenous fighter aircraft . Designed by the legendary
Kurt Tank, (father of the Focke-Wulf 190 in WWII), the Marut was perhaps a little
early for its time considering the immaturity of Indian industry in those years. The
refusal of the British to provide an engine capable of powering an aircraft its size, and
the Indian inability to develop one doomed the Marut from the start. A similar fate
met the Egyptian Helwan also designed by Kurt Tanks team.
Since then, Indian aerospace has
languished without direction and the lack of political will, combined with the stupor
governing the Indian public sector that has a stranglehold on defense related industries.
Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), the lone Indian aircraft company has long satisfied
itself with assembling a line of aircraft under license and recently supplying parts to
overseas aircraft manufacturers. With a work force of more than 40,000 employees
comparable in size to aerospace giants in the west, this public sector behemoth symbolized
the inertia in the Indian aerospace and defense industries. The only bright spots in this
otherwise bleak picture were the development of the Ajeet, Kiran and a line
of piston-engined trainers.
The dying spark of the Marut program was
an attempt to design and build a Deep Penetration Strike Aircraft (DPSA) the HF-73, a twin
engined derivative of the Marut. The demise of the HF-73 later culminated in the purchase
of the Jaguar to fill this role. While a series of imports and license assembly programs
followed, hopes were kept alive by the launch of the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA)
in 1984 with the sole purpose of developing the LCA.
The first flight of the LCA on January 4th,
2001 along with the fledgling Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) and the Saras
programs marks a rebirth of the nascent Indian aerospace industry, which had been all but
written off. Combined with successes in the Integrated Guided Missile Development Program
(IGMDP), the nuclear program going overt and a new awakening in strategic thinking, the
LCA marks the beginning of a new era in Indian defense Research & Development (R &
D) and manufacturing. Lets consider some of the significant broader accomplishments in the
development of the LCA:
- Program Management: Planning and coordination between
hundreds of defense laboratories, ministries, universities, public sector companies, private
firms and overseas collaborators. This becomes more significant considering the typical
bureaucratic hurdles, inertia, infighting, turf battles and scientific egos that are typical
of the Indian research establishment.
- Systems Integration: Long a weakness in the Indian
scientific psyche, the ability to plan and integrate the many complex systems and
technologies that make up a modern fighter. ADA has developed virtual reality based software
to help in this aspect. This state-of-the-art software (the author can attest to this,
having seen a demonstration) is now in demand with western aerospace companies.
- Development of innovative Technologies: The program
has tried to buy, learn and incorporate many of the complex technologies from overseas
collaborators integrating then with an array of indigenous efforts. Sanctions and the
unwillingness to share on the part of the USA and UK lead to the indigenous development of
many of the hi-tech capabilities needed for a modern fighter. A non-exhaustive list of these
technologies includes avionics, systems integration, gas turbine engines, flight
control software (fly-by-wire), actuators, sensors, composites technologies, virtual reality
software, CAD/CAM (Computer Aided Design/Manufacturing) software, Computational Fluid
Dynamics and communications . Many of these technologies are strategically important from
a national security perspective and form the bedrock of the reborn Indian aerospace
Development of aerospace technology and
industry mark the maturation of a growing economy with the capability to build or absorb
these technologies. Combined with the significant strides made in the Indian space effort,
the LCA will be a major confidence builder for bolder strides in defense R & D. The
next sections analyze the larger impact and role of the LCA in Indian defense.
Birth of the Indian Aerospace Infrastructure &
An examination of the aerospace industry
in a well-developed economy shows that developing and building aircraft requires a vast
infrastructure of ancillary manufacturing industries and a few systems integrators.
Todays aircraft and aerospace systems (like the space shuttle) are extremely complex
systems requiring an array of companies and industries focused on the different component
technologies that integrate into such a system. This is one reason for aerospace industry
to remain confined to a few developed economies. In Europe, the need to master this array
of complex technologies and the high costs involved has lead to companies from different
countries pooling their resources in pan-European efforts like the European Fighter
The competitive demands of todays
global economy also dictate sourcing components and technologies from other countries
where those technologies are mature and available economically. Those that complain about
components imported for use in the LCA should note that the Swedish JAS 39 Gripen, which
is the LCAs closest competitor sources 40% of its components from non-Swedish
sources starting with its US made engine . ADA has wisely imported technologies
(already developed) where available from overseas, and indigenously researched those not
available or offered. It would also be logical to introduce import substitution and
license manufacture of some of these technologies later in the production phase of the
The development of just the LCA
prototypes has lead to the birth of a number of aerospace ancillaries and partners
- Private sector companies .
- Public sector giants
- Research departments in IITs, IISC and major universities
- DRDO and defense research laboratories
The contribution of these companies and
organizations has extended from nuts & bolts to more complex systems such as engines,
materials, landing gear, airframe parts, electricals and electronics. These four
sectors constitute the primary aerospace infrastructure needed to support systems
integrators such as HAL, which has built up considerable experience in integrating
aircraft for the last forty odd years. With the development of the production LCAs these
four sectors would grow exponentially laying the foundation to manufacture the next
generations of fighters, helicopters, transport aircraft and trainers the country needs.
Since independence, the country has spent
billions of dollars to build a capable air force to defend its skies and the airliners
flying people in and out of the country. These billions, ill affordable for a country with
Indias needs have ended up in British, French and Russian coffers and helped build
better homes and lives for people in those countries. With the birth of the Indian
aerospace industry, an ever-increasing percentage of those billions would go to Indian
companies and bellies, a more attractive proposition. Media reports have indicated the
governments intention to go for an initial production run of ~200 LCAs. At the often
quoted price of $26 million per unit [9,10], just the buy of these aircraft is $626
million redirected into the Indian economy rather than overseas. Combined with
expenditures on maintenance and spares this figure could well be upwards of $2 billion in
funds entering the Indian economy rather than leaving it.
