The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), in its report for 2013-14, has examined "Issues relating to Design, Development, Manufacture and Induction of Light Combat Aircraft (Air Force)", the indigenous fighter now called the Tejas Mark I.
Media reports have dwelt mainly on CAG's criticism of the LCA, such as the delays that led to the fighter - cleared in 1983 and intended to enter service in 1994 - eventually taking 30 years to obtain the initial operational clearance in December 2013. This is a landmark at which the fighter can be inducted into service. The CAG report says the final operational clearance is likely only by December 2015.
CAG says the LCA that has got initial operational clearance fell short of Air Staff Requirements - a key document that lays out the LCA's essential capabilities. With many of these capabilities still lacking, IAF could grant initial operational clearance only with 20 permanent waivers and 33 temporary concessions. These 33 shortcomings - which include increased aircraft weight, inadequate speed, reduced internal fuel capacity and the absence of an electronic warfare suite -- are to be made good before the final operational clearance is granted, or in the LCA Mark-II, expected by December 2018.
The CAG report nowhere recognises that, in fighter design anywhere, prototypes invariably go overweight while accommodating all the capabilities and weaponry that the users optimistically specify. Then, while paring down weight, some capabilities are diluted, in consultation with the air force. In this, the LCA has trodden a well-worn path.
Criticising the slow pace of the LCA's entry into service, the report notes that Hindustan Aeronautics' manufacturing facilities can build just four fighters annually against an envisaged requirement of eight per year. CAG overlooks the fact that IAF has ordered only 20 LCAs with another 20 have been promised after the fighter obtains final operational clearance. Even so, HAL is enhancing its production to 16 LCAs per year, a decision that a future CAG report might comment on unfavourably if more IAF orders are not forthcoming.
The media, focused on criticism of the LCA, has overlooked the report's praise for having successfully developed a modern fighter aircraft. CAG "appreciate(s) the efforts made by ADA and its work centres in the indigenous development of the LCA which is comparable to many contemporary aircraft in the world…"
Getting it right
Essentially, the CAG report is an auditor's review of a complex, high-technology platform development, which involves risks and uncertainties that are not captured in a simple balance sheet assessment of targets and budgets. Any assessment of the LCA must start from the fundamental question: what was the objective of developing this fighter? All such programmes choose between two objectives: either utilising readily available technologies to build a fighter that could rapidly enter operational service, e.g. the Sino-Pakistani JF-17 Thunder, which is a cleverly re-engineered MiG-21; or pursuing "technology leapfrog" in building a next-generation fighter, developing new, high-end technologies alongside the fighter they would go into. Obviously, this would take longer, and inevitable delays in the new technology areas would delay the project further.
India's defence planners went fundamentally wrong in simultaneously attempting both things: building a fighter quickly to replace the retiring MiG-21s, while also attempting, as a "catch-up nation", to leapfrog technology ambitiously.
From the outset, the LCA was based on fourth-generation (Gen-4) technologies. The first of these is its "unstable design", which makes it more agile and manoeuvrable than "stable" aircraft that are designed to hold the path they are flying on. Unstable design requires an on-board digital flight control computer that continuously trims the flight controls. A systems failure would be catastrophic, so the flight control system has four levels of backup, a sophisticated design challenge.
Second, the LCA is constructed largely of composite materials that are lighter than conventional metal alloys. This results in a lighter fighter that can carry more fuel and weapons. Third, the LCA has "microprocessor-based utilities", which means that computers control all its on-board systems like fuel, weapons and environment control. Fourth, the LCA has an all-glass cockpit, in which conventional dials are replaced by intelligent multi-function displays, and the pilot can fly, aim and operate weapons through a helmet-mounted display.
"In our very first attempt, we went in for a frontline state-of-the-art aircraft. It was complete technological audacity to decide, 'We've not built a fighter before but we'll start with a Gen-4 design'. Astonishingly, we've managed this feat, albeit with delays", says an ADA official who works at the cutting edge of the LCA programme.
Given the conflict between a high-risk development path and the need to induct fighters quickly, the stage was set for confrontation between the user (IAF) and the developers (ADA, Hindustan Aeronautics et al). A former ADA chief says: "The core challenge is managing the technology risk. The users demand more and fast; but you don't have the technology in your hand. This pits IAF versus the Defence Research & Development Organisation."
Consequently, the LCA programme has seen confrontation, not cooperation, between IAF and ADA. The CAG report notes that, as early as 1989, an LCA Review Committee had recommended the "need for a liaison group between Air HQ and ADA to ensure closer interaction between the design team and the user". Yet, "no such liaison group was formed and active user (Air HQ) participation in the LCA Programme started only after November 2006, which also impacted the LCA development."
Even as IAF criticised ADA, its demands for additional capabilities in the LCA kept delaying the operational clearances. The CAG report points out that in December 2009, IAF asked for the R-73E air-to-air missile to be integrated with the LCA's radar and the pilots' helmet mounted displays. CAG also blames IAF for taking too long to identify a "beyond-visual-range missile" for the LCA.
Unlike IAF, the navy adopted the naval LCA programme from the start, committing personnel and over Rs 900 crore from its budget. Says former naval chief and distinguished fighter pilot Admiral Arun Prakash, "The navy knows the importance of indigenisation, having experienced how foreign aircraft like the Sea Harrier fighter and Sea King helicopter can be grounded for lack of support. Unlike IAF, we are not critically dependent upon the LCA, since we have the MiG-29K. But we will support it because it is an Indian fighter."
Taking on from the CAG report, numerous media reports have suggested that the LCA's development cost has ballooned 25-fold, from the initially sanctioned Rs 560 crore to the current budget of Rs 14,047 crore. Both figures are incorrect. This newspaper's detailed analysis of the LCA budget (February 22, 2011, "When a sword arm is worth it") quoted ADA chief PS Subramanyam who clarified that Rs 560 crore was not the budget for the entire Tejas programme, but merely for "feasibility studies and project definition", which also included creation of the infrastructure needed for the new fighter.
The infusion of funds for actual design, development and building of prototypes only began in 1993, with the funds allocated under the heading of "full scale engineering development".
Equally misunderstood is the figure of Rs 14,047, which includes the cost of developing both the IAF and naval LCA, covering both the Mark I version as well as Mark II. The air force Tejas Mark I has so far cost Rs 7,490 crore, and is within its budget of Rs 7,965 crore.
For that amount, tiny compared to the billions that get sucked into developing fighters abroad, ADA says it has developed not just the LCA (and built 16-17 flying prototypes) but also an aerospace ecosystem - DRDO laboratories, private industry, academic institutions, and test facilities like the National Flight Testing Centre - that would allow India to build advanced fighters in the future.
Pushpinder Singh, noted aerospace expert and editor of Vayu magazine, points out that the LCA has overcome all its major technology challenges. What remains, he says, is to tackle the final problems of converting it into a product: issues like freezing specifications, evolving maintenance procedures and manuals, and the continuing challenge of establishing a fast-moving production line.
"Nothing prevents us from reconfiguring the technologies we have mastered through the LCA into indigenous Gen-5 aircraft like the advanced medium combat aircraft (AMCA) and the futuristic unmanned aerial combat vehicle. The LCA has been an invaluable springboard and the AMCA will galvanise 'Make in India' more than anything done so far", says Singh.