NEW DELHI — Delayed by more than 15 years, India's homegrown Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Mark-1 is ready for critical test flights necessary for its final operational clearance (FOC) at the end of the year, but analysts and Indian Air Force (IAF) officials say that clearance will slip again, to next year.
Though he did not provide a date for the test flights, a Defence Ministry official said they will include firings of a variety of weapons, including air-to-air missiles and Israeli-made Derby beyond-visual-range missiles. The Russian-made close-combat missile R-73 has already been integrated on the aircraft,
Weapon testing would involve integration checks, carriage safety and missile firing, followed up with user evaluation of radar integration with mission computer and weapon firing trials on the available aircraft and subsequent inductions over the next three to five years, said defense analyst Kapil Kak, a retired Indian Air Force air vice marshal.
"FOC would most probably slip to sometime in 2016," Kak said. "But given the track record, these kind of slippages have over the years been accepted as par for the course."
The Air Force ordered 20 of the Mark-1s after the aircraft's initial operational clearance in December 2013, and is set to order an additional 20 following FOC. State-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) will produce all 40 aircraft under limited series production and says it has the capacity to produce eight LCA Mark-1s a year once the full order is placed.
But so far the Air Force has received only one aircraft to use for weapon integration and testing, not the four it wanted to have at this stage.
"Weapons integration has been on for quite some time and the LCA has fired the R73 missile and laser-guided bombs during [the Air Force's] firepower demonstration in February 2014," said Daljit Singh, retired Air Force air marshal. "However, more weapons are required to be integrated. In addition to weapons integration, test flights are also required to integrate and test other avionics and systems.
"If the FOC fructifies as per stated specifications, it [the LCA Mark-1] would definitely be a better aircraft than the MiG-21," Singh said. "This would include air-to-air refuelling, navigation, compatibility, more capable missiles and better weapons carrying capability, integrated self-protection suite, much longer operational range , much better avionics, active flight control technology and communication systems."
Meanwhile, the Air Force is banking on the LCA Mark-2, still in development and proposed to be powered by a higher-thrust engine. Analysts and Air Force officials, however, say while the LCA is superior to India's Russian-built MiG-21 fighter aircraft, its 2021 induction into service is uncertain.
The preliminary design has been completed, said a senior scientist with the Scientists of Aeronautical Development Agency (ADE), part of the government's Defense Research and Development Organization, which is developing the LCA Mark-2 – but the challenge would be to accommodate a heavier, more powerful GE 414 engine into the LCA Mark-1 fuselage, currently powered by the GE 404 engine. Nevertheless, the scientist said, the LCA Mark-2 prototype will make its first flight by 2018.
Kak, however, is skeptical.
"Unless one is a Don Quixote or delusional or part of the new crop of academics-journalists masquerading as air-power and force-structure experts of the [Indian Air Force], the envisaged 10 squadrons of LCA are unlikely to be fully operational before 2030 or so," he said. "This makes for the need of medium multirole combat aircraft or the equivalent even more critical."
Nirdosh Tyagi, retired Indian Air Force air marshal and former deputy service chief, agreed that the Mark-2's first flight is "nowhere close to realization."