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In the late eighties India's aircraft Industry was not as advanced as Sweden's; and yet India follows a more arduous design/development route for its LCA, compared to Sweden for its JAS-39 Gripen. The Gripen embodied a far higher percentage of foreign, off-the-shelf technology, including its RM-12 engine (improved GE F404). France (Dassault Aviation) built and exhaustively flew a demonstrator aircraft (Rafale-A) before embarking on construction of Rafale prototypes. Over 2,000 flights were completed by September 1994 when first Flight of a production Rafale was still 20 months away. At that point of time, Dassault Aviation had built or flown 93 prototypes, of which at least fifteen went into production after sixteen years elapsed from 'first-metal-cut' of the Rafale demonstrator to entry into service. Current plans for the LCA is ten years. And what of India's past record? Just a hand-ful of trainer aircraft designed and productionised. The story is similar for the Typhoon (earlier Eurofighter 2000). It was seventeen years from 'first-metal-cut' (EAP) to squadron entry in 2000. One more timeframe needs to be noted. It took Gripen six and a half years from first flight (prototype) to entry into squadron. For the LCA, four and a half years is the target! The quantum of test flying hours required to attain Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) is about 2000 hours; an impossible task in four and a half years. Concurrent production will shorten service entry time, but this will not enable the present target to be reached.

The LCA remains a high-risk project. All too often glitches occur in development of a fly-by-wire FCS. The Typhoon is an example; this, despite vast experimental work for over a decade by leading aircraft manufacturers in the UK and Germany (Jaguar, F-104, EAP). Engine development is the most complex of all activities. There are sure to be problems during flight development of the Kaveri, GTRE's first engine. Teething problems after service entry will occur; and major reliability improvements will be required in the first decade of its exploitation. Engines of the Russian fleet of fighters operated by the IAF (MiG-21 BIS, MiG-23BN/27M MiG-29) have this in-service history. Proceeding from this, four points emerge:

(a) India has its best designers, engineers, scientists, academicians working on and contributing to the project. They are devoted and tireless in their efforts to success-fully complete the project. They need support (not blind support) of the polity, defence services and bureaucrats. Public support will follow, provided there is honest transparency;

(b) Costs of the project will escalate. (Checks and balance are necessary, but let there be no inordinate delays, as have occurred in the past;

(c) The future of the aircraft industry, military and civil, depends on success of the LCA (and ALH, Saras, HJT-36) project; and,

(d) It is unlikely that the LCA will attain initial operational clearance (IOC) before 2010.When it is achieved, it will be an industrial success of magnificent proportion, and is sure to receive the acclaim it deserves.

A few words on the final operational clearance (FOC). The entire avionics and weapon systems are con-figured around three 1553 B data bus. Mission oriented computation/flight management is through a 32 hit computer. Information: from sensors (e.g. multi-mode radar, IRST, radar/laser/missile launch-warning receivers); from the inertial navigation System with embedded GPS; from targeting pod (FLIR, laser designator) are presented to the pilot on a head-up-display and head-down-displays. A helmet mounted target designator steers radar and missile seekers for early target acquisition (during a 'close-in' air-to-air engagement with a Vympel R-73 missile, currently the best dog-fight' missile in the world). Laser guided bombs and TV guided missiles, require a pilot to initially 'zero-in' the laser designator or missile-mounted TV camera, on the ground target. Considerable engineering effort and expertise is necessary to achieve avionics-weapon integration and to prove the integration by live trials. Success here means FOC. Depending on what is stated in the (updated) ASR, it could take two years and around 1,500 hours of flight testing to move from IOC to FOC.

There will be setbacks in the flight development phase. All major engineering projects suffer them. For instance, India's first two SLVs failed disastrously. The Prime Minister was present at the first launch at Sriharikota; so was this author. Disappointment was everywhere but no recrimination; only determination to get it right. Loss of a demonstrator aircraft or prototype could take place; lives could be lost, leading to questions/debate. Therefore, let the recent transparency in the programme continue, even intensify; let it be honest, 2010 is not far, for a first' programme of this magnitude and complexity.

This article is reproduced with the permission of the author. It first appeared in Indian Aviation, Opening Show report, Aero India 2001.