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India set to build Medium Combat Aircraft

Ajai Shukla  |  Bangalore 

With India’s home-built Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) — the Tejas — flying successfully through its testing process, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has now signed up for an indigenous Medium Combat Aircraft (MCA). Within days, the IAF and a team of aircraft designers will formally set up a joint committee to frame the specifications for India’s own MCA, which will be built largely in Bangalore.

The MCA’s design team will centre on the agencies that have built the LCA: the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA); the National Aeronautics Laboratory (NAL); Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL); and a host of Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) laboratories that will develop futuristic sensors and systems for the MCA.

The director of ADA, Dr PS Subramaniam, confirmed to Business Standard, “The joint committee is likely to be formed within two or three weeks. This committee will finalise what will go into the MCA, as well as the budget and development schedule.”

According to Dr Subramaniam, the programme will aim to develop the MCA and build five to six prototypes at a cost of Rs 5,000 crore. That is approximately the same amount that has gone into the LCA programme.

With this, Indian aeronautical designers will be working in all the fighter categories. In the light fighter category (10-11 tonnes), the Tejas LCA is expected to get operational clearance in 2011; the MCA will be India’s first foray into the medium fighter category (14-15 tonnes); and in the heavy fighter category (20 tonnes plus), currently ruled by the Russian Sukhoi-30MKI, Indian designers plan to partner their Russian counterparts in developing the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA).

Interestingly, the decision to develop an indigenous MCA comes alongside the overseas procurement of 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) for an estimated Rs 50,000 crore. Senior IAF planners point out that the MMRCA procurement is unavoidable for replacing the MiG-29s and Mirage-2000s that will become obsolete while the MCA is still being developed.

By 2020, when the IAF’s current fleet would have been largely phased out, MoD planners forecast a requirement for at least 250 medium fighters. This has raised hopes amongst the MMRCA contenders (the US F/A-18 and F-16, Russia’s Mig-35; the Eurofighter Typhoon; and the Swedish Gripen) that the winner could end up supplying twice as many fighters as the current tender. But a successful Indian MCA programme would cap the MMRCA procurement at 126 fighters. After that, the MCA production will kick in.

The MCA designers plan to pursue technologies superior to anything currently on offer. The ADA director points out, “None of the MMRCA contenders will be state-of-the-art in 2015-2017. But the MCA will; it will incorporate the technologies of the future, which currently feature only on the US Air Force’s F-22 Raptor.”

India’s aeronautical designers see the MCA programme as crucial for taking forward the expertise that has been painstakingly accumulated in the Tejas LCA programme. The IAF is in agreement; and the Rama Rao Committee, set up for restructuring the DRDO, has recommended that programmes must be created to provide continuity for designers.

Says a senior MoD official: “With great difficulty we have built up a team that can design a complete combat aircraft. After a couple of years, when the LCA goes into production, there will be no design work left. Without another aircraft programme to work on, we will lose this team, having attained this level.”

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First Published: Sat, May 02 2009. 00:11 IST