1st July 2016
By Karthik Kakoor
It was a cloudless sparkling blue morning coupled with gentle breeze in the aerospace capital of India, Bangalore. At 18 minutes past 10, an aircraft painted in white and the tri-colour, throttled down the active runway and took to skies. On 4 January 2001, India created history when the indigenously designed and developed Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) took off to sky on her maiden flight. Wing Commander Rajiv Kothiyal became a house hold name thereafter in the flight testing fraternity for flying a prototype of complex nature of that of LCA. It was commencement of a journey towards glory by Indian Aviation industry.
Aerospace engineers from HAL and ADA in presence of lot of dignitaries watched the flight with anxiety, anticipation and fear as their decades of work was being put to the ultimate test. The maiden flight lasted for about 18 minutes and this historic flight heralded a new era in India’s Aerospace history.
The Need for a Capable and Reliable LCA
By the mid 1980’s, the IAF felt an acute need of replacement for the aging fleet of Mig-21s. India’s aerospace industry was not making any significant progress in terms of newer technologies. Taking note of this, it was decided take up designing a Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) in order to re-establish the aeronautical base in the country. The air force demanded that the proposed aircraft primarily be an air superiority aircraft that could also perform air support/interdiction missions. Taking up the development of a fly-by-wire aircraft was a quantum jump from the HF-24 of 1960’s considering the prevalent technological gap existed between Indian Aerospace domain knowledge and other pioneering aviation industries.
The Dawn of LCA Programme
The Indian Government launched the LCA programme in 1983 with Dr Kota Harinarayana as the programme Director. Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) was set-up in 1984 as the nodal agency for the LCA programme with over 300 experienced people from HAL, NAL, and DRDO and Indian Air Force.
The Project Definition Phase (PDP) began in October 1987 and was completed by September, 1988. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) was designated as the principal partner. The project was to take-off in two phases. Phase-1, namely the Technology Demonstration, commenced in 1993 under which four aircraft (2 TD and 2 PV) were designed, constructed and flown. The technology demonstration phase was aimed at proving the four key technology of Fly-by-Wire, All Glass Cockpit, Microprocessor based General System and all composite airframe. This phase was expected to cost around INR 2188 crores and was crucial in building infrastructure and testing facilities. The second phase, known as Full Scale Engineering Development (FSED) was estimated at around INR 2340 crores and was to build 3 more PV aircraft and was duly completed on March 2004. During this phase, the key technologies underwent lots of developments and the open architecture based avionics was a path-breaking achievement post FSED.
As the programme progressed, several laboratories and developing agencies cracked some of the latest aeronautical technologies for the aircraft. The whole aeronautical fraternity of India worked in unison to develop several key technologies like the all-important Flight Control System (FCS), the Carbon Fibre Composite materials, the Glass Cockpit and the microcontrollers for all the aircraft general systems.
Tejas features an extremely high degree of indigenisation. A major portion of the avionics package including the Mission computer on an open architecture was built in-house. The technological knowledge gained during the course of the programme has enabled the country to achieve unmatched know-how knowledge.
A Turbulent Journey for the LCA Programme
Designing and developing a fighter aircraft is a constant fight against lots of uncertainties. It was multiplied by several magnitudes for India as the aerospace sector was in the infant stage. There was hardly any precursor or feeder technology available in the country. Developmental activities in aeronautical institutions had almost ceased after the Marut flew. The Marut itself was a first generation aircraft while the LCA was a 4+ generation aircraft. There was a huge technological gap for the development agencies to cover.
The development of a technological base was perhaps the most complex phase for the agencies. International help for the programme was slashed shortly after Pokhran-II. Agencies were left to indigenize multiple technologies that were initially to be imported. It was a journey against the headwinds for the developing agencies.
LCA Programme – an Architect of Aerospace Ecosystem in India
The LCA programme had a modest beginning with the setting up of ADA and several other DRDO laboratories. It was perhaps for the first time that plans were made and executed involving private sector in a defence project. Various small-time private industries those catered and grew alongside the programme have now become part of global aeronautical supply contenders.
The programme involved approximately 5,000 engineers, 500+ industries and 50+ laboratories. This network has provided India with a credible infrastructural and knowledge base for all future programs. Spin-off technologies from the programme have been used on IJT, Sarang, Jaguar and various other platforms. Alongside developing a fighter aircraft, the programme developed a unique aerospace ecosystem in India that will help develop aircraft for decades to come.
Evolution of a World-Class Fighter Aircraft
Tejas is a 4+ generation, single-engine powered, multi-role tactical fighter aircraft. It features double-sweep delta wing and is powered by a GE F404 turbofan engine. It has a combat radius of 500 kilometres and can carry an array of weapons to the seven hardpoints. The extensive usage of composite materials makes it the lightest fighter aircraft.
Since the first flight in 2001 the aircraft has drastically evolved into a world-class fighter. The aircraft achieved its Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) in January, 2011. It has proved its might in successive test sessions and this has guaranteed the support of the air force for the programme. IAF is expected to raise the first squadron of Tejas in Bengaluru on July 1st 2016. It is an iconic mission for all the developmental agencies that have sailed alongside the programme.
Induction and Future of the Programme
On July 1st 2016, IAF will be raising the first LCA Tejas Squadron at Bengaluru which shall consist of three aircrafts of date and more series produced aircrafts will follow. The Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, soon after his flight in Tejas had given the aircraft thumbs up for induction. The air force has placed an order for over 20 Tejas aircraft in her IOC configuration.
On September 23rd 2015, IAF, HAL and ADA agreed up on the terms of ‘Standard of Preparation – 2018 (SoP-18)’ that hurled a new era in the programme. Accordingly the developing agencies will now bring forward a more advanced version of the aircraft that is designated as Tejas Mk-1A. The addition of 100-plus cutting edge technology will make her extremely lethal. Notable additions will be the AESA radar system and advanced EW suite.
The naval variant is inching towards operational clearance after undergoing several phases of testing from STBF, Goa. The Mk-1 aircraft is expected to be part INS Vikrant’s air wing. Navy has remained committed to the programme and is rearing to induct the aircraft into its fleet.