Originally Published 2011-01-14 00:00:00 Published on Jan 14, 2011
India needs LCA for a variety of reasons. First, it is a requirement, not a 'symbol of statehood' project as scholars like David Kinsella and Jugdeep Cheema might like to argue. Basic principles of self-reliance in defence would necessitate such projects.
Tejas is no longer a mirage
January 10, 2011, is a special day for at least three generations of scientists, technocrats and industrial producers as they are joined by the whole country in celebrating the initial operational clearance (IOC) ceremony of the indigenously built tail-less, single-engine multirole fighter Tejas (light combat aircraft—LCA) at Bangalore in the presence of the defence minister and the Chief of the Air Staff. This is the first step towards a productionisation stamp for the fighter, whose naval variant is also in the pipeline. The Tejas is expected to receive final operational clearance (FOC) in the next 18 months after which serial production will begin.

Conceived in the late 1960s as a fresh attempt after the eventual failure of India’s first supersonic project ‘HF-24 Marut’, the LCA was approved as one of the five flagship programmes in Indian defence in 1983 (other programmes are main battle tank, guided missiles, warships and submarines—which were approved between 1978 and 1989) with an initial capital of Rs 560 crore. The development cost has now escalated to Rs 6,000 crore. With the IOC, LCA will most probably be the second successful programme with a definite ‘induction’ into the armed forces after three series of guided missiles. If IAF’s long-term acquisition of fighter aircraft is any indication, then about 10 squadrons of LCAs, accounting for nearly 20% of the entire fighter arsenal, would be required by 2030. In the development cycle, LCA is likely to be a globally competitive fighter by the mid-2020s, with considerable export orders in the future. Further improvements in its stealth components could elevate this wonderful 4th generation fighter to the 5th generation club in the future.

While the US defence secretary Robert Gates believes that F-35 would be the last of the fighters generation, hinting that unmanned systems like UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), UCAVs (unmanned combat aerial vehicles) and UUAVs (unmanned underwater aerial vehicles) are likely to replace manned systems like fighters, land systems and warships in future digitalised battlefields, it is time to ask a fundamental question—are India’s ambitious current project LCA and probably future projects like MCA (medium combat aircraft) or even HCA (hyper combat aircraft) worth their value for money? The answer to this question is not easy but an attempt is made to justify LCA’s worth here.

India needs LCA for a variety of reasons. First, it is a requirement, not a ‘symbol of statehood’ project as scholars like David Kinsella and Jugdeep Cheema might like to argue. Basic principles of self-reliance in defence would necessitate such projects. Robert Gates’s prediction is right yet, at the same time, reasonable assessments on employment of aerospace powers in future battles, especially involving countries like India in its neighbourhood or even far off places are not insignificant either. Second, imported engine (in this case GE-404 initially and GE-414 later) makes LCA seem less an indigenous project, more an assembled one. However, indigenised components like avionics and airframes coupled with a successful future Kaveri (aero-engine programme) powered LCA may not be a distant dream. Third, it is argued by many that the LCA comes at a high cost and might fail to keep up with latest technology cycle. Let’s actually not get carried away by the beauty of politics of technology in modern age, which brands every programme obsolete by the time it sees the light of the day. If that is the case, then projects like F-16 or MiGs would even have been abandoned by now. It is only that basic designs get improvement and LCA has that scope. The $1.5 billion development cost for LCA is nothing in comparison to the F-series, Mirage, or even Embraer projects. Fourth, time delays, cost escalation, technology denial and scientific brain drain are all intertwined and facts of life. As LCA has demonstrated its worth, it is high time that decision makers not only treated critical scientific projects as national priorities but more importantly made sure that budgetary allocations are not interrupted in the development process. And last but not the least, it must be realised that LCA’s spin-offs in civil and military aerospace domains would be immense. India’s near and distant future military and civil aerospace demands would be so gigantic that even LCA and Saras (the indigenous civil aircraft programme) will keep plant utilisation capacity of a few production units at high levels for several decades. All it requires is a little more national affection, priority and support.

(The author is a senior fellow in Security Studies at  Observer Research Foundation)

Courtesy: The Financial Express

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