The Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), which is to become fully operational with the Indian air force this year after almost 20 years in design and development, is the country's most ambitious indigenous aerospace program since the HF-24 Marut jet fighter of the early 1960s, Satagopan points out.
In addition to the 40-year gap between first flights of the Marut and Tejas, India was hit by U.S. sanctions following its 1998 nuclear tests, which blocked access to many of the offshore technologies planned for the LCA. The arms ban forced India to develop its own alternatives, and delayed the program further.
While the Tejas Mk. 1 is overweight and underpowered, necessitating an improved Mk. 2 version, India through its development has acquired valuable experience with composite structures, fly-by-wire flight controls, glass cockpits and other technologies. This is expertise that can be accessed by private-sector industry to help it become a global player, says Satagopan.
“We had a lot of technologies thrown at us [with LCA]. Composites had never been developed in India, and it was the first time India had to develop its own critical hardware and software for fly-by-wire control,” he says. “We know it takes time, but today India can do co-cured and co-bonded carbon-fiber wings. We developed that on our own, and understand the design, manufacturing and certification process.”
The LCA program is managed by the government's Aeronautical Development Agency, formed for the task in 1984. State-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) heads development and production. The Indian air force has ordered 40 series-production Tejas Mk. 1s, with deliveries to begin this year.
Bengaluru-headquartered HAL has designed and developed most of India's indigenous aircraft and license-produced those acquired from overseas. So, HAL is almost solely responsible for the industry's reputation for slowness. The company is tackling this problem by forming joint ventures with the private sector.
There have been a few forays into civil aviation in the past (see AviationWeek.com/indianaviation), but HAL has focused on military aircraft and its workload is growing. In addition to the Tejas, the company produces the indigenously developed Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter and its armed version, the Rudra, and is flight-testing an attack derivative, the Light Combat Helicopter. HAL is also developing the smaller, single-engine Light Utility Helicopter, with a first flight planned this year.
At the same time the state-owned manufacturer is license-producing the Sukhoi Su-30MKI heavy fighter and BAE Systems' Hawk advanced jet trainer. A contract has yet to be signed, but the company also is expected to produce 108 of the 126 Dassault Rafale Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) planned for the air force.
HAL also produces avionics, engines and systems. If there is an area where India still struggles, it is engines. Intended for the LCA, the Kaveri afterburning turbofan under development by India's Gas Turbine Research Establishment is short on thrust and has been deemed unsuitable to power the Tejas. But India may yet use the engine in unreheated form to power a planned unmanned combat aircraft.
LCA is not the only indigenous program to have problems. HAL's HTP-32 Deepak basic trainer has been grounded since 2009 after crashes caused by engine failures, forcing India to buy Pilatus PC-7s. Now the company is struggling to complete development of the HJT-36 Sitara intermediate jet trainer, which first flew in 2003. HAL performs some commercial subcontract work, including Airbus A320 passenger doors, Boeing 777 flaperons and Embraer Legacy 450/500 doors.