The Indian government has overruled its air force and approved French assistance in bailing out an Indian attempt to develop an engine for the Indian designed LCA (Light Combat Aircraft, or "Tejas"). The French engine manufacturer Snecma will provide technical assistance that will cost the Indians over $200 million. Earlier last year, the Indian air force had asserted that Snecma assistance would not bail out the ill-fated Kaveri engine program. But the government apparently believes that it is necessary for India to acquire the ability to design and build world class jet engines. Only a few nations can do this, and India wants to be one of them, soon, at whatever cost.
When work began on the Kaveri, in the mid-1980s, it was believed that the LCH 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 still not ready for flight tests. The American engine has been used in the meantime.
Four months ago, the Indian Navy announced it was buying six of the new LCA 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 LCA "lightweight fighter," but 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.
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 (designer of 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.