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

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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

 

India’s 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 India’s aerospace abilities and confidence in hi-tech defense research and manufacturing rests on the success of the LCA program.

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 India’s first and last foray in the last century into developing an indigenous fighter aircraft [8]. 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 Tank’s 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:

    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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 [1]. Many of these technologies are strategically important from a national security perspective and form the bedrock of the reborn Indian aerospace industry.

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 & Technology Independence

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. Today’s 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 Aircraft (EFA).

The competitive demands of today’s 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 LCA’s closest competitor sources 40% of its components from non-Swedish sources starting with its US made engine [5]. 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 program.

The development of just the LCA prototypes has lead to the birth of a number of aerospace ancillaries and partners spanning

  1. Private sector companies [2].
  2. Public sector giants
  3. Research departments in IITs, IISC and major universities
  4. 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 India’s 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 government’s 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 today’s 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 LCA’s Mission Profile & Integration into the IAF

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 today’s 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 [3]:

  1. light, maneuverable and agile
  2. carry a decent weapons load (4000 kg)
  3. have an extendable range with aerial refueling
  4. include a sensor suite and weapons mix (precision guided and dumb) for an adequate air-ground role
  5. combine maneuverability with BVR missiles for the air-air role

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 IAF’s 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)

Role Description IAF USAF/USN European AFs
Tactical Strike, Close Air Support, "Iron-hauler" Typically single seater, light, numerically larger numbers LCA, MiG-27 F-16C, F-18 Mirage III/V, Gripen, Rafale
Air Defense Light, agile, sensors and weapons for close engagements or BVR combat LCA. MiG-23 F-16C, F-18 Gripen, EFA, Rafale
Air Superiority Long range radar, hi-endurance, long range, BVR capability Su-30, MiG-29, Mirage 2000 F-15 A/B/C
Deep penetration strike Specialized for strike, dedicated sensors, large weapon mix for precision/unguided delivery Su-30, Jaguar, Mirage 2000-5 F-15E, F-111, F-117 Tornado
Advanced capability Stealthy in most of the EM spectrum, advanced weapons MCA* ? F-22, JSF+

* 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

Role Aircraft Type No. of aircraft
SEAD ** LCA 4
Strike LCA 8
Strike Jaguar 8
EW/ECM LCA 4
Escort MiG-29 8
Air Superiority Su-30 6
Command & Control XX - AWACS 1
TOTAL 39

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

Role Possible Weapons & payload mix
Air defense Magic II, AA-8, AA-11, Astra (AAMs)
Tactical Strike, CAS KABS-500 (PGM), indigenous PGMs, Kh-29, Kh-59, napalm, rockets, dumb bombs
SEAD ARMAT, Kh-25, Kh-59, cluster bombs, rockets
EW/ECM Litening laser designation pod, jamming pods
Buddy refueling Buddy refueling tanks, AAMs
Tactical recon Photo/electronic recon pods

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 industry’s 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 pipeline

Name Description Status
MCA (Medium Combat Aircraft) [4] Stealthy, two engined (vectored thrust) evolution of the LCA. Concept
MTA (Medium Transport Aircraft) Twin engined transport. Possible replacement for the AN-32 in the military transport role and the B-737 in the commercial airliner role. Concept
LTA (Light Transport Aircraft) "Saras", multiple utilitarian roles – defense and civilian. Prototype soon
LAH (Light Attack Helicopter) Attack helicopter evolved from ALH. Concept
HJT-36 Jet trainer. Concept, 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 aerospace industry.

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 author’s 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 aircraft (Millions)

Aircraft Devpt. Cost Per Unit Cost Comments
LCA [9,10,11] $700 $20-26 (estimate) Development cost to date.
JAS 39 Gripen [5] $2000 $25-30
F-22 [6] $20,400 (estimate) $150+ (estimate) Final costs expected to be higher.

