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LCA India’s soaring ambition and the sobering reality

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India initiated the Light Combat Aircraft program in 1983 to indigenously develop a multi-mission single seat tactical aircraft. As of 2009 it is yet to complete development and there seems to be no firm date when it will be inducted in the Indian air force. Different sources claim that the date may vary between 2010 and 2015. This has been one of the most expensive and painfully slow defence projects that India has ever undertaken.

Any mention of LCA evokes extreme reactions in India. There is one group which support it’s further development and another group which are of the opinion that LCA project has failed to deliver and hence should be scrapped. Like most things in life the truth probably lies somewhere in between. To properly evaluate the success or failure of LCA we need to understand it’s genesis, the doctrine it was based on and the larger strategic goals that this programme was supposed to achieve.

LCA Tejas in flight

LCA genesis

LCA programme was launched in 1983 by defence minister Shri. R. Venkataraman (4 December 1910 – 27 January 2009). There were two primary goals for the LCA programme:

  • The obvious reason was to replace the large number of 60s vintage Mig-21 fighters from the IAF.
  • Large scale modernisation and up gradation of India’s nascent aerospace industry.

By 1980s Mig-21 in IAF were already more than two decades old and rather obsolete. These were no longer the fearsome fighting machines that they were during the Vietnam war. IAF needed a replacement for these planes urgently and at a reasonable cost. An indigenously developed advanced aircraft could meet the requirements of IAF, while improving the overall technological base of Indian aerospace industry.

LCA Timeline

  • 1983 – DRDO obtained permission to initiate a programme to design and develop a Light Combat Aircraft
  • 1984 – Government of India set up Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) in 1984 as the nodal agency for managing and developing the LCA.
  • 1985 – IAF submits Air Staff Requirements (ASR) for LCA in October 1985. This was initiated by the then Air Chief Marshal Idris Hassan Latif.
  • 1986 – Programme to develop an indigenous powerplant (engine) was launched at GTRE.
  • 1987 – Project definition commenced in October 1987 with French Dassault Aviation as consultants.
  • 1988 – Project definition completed in September 1988.
  • 1989 – Government review committee expresses confidence in LCA programme. It was decided that the programme will be carried out in two phases.
  • 1990 – Design of LCA was finalised as a small delta winged reverse static stability aircraft.
  • 1990 – Phase 1 of the development was commenced to create the proof of concept system. Financial problems in India prevented full scale operations from starting.
  • 1993 – Full funding started from April 1993 full-scale development work for phase 1 started in June.
  • 1995 – First technology demonstrator, TD-1, rolled out on 17 November 1995 and was followed by TD-2 in 1998. However, technical problems in flight control systems and structural deficiencies plagued the prototypes and they remained grounded.
  • 1997 – Multi-Mode Radar (MMR) for LCA design work started at HAL’s Hyderabad division and the LRDE.
  • 2001 – LCA’s maiden flight successfully completed by Technology Demonstrator TD-1 , on 4th Jan, 2001. Prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee renames LCA as Tejas.
  • 2002 – MMR system was reported to be not working as per the criteria laid down in requirements.
  • 2003 – First supersonic flight of Tejas on 1st August, 2003.
  • 2008 – It was reported in September 2008 that Kaveri engine would not be ready in time for Tejas. RFP for in-production engines floated by ADA. the Eurojet EJ200 and the General Electric F414 are the main contenders.
  • 2009 – Tejas completed 1000 flights on 23 Jan 2009.

LCA detailed diagram

Tejas (LCA) programme notable success

There is no doubt that the LCA programme made great contributions to the Indian aerospace industry. Some of the technologies developed have been mastered by very few countries. For example, Carbon Fiber Composite for wings and fins, Flight control systems, Design of Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC) etc. All these technologies can now be implemented indigenously without any foreign assistance. These will save a lot of time and effort in any future development. Needless to say very few countries can boast of such wide array of aerospace technologies. It should a matter of pride that DRDO developed these technologies with restricted budget with little or no less assistance. It must also be noted that India of 1980s and 90s was considered an untouchable state by the west. Technology denial and sanctions were a fact of life for India. That DRDO was able to develop such advanced technologies with so much restrictions is indeed a cause of great pride among Indians. It must be noted that LCA development did NOT start in 1983 as many critics point out. Almost a decade was used to set up the building blocks of Aerospace laboratories and industries which were virtually non-existent in India. Also, it must be noted that India had no prior experience in building a modern jet fighter. It is no less than a miracle that India has managed to build a 4+ generation fighter plane from scratch and under severe constraints and technology sanctions.

Tejas (LCA) programme notable failures

While there have been successes we cannot hide the fact that LCA programme has had it’s fair share of failures. In fact most of the times it is in news is because of it’s lack of progress and problems. The most
important cause of concern is the inordinate delay of 25 years in the development programme. Apart from that inability to develop a good powerplant, MMR, overweight undercarriage etc are it’s main flaws.

Thus main reasons for this delay can be attibuted to various factors including:

  • Lack of political will and direction for the project.
  • Low level of infrastructure and industrial base for developing such complex system in India.
  • Technical sanctions and embargoes against India by various governments.
  • Overall poor programme management and execution by the various government run PSUs.

Tejas can then be compared as a half empty or half full glass depending on individual’s perception. So in all fairness Tejas has been a long saga of vision, ambition, triumph and failure all mixed with each other. Tejas has brutally exposed the reality of India’s state of aerospace and other hi tech industries. It has again and again reminded that India after all is a developing country struggling to meet the growth challenges with technical prowess. However, it has also brought to light the resilience of India’s technical mind which will keep India in good stead in the times to come.


Written by Amit Rai

February 1, 2009 at 10:42 am

5 Responses

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  1. I think it was a superlative effort by the Indian scientist and technicians.
    It can all be veiwed as a very productive and informative learning exerience.
    It is fantastic India can arise above the colonial powers that be that dare bind the re-emergence of the dormant former glorious nations.
    Sugeng Sukses. (Best Luck in Javanese).

    Purba NEgoro

    February 12, 2009 at 4:18 pm

  2. Congrats to Indian scientists a begining has to be made ,the journey will be long ,frustrated at times,team members leave for reasons otherwise,but still the journey has to continue.
    I believe LCA will be a hit programm if direction ,dedication and ability to dream continues on ,yes if India has developed avionics,4th generation softaware,composite materials but kaveri engine did not take off.then we must investigate why and try to rectify it ,take ISRO as an inspiration or even B.H.E.L that operates profitably and makes products,think of C-DOT as well ,
    Please continue the work and iam sure the spin-offs will be more beneficial in the long run.
    I hope drdo will please IAF with stealth version of TEJAS
    jai hind
    Rama Mohana Rao Anne
    Sydney Australia

    rama mohana rao anne

    September 30, 2009 at 7:57 am

  3. Hey guys,

    I’m from KANADA! and I think I found a new spot to hang

    So, anyone here concerned about the Olympics?


    February 20, 2010 at 3:00 am

  4. […] if India would be a prize, not sure what the USA would want with 1.5 billion poor Indians.…ering-reality/ If we want to mess around with poor people we should take on Mexico, at least they have oil. […]

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