India's Light Combat Aircraft is expected to miss its 2014 deadline for final operational clearance. (AFP)
NEW DELHI — India’s Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Mark-1, already 20 years late, likely will miss its final operational clearance (FOC) deadline set for the end of 2014, an Indian Air Force source said.
In the run-up to the FOC stage, handling tests are being performed on only one aircraft while the remaining five are still in production. Ideally, handling flight tests should be performed on at least six aircraft to ascertain their operational readiness, the source said.
“With handling tests on only one aircraft, and the remaining not even manufactured, it is impossible to get FOC by December’s end,” the source said.
The initial operational clearance (IOC) for LCA Mark-1 was received in December. Now the aircraft must demonstrate full performance as defined by the design and agreement of the Indian Air Force.
In addition, the aircraft will integrate missiles and must have the capability for midair refueling. The LCA undergoing testing has still not been modified to allow air-to-air refueling and is unlikely to have that capability by the end of 2014, the source added.
No official from LCA producer Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) was available for comment or responded to questions submitted by Defense News. The Air Force ordered 40 LCAs from HAL.
The LCA’s project cost has ballooned from about $90 million in 1983, when the project was conceived, to more than $4 billion. The aircraft is unlikely to be ready for operational deployment before 2016, the source said; the latest projected date had been 2014.
LCA has been developed by the Aeronautical Development Agency, a laboratory under the government’s Defence Research and Development Organisation.
An Air Force official said the Ministry of Defence promised the aircraft will be ready for combat missions from 2015 after receiving the FOC.
“We are keeping our fingers crossed for that day,” the official said.
Development delays forced the Air Force to hunt for a fighter aircraft. The process is still underway to procure 126 medium multirole combat aircraft (MMRCA) at a cost of more than $12 billion. French company Dassault’s Rafale is the preferred vendor.
The LCA was due to replace aging Russian MiG-21 fighters.
“With the MMRCA already in procurement stage for over seven years, and the wait for the LCA Mark-1 getting longer, the combat worthiness of the Air Force has been severely affected, for which the Ministry of Defence should fix responsibility,” said Bhim Singh, retired Air Force wing commander. “With the ongoing resource crunch and the new government committing a meager hike of 2.3 percent over the proposals made by the outgoing government in defense spending for the current financial year, it is unlikely the MMRCA will be inked this year.”
The fate of the LCA Mark-2, which would eventually meet the Air Force requirement for heavier payloads, is unknown as the MoD has not yet signed a deal to buy GE-414 engines from the US. The Air Force selected GE-414 over the Eurojet EJ 200 engine in 2011.
The service said it chose the GE-414 for LCA Mark-2 because of its higher thrust over the GE-4014 engine powering the Mark-1.
The Mark-2 will have additional features, including a new flight control computer; upgraded avionics; retractable in-flight refueling; on-board oxygen generation; an active electronically scanned array radar; new electronic warfare suite; and the ability to reach supersonic speed in level flight.
The Mark-2 was expected to be ready for flight tests by 2018, but the Air Force source said that because no significant work has begun on the aircraft, the 2018 deadline will be missed as well.
“The Indian Air Force has a requirement of over 200 LCA Mark-1 and Mark-2 aircraft, but with delays looking imminent and the procurement process of MMRCA getting longer, the Indian Air Force could take a major hit on its fleet strength in the years ahead,” Singh said. ■