LCA Tejas Contract: Giving Indigenous Technology a “Chance”
Dr Kapil Patil

One of the key highlights of the 13th Aero-India Show held in Bengaluru from 3rd to 5th February was the signing of a formal contract between the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) for the supply of 83 indigenously developed Tejas Light Combat Aircrafts (LCA). Signed at an estimated cost of INR 48,000 Crore, the contract marks a largest-ever order for indigenous defence production in the country and a critical milestone for Tejas LCA which has been under development for well over three decades.1 Although the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) had cleared the LCA acquisition in November 2016, the long-drawn price negotiations were concluded only last year requiring a final nod from the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) to ink the contract with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). With CCS approval in January this year, the stage is now fully set for the induction of Tejas Mk-1A, a highly agile fighter with the latest avionics and electronic warfare (EW) capabilities.

The saga of LCA induction, however, has been one of recurrent time and cost-overruns. Given the near absence of any modern aircraft design and development capabilities at the time of its inception in the early 1980s, the project posed a serious technological challenge for its developer, the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA). Besides technological complexity, the inefficient planning and execution significantly impaired the project’s pace, as observed in LCA’s performance audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG).2 Consequently, the programme struggled to meet IAF’s demand for a more potent fighter amidst the twin challenges of dwindling fighter squadrons, and an increasingly complex threat environment.3

Although the IAF had committed to induct the LCA way back in 2006, the unmet specifications have been a subject of many recriminations, purportedly delaying an operational clearance to the indigenous fighter.4 The LCA received its initial operational clearance (IOC) only in 2013, and it took another six years for its final operational clearance (FOC).5 Throughout the FOC trials, the IAF reportedly expressed concerns over sub-optimal radar and electronic warfare capabilities of Mark-1 aircraft and instead preferred to induct a Mark-2 variant with superior capabilities. While the preference for Mark-2 variant was in line with IAF’s overall operational requirements, the delivery of the Mk-2 platform would mean another cycle of development, thereby pushing the aircraft’s induction by several years.

The government’s approval for LCA Mk-1A variant, in this backdrop, is significant especially when the IAF is at a historic low in its operational fleet as opposed to delaying the procurement for a more potent fighter. Equipped with many latest features such as the fourth generation active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, beyond visual range (BVR) missile capability, and mid-air re-fuelling, etc., the LCA can be best characterized as an ‘operationally ready’ 4/4.5 generation platform which is not only within the ‘reach’ of indigenous technology ecosystem but also reasonably meets many critical requirements specified by the IAF.6 More importantly, the LCA procurement sets an important precedent for India’s many indigenous technology programmes, which are awaiting procurement approvals despite achieving significant operational readiness.

The IAF and other military services have traditionally demanded ‘top-of-the-line’ military capabilities due to the constantly changing threat environment. Such demands, however, have been at odds with the dynamics of technology development in a ‘resource-constrained’ environment of India’s defence innovation system. Being a latecomer industrial society, India’s science, technology and innovation (STI) ecosystem faced many impediments arising from foreign sources of knowledge, weak academia-industry linkages, to concurrent challenges of technological learning. Such limitations are further amplified in the realm of defence technologies where innovation suffers from numerous knowledge and information barriers. To compound the problem further, the years of sanctions and technology denials only served to stifle India’s innovation potential, denying it the opportunity to grow along the value chains.

With limited or no external technology input, the development of complex systems like LCA, therefore, involved considerable in-house technological “learning”, “adaptation”, and “trial and error”. Over time, the LCA project developers muddled through incrementally inside their laboratories, and at the test facilities to adapt the aircraft design to diverse systems and sub-systems. The extensive ‘learning-by-doing’ and partnership with a many local S&T institutions, industry, and academia was critical to overcoming a range of technological obstructions in the project. Through numerous minor innovations and creative adaptations, the project thus contributed to forming advance aircraft design and development capabilities in the country, a rare feat for latecomer industrial societies of the global south. This is also true for many other indigenous technology projects, which saw several deviations from the originally determined technical and design requirements.