Many media reports have estimated that the LCA’s per unit acquisition cost at $26 Million for a production run of 200+ aircraft [9,10,11]. Given the IAF’s tactical situation and the threat perception, the ordered numbers could increase, further reducing the unit cost. Another factor often not discussed by the media is that the true cost of acquiring aircraft is not in its upfront price. The real hit in any such program is the cost of spares, training and maintenance, which is where most western aerospace companies make their profit. As was pointed out earlier, the true cost of a ~200 unit run of the LCA could be ~$2 billion (typically 2-3 times base acquisition cost).

As can be seen from Table-5, the LCA program even with the delays and cost overruns is economically still competitive. With the potential to redirect as much as $2 billion in aircraft spending back into the Indian economy, it offers a splendid return on investment for the country apart from the vast benefits described previously such as the rebirth of the Indian aerospace industry and creating the aerospace ancillary infrastructure..

Conclusions

The LCA is currently undergoing a regimen of test flights. Much has to happen before the LCA enters squadron service. Some of the major steps include integration of the Kaveri engine, avionics integration and weapon systems integration. By that time, surely there would be changes to threat perceptions and the needs of the IAF. Detractors of the LCA would do well to keep in mind that such changes and evolutions are part of every aircraft program, addressed through retrogressive upgrades, even as future production versions are developed.

The main crux of this article has been that the LCA is more than just an aircraft as far as Indian defense and R & D is concerned. Too much rides on the LCA’s delta wings – the future of Indian aerospace, the mantra of self reliance and the confidence of a new defense establishment and strategic thought process. After having come so far, it would be a travesty to not carry on the LCA saga.

Dr. S. R. Valluri, the former head of ADA and one of the fathers of the LCA recently commented in an article [7] - "We are a long way away from realizing the full potential of the LCA. Nevertheless, the programme must go on to enable our aircraft and engine designers to learn what it means to build advance technology fighter aircraft and engines."

 

References

  1. http://www.defenceindia.com/test1/templ.php3?filename=lcatech.html, "LCA Avionics", Defence India
  2. http://www.hindubusinessline.com/1996/03/13/BLFP16.html, "Small Co.s Have Big Role in LCA Programme", Business Line
  3. http://www.ada.gov.in/adawebsite/act-aboutlca.html, LCA Web page, ADA
  4. http://www.bharat-rakshak.com/IAF/Images/Current/LCA/MCA.jpg MCA concept, Bharat-Rakshak
  5. http://www.sipri.se/projects/technology/Shibboleth.html, "The Self Sufficiency Shibboleth", Business Standard
  6. http://www.fas.org/man/gao/nsiad-00-068.htm "F-22 Aircraft: Development Cost Goal Achievable If Major Problems Are Avoided (Letter Report, 03/14/2000, GAO/NSIAD-00-68)", GAO Report
  7. http://www.indiaserver.com/thehindu/2001/03/03/stories/05032524.htm, "Developing the LCA", Dr. S. R. Valluri

  8. http://www.bharat-rakshak.com/IAF/Features/Marut1.html, "HF-24 Marut", Rupak chattopadhyay, Bharat-Rakshak

  9. http://www.janes.com/defence/air_forces/news/jdw/jdw000204_01_n.shtml, "Technical and cost problems stall India's LCA", Rahul Bedi, Janes Defence Weekly
  10. http://www.defenceindia.com/test1/templ.php3?filename=officialreports.html, "Review of Light Combat Aircraft project by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India 1999", Defence India
  11. http://www.bharat-rakshak.com/IAF/Features/LCA.html "LCA Update", Hormuz Mama, Flight International

 

Glossary

BVR

Beyond Visual Range. The ability to detect, engage and destroy an opponent beyond visual range in an air battle.

CAS

Close Air Support. Firepower support for ground forces in the field, a mission well carried out by the MiG-21 and MiG-27.

EW

Electronic Warfare, an acronym covering a range of capabilities from jamming enemy radars, counter jamming, providing targeting information, etc.

SEAD

Suppression of enemy air defenses. In this role, aircraft carry sensors and weapons that allow them to detect and destroy enemy radars and SAM, AAA defenses. Developed during the Vietnam war by the USAF, these missions initially called "Iron Hand" are now the "Wild Weasel" mission run by ageing F-4Gs and specially modified F-16s.

 

Copyright Bharat Rakshak 2001