The development of this infrastructure
and technologies in the country also builds "swadeshi" self reliance and more
importantly is sanctions proof. In todays growing global economy, India must
integrate with the rest of the world but can ill afford not to have strengths and
self-reliance in critical areas such as aerospace.
The LCAs Mission Profile & Integration into
There has been much debate about the
intended role of the LCA, its weapons fit and capabilities fit into the IAF arsenal. A
major portion of the IAF fleet comprises the MiG-21 procured in large numbers from the
1960s through the 1980s. Having done a stellar job in multiple roles interceptor,
interdictor, close air support the ageing fleet is increasingly obsolete as
indicated by the frequent crashes reported in the media.
The LCA is intended to replace the MiG-21
and fill the role of a multi-role mainstay aircraft. This means that the LCA must fill the
evolved role (in todays battle environment) which was then filled by the MiG-21.
Every modern air force has a mix of aircraft intended to fill different roles, the sum of
which makes for a deadly and efficient air force.
The LCA was designed to be :
- light, maneuverable and agile
- carry a decent weapons load (4000 kg)
- have an extendable range with aerial refueling
- include a sensor suite and weapons mix (precision guided
and dumb) for an adequate air-ground role
- combine maneuverability with BVR missiles for the air-air
In other words, the LCA is not designed
to be a state-of-the-art interceptor or the last word in strike technology. The IAF has
other aircraft for those specialized roles. The LCA is designed to be the utility
infielder, available in adequate quantity, playing with the other numerically fewer
specialized aircraft in the IAFs combat team. Table-1 analyzes the role profile of
the LCA and other aircraft in the IAF arsenal along with comparable aircraft.
Table-1: Fighter Role profiles,
IAF and other air forces (~2005)
Strike, Close Air Support, "Iron-hauler"
single seater, light, numerically larger numbers
sensors and weapons for close engagements or BVR combat
radar, hi-endurance, long range, BVR capability
MiG-29, Mirage 2000
for strike, dedicated sensors, large weapon mix for precision/unguided delivery
Jaguar, Mirage 2000-5
most of the EM spectrum, advanced weapons
* MCA Medium Combat
Aircraft (speculative design on the drawing board
+JSF Joint Strike Fighter
(USAF/USN/USMC/RAF joint multi-mission stealth fighter)
Table-2 analyzes the role of the LCA in a
strike package intended for say a medium range, well-defended target in Pakistan such as
Sargodha AFB. The typical LCA role for such a mission would be the primary iron hauler
along with support missions such as advance reconnaissance, SEAD and EW support.
Table 2: LCA in a light IAF
tactical strike package, target Sargodha AFB
||No. of aircraft
||XX - AWACS
As this article is written, the LCA still
needs to complete integration of sensor suites and weapon systems. The IAF already
possesses a vast arsenal of modern sensors and weapons with which it has much experience.
These weapons have also been integrated with older systems such as the MiG-21. This should
help hasten the integration of some of those systems into the LCA. Apart from these
existing systems, newer weapons like the Astra AAM and new precision-guided weapons are
reported under development. Table-3 shows typical roles envisaged for the LCA along with
possible weapons/payloads mixes.
Table-3: Mix of roles for the LCA in the IAF
||Possible Weapons & payload mix
AA-8, AA-11, Astra (AAMs)
(PGM), indigenous PGMs, Kh-29, Kh-59, napalm, rockets, dumb bombs
Kh-59, cluster bombs, rockets
laser designation pod, jamming pods
refueling tanks, AAMs
The first of many
A successful LCA could be the harbinger
of better things to come down an Indian aerospace industry pipeline. Nothing succeeds like
success and the LCA could prove the industrys ability to manage a complex
technological project and bring it to fruition. ADA has published ambitious plans for many
other follow-on types of aircraft, as has HAL. What has been most encouraging is also the
entry of public and private sector firms such as Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd. (BHEL) and
Taneja Aerospace and Aviation Ltd. (TAAL) into the picture with their Swati and Viator
lines of aircraft. Table-4 shows a list of possible follow-ons and new aircraft in the
pipeline that would be inspired by an LCA success story.
Table-4: Aircraft conceptualized or in the
Combat Aircraft) 
engined (vectored thrust) evolution of the LCA.
transport. Possible replacement for the AN-32 in the military transport role and the B-737
in the commercial airliner role.
multiple utilitarian roles defense and civilian.
helicopter evolved from ALH.
flight expected 2002/3
The technologies developed
and lessons learnt in the LCA program would immensely benefit these other efforts. The
ancillary and R & D infrastructure developed from the LCA program could be reused in
these other programs leading to further development of the aerospace industry in India.
These facts further underscore the LCA being the foundation stone of the modern Indian
Cost-Benefit Analysis of the LCA
The previous sections have brought out
the vast benefits that would accrue to the nascent Indian aerospace industry from a
successful LCA program. These benefits more than justify any cost of development, however
high it may be. It would be hard (and in the authors opinion - futile) to even try
to attach monetary value to these benefits, since it is a question of survival for Indian
aerospace and hi-tech defense development. There are those that have carped about the
costs incurred in the development of the LCA. It would be instructional to compare the
projected `per-unit costs of the LCA with those of other similar platforms currently
available on the international market. Table-5 shows a comparison of the LCA costs with
the Swedish JAS-39 Gripen which is the closest competitor to the LCA. Figures for the F-22
program are attached to contrast these costs.
Table-5: Costs of LCA versus other
||Per Unit Cost
cost to date.
|JAS 39 Gripen
expected to be higher.