Warplanes: India And The Tejas Tragedy

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April 30, 2013: Despite enormous political pressure in India to get the locally made LCA (Light Combat Aircraft or "Tejas") jet fighter into production, the government has quietly delayed that for at least two more years. Production was supposed 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 then. Many essential electronic items are not functioning properly or reliably. The prototypes that are flying are maintenance nightmares, and after each test flight it takes 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. Earlier this year 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 required. 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 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, which has been in development hell for over two decades. The F414s were to substitute only until the Kaveri was ready.

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, three years ago 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 the Kaveri debacle. 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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