NATIONAL

IAF reluctant to place orders for LCA

Ravi Sharma

BANGALORE: The indigenously developed light combat aircraft (LCA) programme is in danger of being undermined by time overruns. The Indian Air Force is delaying taking to its natural conclusion the announcement made last February by Chief of the Air Staff S.P. Tyagi that orders would be placed "soon" for 40 LCAs.

Apprehension

Highly-placed sources told The Hindu that even while the paperwork for an order of 20 aircraft in a Rs. 2,000-crore deal was being processed, the IAF was "highly apprehensive" of the time and cost overruns, and poor management.

The IAF is keen that the management of the Rs. 5,500-crore, 22-year-old LCA programme be transferred from the technology development agency — Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) — to the production agency, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). Something that ADA is reluctant to do, despite the fact that the presence of two agencies and the resultant dual control have played havoc with the management and time schedules of the LCA programme.

Explained a senior scientist at ADA: "As designers of the aircraft, the airworthiness responsibility will continue to be with us. So too will any new installation or upgradation of software, changes in the avionics and integration of future sensors and we are the signatories for all of the aircraft's safety features. We will continue to have responsibility for the LCA programme at least until the aircraft is inducted into the IAF. [Which will not happen before 2009-10]."

Blame game

Dual control has resulted in a mutual blame game. While HAL sources criticised ADA for not providing HAL (which is to manufacture the LCA) with the blueprints of the aircraft, scientists at ADA said that the talk of blueprints was pass�.

"We have transferred the technology to HAL. Our designs in real time are available to them at their Aircraft Research and Design Centre, where we have invested Rs. 40 crores. They can draw a soft copy of the aircraft's designs through the product line management systems and then make a 3D model. At any time, Rs. 20 crores of LCA money is parked with HAL."

Carrier trials

Presently Tejas is undergoing carrier trials and by the end of 2005 weapon integration trials are also expected to start. Both are part of the aircraft's initial operational clearance (IOC) phase, which requires around 1,200 sorties. Successful IOC clearance (which is scheduled to be achieved by 2009-10) will mean inducting the aircraft into the IAF's combat units. Only final operational clearance will mean that the aircraft is ready to go into battle.

Currently two technology demonstrators and a prototype of the LCA are flying, and together they have undertaken over 440 flights.

ADA plans to build seven aircraft — two technology demonstrators and five prototypes — in the technology demonstration phase.

Thereafter, HAL's factories in Bangalore, Lucknow, Korwa and Hyderabad will take up the manufacture of the eight limited series production (LSP) aircraft.

Amount sanctioned

Sources at ADA said the Government had sanctioned over Rs. 500 crores for manufacturing the LSP aircraft and an equal amount for building of infrastructure at HAL, specifically for the LSP.

While the first LSP is scheduled to roll out by early 2007, all eight are scheduled to be ready by 2008-09. The eight aircraft will be built to the same specifications as those that are to be inducted into the IAF. An aircraft or even two will be detailed for handling flights.

The ADA's insistence that it would like to be in charge of the LCA programme even during the LSP phase has caused consternation in HAL. It means waiting longer before it is given the financial management of the project.

Experts are of the view that ADA, which is a Defence Research and Development Organisation laboratory and was created specifically for the LCA project, could be merged with the HAL's aircraft design bureau. The ADA team can thereafter carry on its work as part of the manufacturing agency's design bureau.

Concern

The IAF's concern is that once an order is placed for 20 LCAs, it will not only have to budget at least Rs. 2,000 crores for the aircraft, but also part with a substantial portion of the money. This will mean that its options to buy other aircraft — if the LCA fails to arrive — will be severely curtailed.

A desperate IAF, which has seen its fighter squadrons shrink from the authorised strength of 39 and a half, because of the phasing out of a number of aircraft, is presently shopping around for 126 multi-role combat aircraft (MRCA).

But the IAF has stressed that the MRCA deal — which is worth around $9 billion — will in no way impinge on its requirement for LCAs, which will be in the region of 200. These aircraft are to take the place of the IAF's MiG-21s.

Recommended for you