September 23, 2009: The Indian Navy is buying six of the new LCA (Light Combat Aircraft, or "Tejas") fighters to fly from the new carriers they will enter service in the next five years. This is an experiment to see how the LCA will do as a carrier aircraft. The navy has already bought navalized MiG-29s for these carriers. The navy LCAs will also be navalized (mainly stronger landing gear, a tail hook and different cockpit electronics.) The MiG-29K weighs 21 tons (16 percent weapons), while the navalized LCA weighs 13 tons, 34 percent of that weapons. The MiG-29 is a better fighter, but the LCA carries a little more (4 versus 3.5 tons) armament, making it a cheaper way to attack ships or land targets with missiles and bombs. A land based carrier deck is being built, so the naval LCA can begin tests, and training pilots, within two years.
The LCA is only now preparing to enter mass production. Five prototypes already exist, and another ten pre-production models will be built next year. By 2012, mass production (at least 20 aircraft a year) is to begin, no matter what. Or at least that's the plan. For over two decades, India has been trying to design, develop and manufacture its own "lightweight fighter." India calls it the LCA, and the project has been a major disaster.
The U.S. F-16 is probably the premier "lightweight fighter" in service, and entered wide service about the time India began thinking about creating their own. Both the F-16 (at least the earlier models), and the LCA, weigh about 12-13 tons. But the F-16 is a high performance aircraft, with a proven combat record, while the LCA is sort of an improved Mirage/MiG-21 type design. Not too shabby, and cheap (about half the cost of an F-16). Also, for all this time, money and grief, India has made its aviation industry a bit more capable and mature.
When work began in the mid-1980s, it was believed that the aircraft would be ready for flight testing by 1990. A long list of technical delays resulted in that first flight not taking place until 2001. Corners had to be cut to make this happen, for the LCA was originally designed to use the Indian built Kaveri engine.
For a jet fighter, the engine is the most complex part of the aircraft, and the Kaveri has had its share of setbacks. Fortunately, there was an American engine, the GE 404, that fit the LCA, and could be used as a stop-gap. The Kaveri engine is not expected to be ready for flight tests until later this year, or thereabouts. The American engine has been used in the meantime.
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.
The LCA was not the first attempt to produce an Indian jet fighter. The HF-24 was an earlier attempt at developing a modern fighter. Designed by Kurt Tank (who also designed the FW-190 and Ta-152), the HF-24 was a failure because India could not develop a powerful enough engine. Thus the 147 HF-24s built, served from the 1960s, to the 1980s, as a ground attack aircraft.