Murphy's Law: India Drags Jet Fighter To The Finish Line

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December 28, 2013: India is finally, after many delays, issuing an IOC (Initial Operational Certificate) for the locally made LCA (Light Combat Aircraft or "Tejas") jet fighter. This allows Tejas to be flown by military pilots, not just certified test pilots. The next goal is to make Tejas capable of earning an FOC (Final Operation Clearance). That would declare the aircraft is combat ready and that all its systems (electronics, fire control, weapons handling and so on) are combat ready. The first Tejas ready to earn an FOC is not expected before the end of 2014. But to move things along in the meantime the first Tejas squadron (20 aircraft) will be built to IOC standards and upgraded later. The plan is to build ten IOC grade Tejas in 2014 and hope for the best. This first Tejas squadron will be based in the southern tip of India (near Sri Lanka) and far from any likelihood of combat. It will be a few years before India is confident enough in Tejas to station any of them on the Pakistani or Chinese border.

A year ago the government admitted to the continued inability to get the Tejas into mass production and quietly delayed that for at least two more years. Production was originally to begin at the end of 2012 but the number of technical problems with the LCA was too great to clear up in time for production to start on schedule. Many essential electronic items were not functioning properly or reliably. The prototypes were maintenance nightmares and after each test flight it took several days to get the aircraft in shape to fly again. The managers of this government financed project tried to keep the problems quiet while they were quickly and quietly fixed but failed at both these tasks.

This was not the first major failure for the LCA. In early 2013 India admitted defeat and dropped plans to use the locally developed Kaveri engine in the LCA. After 24 years and over $600 million the Kaveri was unable to achieve the necessary performance or reliability goals. The government plans to see if the Kaveri can be used in a combat UAV that is being developed locally but that aircraft is not expected to fly for another five years or more.

The LCA developers saw this Kaveri disaster coming and several years ago ordered 99 American F414 jet engines for $8.1 million each. These were to be used for the first LCAs being mass produced. At that point it was still believed that eventually most of the LCAs were to be powered by the Kaveri engine. The F414s were to substitute only until the Kaveri was ready but now are a long-term solution.

The failure of the Kaveri project is just one of many examples of how the Indian defense procurement bureaucracy misfires. Efforts to fix the mess even led to calling in foreign experts (from the U.S., Israel, and other Western nations). For example, in 2010 India made arrangements with French engine manufacturer Snecma to provide technical assistance for the Kaveri design and manufacturing problems. Critics in the Indian air force asserted that help from Snecma would not save the ill-fated Kaveri program. But the government apparently believed that it was necessary for India to acquire the ability to design and build world class jet engines, whatever the cost. Only a few nations can do this and India wants to be one of them, soon, no matter what obstacles are encountered. Despite decades of effort, the Kaveri never quite made it to mass production. Now the government will continue funding development of jet engine design and manufacturing capability, but with some unspecified changes.

There is much to be learned from all these development disasters. When work began on the Kaveri, in the mid-1980s, it was believed that the LCA would be ready for flight testing by 1990. A long list of technical delays put off that first flight until 2001. Corners had to be cut to make this happen, for the LCA was originally designed to use the Indian built Kaveri engine and the engine was never ready.

For all this, India only plans to buy 200-300 LCAs, mainly to replace its aging MiG-21s, plus more if the navy finds the LCA works on carriers. Export prospects are dim, given all the competition out there (especially for cheap, second-hand F-16s). The delays have led the air force to look around for a hundred or so new aircraft (or even used F-16s) to fill the gap between elderly MiG-21s falling apart and the arrival of the new LCAs. However, two decades down the road the replacement for the LCA will probably be a more competitive and timely aircraft.

 

 


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