India’s Fighter Saga Continues

 - March 28, 2018, 3:17 PM
India's LCA, also known as the Tejas, has suffered delays and technical issues. (Photo: Neelam Mathews)

Indian military fighter procurement is fast becoming a comedy of missed deadlines. A commitment to manufacture the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) as opposed to producing a foreign design in the country has led to a series of reversals on procurement for the Indian Air Force’s fighter requirements. The delays in decision-making come against a background of the IAF’s depleted squadrons and the need to replace aging aircraft such as the MiG-21.

The Indian Navy, too, is awaiting the release of a request for proposal for 57 fighters for its aircraft carriers, for which it has issued a request for information (RFI). This followed delays to the single-engine, tailless delta LCA (Tejas) that is being designed and developed by the government’s Aeronautical Development Agency and the government-owned manufacturer, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL). The Navy has rejected the aircraft as “it does not meet the qualitative requirements,” Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Sunil Lanba told AIN last year. The Naval LCA version that was to have been delivered by HAL by 2010 was further delayed to 2014, and has now turned into a technology demonstrator project.

Furthermore, as the joint production of the Indo-Russian Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) has not stirred, an RFI for a medium multi-role combat Aircraft 2 is to be released—date unknown—to include both single- and twin-engine fighters with specific qualitative requirements such as “modern multi-payloads,” AIN has learned. “Clearly, speed is of the essence as delays in procurement decisions are affecting the upgrading of the fleet,” a MoD official said.

Delays have been extensive. In 2013, the Parliament was informed that the LCA Mk 2, for which the date of completion was intended to be 2008, had been revised to 2015. The Mk 2 version is to be re-engined from the General Electric F404 to the F414 and is planned to enter production by 2027. Meanwhile, an indigenous AESA fire control radar is being developed for the Mk 2 by the Electronics and Radar Development Establishment (LRDE), for which Bangalore-based Centum Electronics has designed and developed the vibration-hardened OCXO (oven-controlled crystal oscillators). “The function of OCXO is to generate the clock frequency of 120 MHz, which is in turn fed to a synthesizer that generates the required X-band frequency for the AESA,” said Vinod Chippalkatti, vice president, Centum Electronics. Since the Mk 2 will weigh almost 20 percent more than the LCA Mk 1A, with a heavier payload, it will be an entirely new project, currently awaiting financial clearance.

As pressure mounts from the MoD, and HAL is promising to deliver the long-delayed and underpowered LCA Mk 1A, it is likely that the single-engine OEM project that was to be completed with the private sector will likely be scrapped—for the moment at least. “Even if Lockheed Martin has to set up its F-16A facility in India which it says it can, it will take at least eight years for the first aircraft to roll out. Even HAL will be able to do that. So why not encourage Indian manufacture?” remarked a defense consultant. 

Meanwhile, the IAF has agreed to procure 20 Mk 1A LCAs from HAL with initial operational capability (IOC), six of which have been delivered, and 20 in final operational capability (FOC) configuration. The FOC has been held up following the failure of performance specifications to meet service requirements. The IAF has committed to a further 83 LCAs, but only if 59 improvements are made. The order has not yet been confirmed.