The ‘incremental’ and ‘adaptive’ nature of innovation however, remains widely underappreciated in the context of India’s defence procurement policy, which has failed to lower the barriers for indigenous military solutions, and to extend them any advantages of ‘early market’entry. Due to highly optimized nature of military specifications, the choice of foreign military platforms and weapons has not only aggravated country’s import dependence over time but also kept the indigenous technology programmes in perpetual cycles of development. In doing so, the procurement policy also glossed over the fact that imported systems too require tailoring to local conditions involving additional technological effort and monetary costs.

The approval of LCA Mk-1A, therefore, represents a unique approach that takes into account the ‘incremental’ and ‘sequential’ nature of platform development, and allows deployment of an ‘operationally ready’ technology to bridge the immediate shortfall in capability. In its current form, the 4/4.5 generation LCA Mk-1A is an ideal platform for tactical combat in a network-centric environment. Furthermore, prized at around $43 million each, the LCA is also highly cost-competitive in its class of platforms and holds immense potential for export to friendly countries and other international buyers.7

An aggressive export strategy for LCA is vital to reap the significant advantages of scale by both its end-user and producer and to foster a vibrant aerospace industry ecosystem in the country.With the roll-out of LCA Mk-1A in the next couple of years, the HAL and ADA can now fully set their sights to developing the twin-engine Mark-2 variant and the next-generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). The ‘evolutionary’ approach underpinning the LCA procurement offers immense value for indigenous programmes like main battle tank (MBT), artillery guns, tactical communication system (TCS), etc., which have demonstrated significant operational readiness.

The highly ‘uncertain’ nature of technological innovation, as evidenced in the development of complex military systems like LCA, holds an important lesson for India’s defence procurement policy. The efficient catch-up in complex systems not only requires extensive learning and collaboration among all the stakeholders but also a strong policy support to build in-house technological capabilities through learning and adaptations. By valuing ‘incremental’ and ‘operational readiness’ over ‘optimality’, the governments’ decision marks a critical departure that will enable the defence ecosystem to efficiently move towards technology ‘frontier, and to make the country truly ‘Atmanirbhar’ in the military production in coming years.

Kapil Patil, PhD is a researcher in Science Diplomacy at RIS, New Delhi. The views expressed are those of the author.

Endnotes:
  1. Ministry of Defence (2021), “Cabinet approves Procurement of 83 Light Combat Aircrafts (LCA) ‘Tejas’ from HAL for IAF”, Press Information Bureau, January 13, 2021, URL: https://pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1688289.
  2. CAG (2015), “Design, Development, Manufacture and Induction of Light Combat Aircraft”, Performance Audit No.17 of 2015, Comptroller and Auditor General of India, URL: https://cag.gov.in/uploads/download_audit_report/2015/Union_Performance_Defense_Design__Manufacture_Light_Combat%20Aircraft_17_2015.pdf.
  3. Pandit, R. (2020), “HAL to provide IAF with 83 Tejas fighters in Rs 39,000 crore deal”, TNN, February 20, 2020, URL: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/hal-to-provide-iaf-with-83-tejas-fighters-in-rs-39000-crore-deal/articleshow/74168502.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst.
  4. Gady, Franz-Stefan (2021), “Indian Air Force: Tejas Light Combat Aircraft Can’t Protect Indian Skies”, The Diplomat, November 14, 2017, URL: https://thediplomat.com/2017/11/indian-air-force-tejas-light-combat-aircraft-cant-protect-indian-skies/.
  5. “LCA Tejas for IAF gets final operational clearance”, The Hindu, February 20, 2019, URL: https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/economy/lca-tejas-for-iaf-gets-final-operational-clearance/article26323650.ece.
  6. “Here Are Six Major Improvements LCA Tejas Mark-1A Will Have Over Mark-1 Variant Of The Fighter”, Swarajya, January 13, 2021, URL: https://swarajyamag.com/defence/here-are-six-major-improvements-lca-tejas-mark-1a-will-have-over-mark-1-variant-of-the-fighter.
  7. Shukla, A. (2021), “At $43 million each, the Tejas Mark 1A competes in export market”, Broadsword, January 17, 2021, URL: https://www.ajaishukla.com/2021/01/at-43-million-each-tejas-mark-1a.html.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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