Murphy's Law: How Temporary Becomes Permanent

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December 18, 2017: The Indian Air Force has again publicly criticized the locally developed LCA (Light Combat Aircraft, or "Tejas") jet fighter and did so with some very blunt comparisons to comparable foreign fighters after having an opportunity to try out LCA and two foreign competitors. For example the LCA has endurance of 59 minutes per sortie versus two hours for the Swedish Gripen Jas-39 or the U.S. F-16. The payload of LCA is three tons versus six tons for Gripen and seven tons for the F-16. Worst of all LCA was found to be less reliable and required twenty hours of maintenance for each flight hour versus six hours for the Gripen and 3.5 hours for the F-16.

The Indian Air Force also noted that only four of 123 production models of the LCA had been delivered so far and it would be years, if ever, for the all these problems to be fixed. The Gripen and F-16 are being offered as cheaper and more effective substitutes for the LCA. The Indian Air Force backs the foreign fighters but the Indian defense procurement bureaucracy insists on the LCA and it has the backing of the Indian political establishment which gains votes and legal fund raising opportunities with this policy. The politicians seem to feel that as long as Indian maintains its nuclear deterrent (ballistic missiles that can hit Pakistani or Chinese cities with nuclear warheads) backing less effective locally made weapons is worth the ill-will from the military.

A major part of the problem with LCA is the Indian developed Kaveri jet engine. This is another procurement disaster all by itself. In early 2017 India again affirmed its decision to buy 99 American F414 jet engines for $8.1 million each. These will be used for the new LCA because the Kaveri will not be available. The Gripen also uses the F414. Eventually, most of the LCAs built will be powered by the Kaveri but in the meantime the Indian engine is stuck in development hell. The F414s will substitute only until the Kaveri is ready which means using the F414 will used for all the LCAs because the Kaveri never seems to be ready. This is a big problem and the Indian Air Force does not want to suffer perpetual shortages of modern fighters because of it.

The F414 is not the first effort to get foreign help for the Kaveri mess. Back in 2015 India made arrangements with French engine manufacturer Snecma to provide technical assistance in fixing the Kaveri. That did not work out and more recently another French engine maker, Safran offered to help. Critics in the Indian air force asserted that help from Snecma would not save 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, whatever the cost. Only a few nations can do this, and India wants to be one of them, soon, at whatever cost. Despite decades of effort the Kaveri is still far from ready for production.

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 not ready.

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 F404 that fit the LCA, and could be used as a stop-gap. India bought 30 of the F404s just to keep the LCA going. The F414 is a more recent model of the F404 and has 15 percent more thrust and was used for the latest version of LCA, which was supposed to get an improved Kaveri engine.

The LCA is only now preparing to enter mass production. Six prototypes and sixteen pre-production models exist. Mass production (at least 20 aircraft a year) was to begin, no matter what, in 2017. Or at least that was the plan. The reality was that the Indian firm (HAL) manufacturing LCA can only produce eight a year and when that became a public scandal it was announced that other Indian firms were being brought in to help out. But even with this annual production would only be 16 aircraft a year by 2019 The Indian Air Force has received development and production models of the LCA over the years and points out that none of them performed as promised while the Gripen and especially the F-16 have extensive success with users, including neighboring Pakistan.

For over two decades India has been trying to design, develop, and manufacture its own "lightweight fighter" but the project has been a major disaster. It has, however, been a valuable and very expensive learning experience. Meanwhile, the 1970s era American F-16 is probably the premier "lightweight fighter" in service and began joining squadrons about the time India came up with the LCA project. 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. LCA is, on paper, 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.

In 2014 the Indian Navy announced it was buying six of the new LCA fighters to operate from the new carriers that are to enter service by the end of the decade. This is an experiment to see how the LCA will do as a carrier aircraft. The first LCA carrier trials are to take place in 2018 but that will be delayed if delivery of the F414 engines are delayed by the Indian procurement bureaucracy. 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. Based on what the Indian Air Force reported the Indian Navy does not expect much from the navalized LCA. The navalized MiG-29 also has problems but at least it works.

 


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