The man who got to jockey with the controls of this diminutive jet first made a succinct comment: "It's a dream flight," Wing Commander Rajiv Kothiyal exclaimed, lunging from the cockpit of the Light Combat Aircraft (lca) to accept the greetings of defence minister George Fernandes. A moment earlier, chief of air staff Air Chief Marshal A.Y. Tipnis had radioed his praise from on board one of the two Mirage-2000s that stalked the lca during its maiden flight over the Bangalore skies on January 4.
This is a day that will go down in Indian aeronautical history as one of the brightest. But the downside of the lca project is that very few in the air force would go by the official estimate that the aircraft will be inducted into the force in the next six years. Sceptics say that the first of the lcas will be available for operational purposes only in 2012 or even later.
Indeed, even Tipnis was quick to add a note of caution. "This is only the end of the beginning. The pendulum of Indian emotions should not swing from one of acute scepticism to one of extreme euphoria. There are many more aeronautical miles to be flown to make the lca a frontline fighter of the iaf," he remarked at the post-flight conference.
But that apart, it was champagne time in Bangalore. The test flight had pitch-forked India into an exclusive league of countries that design and fly their own supersonic fighter jets. There were such euphoric comments as "a great achievement for a country that has not even designed a scooter of its own," by Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, director of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (idsa), New Delhi. The copybook test flight has encouraged the design team to project the lca as the world's 'smallest light-weight multi-mission jet' at the International Aerospace show scheduled for next month in Bangalore.
More than such sentiments of triumph and euphoria, the test flight also came as a source of relief for the chiefs of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (drdo), the air force and the navy. For, as the project sputtered along over a decade, lurching from spells of uncertainty on the one hand to technical glitches, the drdo came in for much criticism. Even as recently as last month the parliamentary committee on defence came down heavily on the project.
In fact, the road ahead could well be a long drawn one for the Aeronautical Development Agency (ada), the nodal organisation, and a host of other drdo units working on the project. The design team would have to conduct extensive tests on each of the seven prototypes, including a version for the navy and another as a trainer, before it is inducted by the iaf as replacement for the ageing MiG 21, MiG 23 and MiG 27 fighters. During these tests, the prototypes would be flown at supersonic speeds, will carry out all sorts of battle manoeuvres, besides integrating the radar and the air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles. The attributes of stealth to dodge radars during combat would also be incorporated before the aircraft joins the air strike wing.
Simultaneous with these tests would be the evaluation of the indigenous Kaveri engine being developed by the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (gtre), Bangalore. If the engine meets the stringent requirements of the jet, it would be some record—the first engine to power an aircraft since gtre's inception four decades ago. For now, the prototypes will be powered by General Electric's F-404 engines.Eleven of these engines have been acquired from the United States.
The final version of the combat aircraft would be an entirely indigenous product by the time it is cleared for acquisition by the iaf. With such a vast composition of local design talent as well as components and sub-systems, the combat aircraft would cost about $18 to 20 million (about Rs 90 crore) apiece. This is far more economical when compared with prices of the Mirage 2000 (Rs 150 crore), Mirage 2000-5 (Rs 250 crore), the French Rafale (Rs 300 crore), the US F-16 (Rs 112 crore), the F-22 (Rs 675 crore) and the Euro Fighter (Rs 405 crore).
iaf sources also say that the air strike wing would only be too happy to fly the indigenous fighter if it meets the force's requirements at the time of its launch. "We wanted a fighter to match the F-16s. If the lca does that and can take on the FC-1 and the Su-27 (being flown by the Chinese), we won't have anything to complain," says a senior air force officer. Air Marshal Philip Rajkumar, director of the National Flight Test Centre, echoed these sentiments soon after the first flight. "All this talk of obsolescence is rubbish. The lca is designed for high manoeuvrability. It is not meant to take on the F-22 or the Joint Strike Fighter," he said.
Though the government has set aside about Rs 2,800 crore for the development phase, one uncertainty dogging designers is the resources for the production. For 200 such aircraft, the government would have to release about $1 billion. That could cause hiccups, for the government has signed a deal of $3 billion for licensed production of the Su-30s in India. Also on the shopping list of the Ministry of Defence are the Advanced Jet Trainers (ajts) and Airborne Early Warning (aew), both of which could cost the exchequer over $1 billion each.
The other hurdle is the development of cutting edge technologies as the lca is gradually upgraded from a prototype's stage to that of a frontline fighter. It's on this point that Air Cmde Jasjit Singh stresses on time delays. "Our weakness, as is apparent, lies in the design and development phase. I cannot predict how long we could take to overcome these problems," he says.
It was this weakness which dashed India's hopes of developing an indigenous fighter, the HF-24, popularly known as Marut. Though more than a hundred fighters of the first version were flown by the iaf, the project was grounded as soon as the prototype of its upgrade (to fly at supersonic speeds) crashed. This was three decades ago. Since then, successive governments chose to shop for fighters and play it safe. No one wanted to be blamed for failures. "We should be resilient to absorb one or two failures in any programme of this magnitude," says Prof Roddam Narasimha, former director of the National Aerospace Laboratories (nal), who was involved in the design of lca.
The lca could strengthen the strike capability of the iaf and, if our government is a little more enterprising, it could even be marketed as replacement for ageing aircraft of air forces of a number of Asian and African nations. According to Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, about 8,000 such aircraft would have to be replaced in the next two decades and the lca would be the ideal, cost-effective alternative for these nations.
Besides, as Dr Kota Harinarayan, project director of the lca, points out, the software developed for this fighter as well as more than a hundred other components could be sold in the global aerospace market."Our software is being used by Airbus for its super jumbo project," he claims.
But all this hinges on whether future governments would continue to support the venture through the production phase. One whimsical decision could bring down the curtains, just like the HF 24, and set the clock back for the indigenous aerospace programme.
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