Learn From Past: Save the Light Combat Aircraft Going The Marut Way
Indian must learn from its past mistakes while developing its LCA programme, otherwise it risks repeating the failure of Marut fighter jet.
By Sachin A
When I hear the sudden roar of the LCA fighter jet’s engines in the skies above here in Bangalore, I often wonder why did the LCA programme take so long to reach the stage in which it is now. India is often termed as a nation, which has a predominantly young population, and one would wonder why does such a country lag behind in defence technology when compared with the West or even countries like China. That, India is a country which has always had to deal with external threats and challenges will automatically raise questions as to why have our young population failed to build a formidable military-industrial complex which could ably support our armed forces.
A lot of articles and commentaries are available related to the failures of the much famous or rather infamous LCA programme. Most of these articles have something in common – they all blame the DRDO and it’s associated labs for the mess that the LCA is finding itself in. This is when I realised the need to view the LCA programme from a different perspective. Anyone who has keenly followed the growth of India’s defence industry would realise that India’s defence R&D and production agencies haven’t received enough backing from its primary customers, i.e., the armed forces.
This is why the nation will have to learn from the mistakes it made during the development of the HF-24 (Marut) fighter jet in the 1960s and 70s, which was India’s first combat aircraft development programme. The HF-24 and the LCA programme have two things in common.
Firstly, the ASRs (Air Staff Requirements – specifications demanded by the Indian Air Force) based on which the aircraft is designed, were quite ambitious. The ASRs for the HF-24, for e.g., demanded an 800 kms combat radius and all-weather fighting capability – capabilities which hadn’t matured even in the western world during that time. For the LCA too, the Air Staff Requirements were too ambitious, since the IAF this time demanded Digital Fly-by-wire Flight Control System, Multi-Mode Pulse-Doppler Radar and a home-grown afterburning turbofan engine – which was later known as the Kaveri engine. And secondly, both the projects had to suffer mid-way because of external sanctions imposed on India as a response to India testing nuclear weapons. The Marut project got its setback in 1974 and the Tejas in 1998. On both the occasions, the foreign aviation giants who were assisting the local agencies in both the projects had withdrawn their cooperation.
Although Marut Mk1 was an underpowered aircraft that was used predominantly in the ground attack role during the 1971 Bangladesh war, it was known for its safety, reliability and serviceability. The feasibility of the development of improved versions of Marut (with more powerful engines) was completely ignored by the IAF and the Govt. What this meant was that the Indian aircraft industry, which had tremendous growth potential, was left dormant until the development of the LCA started. Because of this short-sightedness, India’s defence labs had to do a lot of catching up in terms of absorbing latest technologies and methodologies related to combat aircraft development. This wouldn’t have happened if the industry was kept alive with the development and sustained orders from IAF for the planned HF-24 Mk2 and Mk3 versions.
One major mistake that the Indian policymakers made during the initial stages of the LCA programme was to club it with the Kaveri jet engine programme, which was a major cause for the delays. It was too ambitious to start the development of the LCA with an engine in mind, the development of which hadn’t even started. In spite of all these problems, one critical technology which won praises from the LCA test pilots was the Automatic Flight Control System (FCS) system.
One major flaw in the ASRs can be linked to the IAF’s never-ending love for multi-role capable aircraft. Upon analysing the successful aircraft development programmes of the advanced countries, one gets to see that these aircraft were required to fulfill their primary role very well and a secondary role, if any, moderately well. If at all the primary user wants the aircraft to fulfil the secondary role equally well, they would try to attain this capability by going in for the development of subsequent versions of the aircraft. Also, they would plan for such versions by providing a firm order for the initial version of the platform so that the assembly lines will be activated, thereby giving more meaning to all the time and money spent on the R&D for the initial version. This is at variance with the policy of the Indian Air Force, which stresses on getting 100% flawless aircraft, before giving the go ahead for series production of aircraft.
Similar behaviour can be seen even in the case of the Arjun MBT programme wherein the Army was reluctant to order a good number of the Mk1 version of the tank citing major problems in performance. Even after the DRDO proved the Army wrong by fielding a much improved Arjun Mk2 (which won hands down in comparative field trials against the Russian T-90) in a short span of 2 years, the Army has been reluctant to order a good number of tanks citing logistical problems.
The relatively less talked about arm of the military, the Navy, though is quietly pursuing indigenisation for the equipment that it needs. As of now, the Navy boasts of 40 odd warships being constructed at Indian shipyards, which includes Aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, stealth surface combatants etc. The IAF, rather reluctantly opting to go for the improved Mark1A of the Tejas is a welcome sign. Talks of the Mark 2 version and the on-going work on the 5th generation AMCA (Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft) are also good signs, which seems to suggest that the Indian military establishment has learned from its past mistakes. What would be a much-required boost to the defence industry is the Govt. supporting the participation of the Private industry in developing and manufacturing critical technologies for the military as this would reduce the dependence on foreign assistance by a very good amount in the coming decades.
If all these measures are pursued with the right intent and political will, we will be able to say in the near future that the LCA hasn’t followed the HF-24 Marut and is on the path to glory.
Written by Sachin A. This article was published in Indian Defence Review.
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