Express Investigation: Delayed Research; Delayed Organisation – Part – Four
23 yrs and first fighter aircraft hasn’t taken off
Amitav Ranjan , Siv Aroor
Posted: Wed Nov 15 2006, 00:00 hrs
New Delhi, November 14:
At its last meeting in December 2005, the General Body of the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), the society developing the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, recorded one fact: the Indian Air Force, despite official plans to ultimately buy 220 LCAs, would order only 20 aircraft.
And that the IAF had refused to push the order up until it’s convinced that the new 2010 deadline, the project’s third consecutive time over-run, would be met.
The IAF had more than a reason.
According to latest official figures that will shortly be tabled by the Standing Committee on Defence in a report for Parliament, available with The Indian Express, DRDO’s 23-year-old indigenous fighter aircraft programme, taken as a whole — including the radar, jet engine and Naval variant — would have wiped away a minimum of Rs 9444.5 crore by 2010. Aggregate cost over-run: Rs 4,094 crore. Delay: 12.5 years and counting.
By DRDO’s own testimony in June to the same committee, there are still “certain complexities,” although it claims it will produce the 20 LCAs on order from the IAF by December 2011. But that would still be understandable if the LCA was in any way ready.
Five months after the ADA meeting, Air chief S P Tyagi communicated in no uncertain terms to then Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee that his force could not depend on the programme in the short term. Shortly thereafter, he told The Indian Express: “We have to see if it is a suitably modern aircraft when it is complete. Right now we just cannot take any decisions. We can only wait for initial operational clearance (in 2008).”
The implication: the IAF is not sure if the LCA would have slipped down a few generations by the time it’s inducted. But the Standing Committee only had this to say: “The Committee are constrained to note that, keeping in view the ever-increasing delay in operational clearance of LCA, early induction of the same as IAF squadrons seems to be an unrealistic proposition.”
Just how unrealistic it is is something that has come to characterize the LCA programme ever since its inception in August 1983, and culminating now in a gravely unready fighter aircraft that the IAF could have no choice but to induct in large numbers from 2012.
Consider the following: Despite a battery of nine test pilots who have been embedded with the LCA programme, the IAF has refused to officially certify any technological aspect of the LCA apart from its structural strength, until initial operational clearance (IOC). Air Headquarters said so, in a written reply to this newspaper. The clearance should have been achieved by 2007 but its new schedule is 2008.
After a four-year wait following the rollout of the LCA technology demonstrator in 1997 for a first flight, former Air chief S Krishnaswamy made out an official case in 2003 for a “limited series induction” of the aircraft to give the IAF a chance to familiarize itself. He told The Indian Express, “The LCA is not full in any way, each prototype is different. I was a staunch supporter of indigenisation but am also very critical. How long can you keep on developing a product?”
The eight promised Limited Series Production fighters, envisaged as a part of the Rs 3,301.78 crore second phase of the programme, are nowhere in sight. The LCA, which should have undergone weapons trials by 2003, will now only undergo “dummy” trials in December 2007 according to DRDO chief M Natarajan, putting a big question mark on the possibility of IOC by 2008.
The real problem: the HAL-DRDO multi-mode radar, the very brain that will guide the LCA’s weapons, is not ready. After spending Rs 166.8 crore since 1997, HAL has decided to bring in a foreign technical partner to bail it out. The radar has been tested on an HS-748 Avro, but persistent problems with software and its signal processor have forced HAL and DRDO to admit their failure.
DRDO has justified the delays and their impact on the IAF’s preparedness by pointing to a revision of the development strategy because of a foreign exchange shortage in the 1990s, US sanctions, re-designing composite wings for weapon definition after January 2004 and extensive on-ground and independent evaluation.
After a cost and time overrun of Rs 2,456 crore and 13 years since 1996, DRDO admitted to the Standing Committee in June that it could complete the Kaveri engine only under a foreign joint venture. Problems that have crippled the Kaveri, according to the latest DRDO testimony, include critical glitches in aerodynamic, aero-mechanical, combustion and structural integrity.
Most significantly, DRDO has admitted to the Committee that to improve performance and safety issues, a JV could be attempted. Former DRDO chief V K Aatre said: “When I retired (in August 2004), there were some loose ends in the programme involving the radar and jet engine. But I am surprised they have still not been resolved.”
The DRDO was pulled up in January by the Standing Committee to explain how the LCA’s delays would impact the IAF’s modernization. Their reply: “IAF only can state the possible impact of delay on modernization exclusively due to LCA.”
But at Air HQ, an unofficial and approximate damage analysis of the LCA’s delay, shared with The Indian Express, is to the tune of Rs 11,440 crore in forced upgrades (some variants of the MiG-21 that the LCA was to replace will be forced to serve till 2019-2021 at least) and stop-gap acquisitions.
This does not include the purchase of 126 fighters potentially worth Rs 30,000 crore that the IAF will shortly begin an acquisition process for. In an unusual move, the Naval LCA will use air data systems from Russia’s state-owned Rosobornexport, which will also create a shore-based test facility for the Rs 948.90 crore development. MiG Corporation will conduct a design review and be DRDO’s chief consultant.