This story is incomplete. With the maiden, 20-minute flight of the first Technology Demonstrator of the Light Combat Aircraft on January 4, 2001, one could say it was halfway through. Even at this point of time, it is of enormous interest to nations in the far corners of the world. India has two priorities One, improve the quality of life of a third of its population. Two, keep inviolate its borders, shores and skies. The latter requires military might.
The geo-politics of the region (South Asia and surrounds) is of such a complexity that, despite good intentions of all, major conflicts have erupted; border skirmishes and cross- border terror-ism continue. In fact, right from Day 1 (August 15, 1947) India has faced a military threat; because of this, there is a compulsion to achieve self-reliance in design, development and production of weapon systems e.g. the LCA. It may be noted that some Asian countries, with great economic wealth and technical know why/know how, do not have such a compulsion. Further, success of the LCA programme is a must for continuation and enhancement of India's aircraft industry. For these reasons, 33 R&D establishments; 60 major industries and 11 academic institutions participate in the programme. Unfortunately, there has been a great deal of hype by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) as to its capabilities, contemporariness and when it will enter service. This has led to, although not unwarranted, cynicism.
An important recommendation of the Aeronautics Committee, which was accepted by Government in 1969, was that Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) should design and develop an advanced technology fighter aircraft around a proven engine. Based on IAF 'air staff target' papers, HAL finally completed design studies for a Tactical Air support Aircraft in 1975 and it appeared that HAL would, after a lapse of twenty years, get down to developing a fighter. However, the selected ‘proven engine’ from abroad, could not be procured and the project fell through. HAL's design and development capability started to decline. Meanwhile, The IAF's requirement for an air superiority fighter (primary role) with air support/interdiction capability (secondary role) in the tactical battle area, continued.
The DRDO obtained feasibility studies from three leading aircraft companies (British, French and German). Use was made of these studies in presenting a case to Government for design and development of an LCA. In an unusual step, a Society was set up to over-see the LCA development programme. At its apex is a 15-member General Body, whose president is the Defence Minister. The next rung is a 10-member Governing Body, whose Chairman is the SA to the Defence Minister and Secretary DRDO. The third rung is a 10-member Technical Committee, headed by the DG Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA); the latter post has been vacant ever since the first DG resigned in 1986. ADA manages the development programme while HAL is the principal partner. The initial projection for completion of the programme was totally erroneous and is largely attributable to lack of knowledge and experience. Projections were: first flight in 1990; production to commence in 1994.
Delay in commencement of Project Definition (PD) gave ADA time to marshal national resources (80 work centers spread over the country); to construct buildings, recruit personnel and create infra-structure; and to get a clearer perspective of the advanced technologies that could be indigenously developed and those that would need to be imported. The IAF's Air Staff Requirement, finalized in October 1985 is the base document for development. Requirements of flight performance, systems performance, reliability, maintainability criteria, stores carnage, etc. are spelt out. Concessions or a higher standard of requirements have to be mutually agreed upon by the IAF (customer) and ADA (constructor). Having a Society and Committees is, perhaps, the quickest way to bring about agreement.