India’s Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) fighter programme has had a long and chequered history. The process from first flight of a technology demonstrator to service entry, in July 2016, took 15 years. The “Tejas” received government approval in 2016 for another 83 airplanes specified to the Mk1A standard, adding to 40 earlier orders for the Mk1 version. But the programme received a public rebuke recently, when the new chief admiral Sunil Lanba said the LCA Navy version does not meet requirements, and the service wants a new carrier-borne fighter by 2021-2022.
The Tejas Mk1A will be the definitive version for the air force, to be followed by the re-configured Tejas Mk2 and LCA Navy Mk2 versions.
“In the 2017 timeframe, we would like to do a re-configuration of the aircraft to make it better in terms of aerodynamic performance. Following this we will start the detailed design activities,” says CD Balaji, programme director at the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA). “We are targeting 2020-2021 as the date for maiden flight on LCA Mk2,” he confirms.
ADA is also looking to have the first flight of the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) prototype in 2025 and now plans to develop a new twin-engine fighter for the navy’s carriers. The proposed timelines for the AMCA and new navy fighter appear optimistic, considering the limited staff available to ADA and amount of work required to complete development of Tejas Mk1A and LCA Mk2 versions.
The main tasks for the LCA programme are now related to completion of final operational clearance (FOC) tasks for Tejas Mk1, development of the Tejas Mk1A, Tejas Mk2 and LCA Navy Mk2. Initial operation clearance (IOC) for the Tejas Mk1 was obtained in December 2013. This is the standard to which Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) will build the first 20 aeroplanes. Three aircraft have already been delivered to the air force and six more will be delivered in 2017. All 20 airplanes (IOC standard) will be delivered by 2018 and the remaining 20 aircraft (FOC standard) will be delivered by 2020. The ramp-up in production is vital to meeting air force requirements for additional fighters.
To prepare for the increase in production rates for Tejas, HAL will invest 50% of the cost required to raise the production capacity from eight aircraft per year to 16 aircraft per year, while the air force and navy will invest 25% each.
“If we can demonstrate the Mk1A standard by 2018 – then all aircraft produced after that will be to the Mk1A standard including the 20 FOC aircraft,” says HAL chairman Suvarna Raju.
Manufacturing of the 83 Mk1A aircraft will commence in 2020 and continue until about 2025. ADA officials peg the cost of the Tejas Mk1A at $40 million per aircraft. The budgetary approval of $7.7 billion for 83 aircraft also includes the complete ecosystem for all 123 aircraft on order and includes support for the build-up of squadrons, infrastructure for first and second line servicing. It also covers the establishment of ground infrastructure and engine support and servicing facilities at bases.
The Tejas Mk1A will deliver substantially improved combat capability over preceding variants. It will be able to carry the beyond-visual-range Israeli Rafael Derby and air-to-air Russian R-73 close combat missiles. The new I-Derby, which has an advertised range of 33nm (62km), has also been offered for use on Tejas.
ADA officials tell FlightGlobal that MBDA’s ASRAAM is another weapon that is being considered for the aircraft. HAL has already worked to integrate the ASRAAM to a helmet mounted display for the air force Jaguar DARIN III upgrade, so no challenges are expected in the integration of the weapon with the Tejas.
The Tejas Mk1A will also have a new active electronically scanned array radar (AESA), an electronic warfare suite (comprising a digital radar warning receiver and podded jammer), and an in-flight refuelling probe. In December 2016, HAL issued a request for quotation for supply of an AESA radar for the Mk1A, to Elta, Saab, Raytheon, Thales and Rosoboronexport. ADA also says that it is planning to integrate an indigenously developed AESA radar on one of the LCA prototypes.
Surprisingly, the underperforming Kaveri aero engine has got a new lease of life and will be fitted on an LCA prototype by 2018. The Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) will get help on the troubled engine from Snecma, as part of its offset obligations for the Dassault Rafale deal. The new expenditure to review the Kaveri programme will cost about $89 million according to DRDO officials, who are optimistic that a Kaveri-powered LCA prototype will make its first flight in 2018-2019, once the certification and safety related aspects are resolved. Approximately $313 million has already been spent to design and develop a modern fighter class aero engine under the Kaveri programme.
Meanwhile, Tejas Mk1 variants will be powered by the General Electric F404 engine and the F414 will be used on Mk2 variants.