India’s Combat Aircraft Programmes: Learnings From Past

India’s indigenous combat aircraft programmes have another chance to fulfill their potential. However, that is only possible once lessons from the past are heeded to. 

Deliveries of combat standard units of the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Tejas MK-I  light combat aircraft (LCA)  began recently when the first ‘series production’ aircraft, SP-I, was formally  handed over to the Indian Air force (IAF) on January 17, 2015 by HAL. Delays and all, SP-I marks the arrival of India’s first indigenous combat-capable fourth generation fighter that boasts the extensive use of carbon composites in the airframe, an indigenous quadruplex digital flight control system, indigenous mission computers and a modern glass cockpit enabling all weather day/night operations and the carriage of a range of precision guided weapons. Indeed while citing reasons for delays in the program, Defence Minister Manohar Parikkar acknowledged in Parliament that ab-initio development of high technology, initial non-availability of trained manpower in the country and a lack of infrastructure, including test facilities had played a role. Nevertheless, India’s umbrella Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) is now focusing on an improved Tejas MK-II  with greater capability based on the IAF’s expanded requirements for its future ‘light fighter’ fleet.

However to make a success out of the MK-II program it is imperative that a modularized approach to building the Tejas MK-II be adopted with HAL assuming the role of a lead integrator while sourcing the modules from the private sector in India.   This would be the glide path pursued for the Advanced Combat Aircraft Aircraft (AMCA) project as well which is a must to sustain all that has been achieved in terms of a combat jet development eco-system via the LCA program and avoid a redux of the situation India encountered after failing to support a follow on to the HAL HF-24 Marut, India’s first indigenously designed and produced fighter whose development began in the 1950s.

The second series production HAL Tejas MK-I is meanwhile getting ready and at least four units in all will be delivered to the IAF  before the end of 2015 in order for it to form a’ mini-squadron’ in Bangalore itself. These aircraft are of course part of the initial 20 unit order for Tejas MK-Is and sport a configuration that received Initial Operational Clearance-2 (IOC-2) in December 2013. Once the full 20 unit order is executed, the IAF will operationalize a squadron at Sulur. At least a further 20 units will also be purchased by the IAF from HAL’s production line, though these will be of a configuration that has been accorded final operational clearance (FOC).

However FOC for the Tejas MK-I is expected to be achieved by late 2015. This, according to Dr K. Tamilmani, Director General (Aero),DRDO, is chiefly on account of delays in receiving two significant parts from an overseas vendor that will need to be certified for FOC acceptance. These are of course a bolt on inflight refuelling (IFR) probe and a new quartz nose cone radome, both of which are being procured from different divisions of UK’s Cobham. While the Tejas program was earlier expecting to receive the IFR probe by September 2014 and the quartz nose cone by November 2014, it seems that the probe and the first of a total three units of the new nose cone will arrive by March end. It is understood that IAF teams have made several visits to Cobham to lean on it  to deliver these items faster and sources believe that the pressure has yielded results.

Even as the Tejas MK-I edges towards FOC, the focus of the Tejas program is shifting to the Tejas Mk-II which will have a new and more powerful engine in the form of General Electric’s (GE’s) 98 kilo newton generating F414-GE-INS6, 99 units of which have already been ordered. The F414-GE-INS6 replaces the current MK-I engine which is the F404-GE-IN20. The MK-II design, whose ‘inboard’ has already been frozen in terms of what sub-systems will feature where and how in its airframe, is being designed to achieve a 5 percent improvement in drag characteristics over  the MK-I airframe.  The MK-II will also feature an indigenously developed active electronically scanned array (AESA) fire control radar, currently under development by DRDO’s Electronics and Radar Development Establishment (LRDE) under Project Uttam. ‘Rooftop’ testing  of  this radar which has a range of 100 km is underway at the moment.

The MK-II is currently set to enter the detailed design and development phase for which a private vendor will  be selected as a consultant via the standard L-I tendering route by a vendor selection committee. The selected vendor is expected to send around 100 personnel to join the ADA-HAL team working on creating the blueprints for the Tejas MK-II which will have some 25-30 percent commonality in parts with the MK-I.  Now though the IAF wants the first flight of the prototype to happen by 2017, it is probably going to take place in 2018.  A total of four test vehicles will be built and all of these will be of production standard. At least three of these at a minimum will have to be in airborne testing before the end of 2019 and FOC is likely to be achieved in another 3 years from then.

But to even prototype and then produce the MK-II within suitable timelines, a very different procedural and production approach will have to be adopted than what has been done for the MK-I or indeed for any other Indian military program before. For instance, HAL’s current practice of producing a significant fraction of the 8000 odd components that go into making the Tejas MK-I in house simply won’t do. Indeed with greater outsourcing to the domestic private sector, HAL itself forsees increasing the indigenous content of the MK-I in value terms  from the current 65 to 80 percent in the next few years.

In the case of the MK-II, its design is being modularized with appropriate interfaces being defined in a way that the aircraft will be made up of some ten final macro modular parts that will be integrated to form its whole. The building of these modules will be outsourced to Indian private players who will of course have their own stream of  vendors supplying components that will go into making any such module. HAL will thereby assume the role of a lead integrator for a clutch of private suppliers who will build  these modular parts to specification. It would of course retain its role in instrumentation and flight testing before delivering the aircraft to the IAF.

However as Dr Tamilmani says, ‘flexibility in nominating domestic private vendors with the appropriate capability in a specific area  rather than going through a cumbersome L-I tendering route will go a long way in expediting this program’. Indeed, even for the design and development phase a vendor assessment committee made up of experts both from within and without DRDO were used to narrow down private players who had the capability to actually add value to the same. In the aerospace sector, capability content is crucial even from a cost point of view, since it could well turn out that the ‘lowest bidder’ for a certain program having met minimum qualification criteria isn’t actually able to deliver the goods as it were. Targeted selection of vendors with proven capability for building these modularized parts is critical to the success of the program itself.

And realistically speaking there are only a few players in the private sector in India who can actually succeed in building these modules. Players such as Tata Advanced Systems Limited which builds a Sikorsky S-92 helicopter cabin every 4.5 days, fabricates C-130J empennages and is now graduating to build the ‘green aircraft’ for the Dornier 228 NG and PC-12 come to mind. As does Mahindra, with its efforts towards developing a 200 HP piston engine for the Rustom-2 UAV program. Larsen and Toubro, with its long involvement in domestic programs and an ability to fabricate wings for the Tejas is in the fray as well. Perhaps even smaller players such as Taneja Aerospace and Aviation Limited given their involvement in domestic programs will have a role to play. Attention may also turn to Reliance Aerospace with its aggressive inorganic and organic growth plans.

In addition to nominating vendors during the prototyping phase, it will also be important to stick with them when actual production begins. At that point, HAL should not be forced to again start a L-I tendering process for selecting module supplying vendors for series production.  This feature of making a development partner re-bid for the production order once a system has fructified has been a ridiculous way to undermine the involvement of private players who often entail sunk costs to participate in various domestic R&D programs.  Naturally waiving away the L-I process for the Mk-II program will require political approval at the highest level from the government.

Speeding up the production process for the Mk-II with better quality control will certainly be important because it is going to be ordered in much greater numbers than the Mk-I as is evidenced by the existing purchase of 99 GE F414 engines. Then there is also a minimum 56 unit order from the Indian Navy for the LCA Navy MK-II whose development is processing concurrently with the IAF’s HAL Tejas program. The IN incidentally has already put up money for a total of five LCA Navy prototypes NP-1 to NP-5, with two already flying. EADS has been roped in as a consultant for the design and development of the LCA Navy MK-II which is a different evolution of the baseline LCA design from the Tejas MK-II and is intended for carrier operations. Be that as it may, HAL is currently plugging for more orders for the Tejas MK-I  itself before it invests the around Rs 1300 crores required to bump up Tejas Mk-I production rates to 16 per year from the current 4-8 by 2016-17. For as HAL points out, if it does start cranking out 16 Mk-Is a year, its Tejas line will fall idle for a period of 4 years before  Mk-II production commences without new orders beyond the 40 currently specified. Preliminary discussions in the Ministry of Defence (MoD) are therefore underway on the feasibility of an improved MK-I with features such as a dual colour missile approach warning system (MAWS) that can increase its survivability, satisfy the IAF and keep the HAL line humming at a  rate of 16 aircraft per year.

Meanwhile, the Chinese today are flying two fifth generation fighter prototypes, at least one of which will enter series production sometime in the next decade and India at the moment is merely entering the project definition phase for the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) which is a fifth generation effort crucial for India to continue building its aerospace sector on the foundation created through the LCA program.  The AMCA is larger than the LCA and is a twin engine design in the ‘medium’ category with a max take off weight (MTOW) of 25 tons featuring stealth, an active electronically scanned array (AESA) fire control radar, networked data fusion and a large internal weapons bay.

But to not make a mess of this program which as per current MoD discussions has to begin flight testing in 2020 and enter production by 2025,  it is important that the IAF accepts that the technology for what goes into making a fifth generation fighter is unevenly developed in India at the moment. For instance, India has very little capability in the domain of thrust vectoring at the moment and the IAF would do well to relax this requirement for the AMCA given that it isn’t really an absolute must for air combat in tomorrow’s environment. Then there is supercruise i.e the ability for a plane to fly at supersonic speed without the use of afterburner. For the AMCA, ADA is proposing a sustained speed of Mach 1.2 while using minimum after burner and expects that this would lead to a detection penalty of 5-7 km as compared to true supercruise.

Moreover, it is important that serious money be committed up front for this program with the IAF assuming ownership. At the moment some 7 test vehicles are envisaged to be built and tested at a cost of Rs 20000 crores. The engine for the AMCA prototypes will be the GE F414 INS6 to begin with i.e the same as the Tejas MK-II. For the production standard AMCA a 110 KN engine will be required for which talks are on with GE and the US Government to launch a joint program for ‘co-developing’ a 110 KN variant of the baseline F-414. These talks are proceeding under the aegis of the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative and if successful will see the manufacture of F414 variants in India. In the event of these talks not yielding results a global tender will be used to select the final engine for the AMCA.

As things stand today, it is clear to anybody who cares about an industrially powerful India that the aerospace sector is where the country must focus its energies. Indeed ‘Make in India’ has to have the aerospace sector at its core. It is imperative that India not repeat the mistake it made with HF-24 Marut program, when no follow-on design to the Marut (although there were a few) was sanctioned for full scale development leading to situation where things had to be built from scratch for the LCA program on account of severe attrition in India’s fighter development eco-system. For India to take wings, it must invest in making wings as it were.

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