The Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) is finally off the ventilator. Virtually written off by the Indian Air Force as an incapable fighter, the LCA, christened Tejas, got an unexpected fresh lease of life on Saturday with Defence Minister AK Antony asserting that India would field at least 140 aircraft (seven squadrons) over the next decade. The LCA project was sanctioned a quarter of a century ago as a replacement for the IAF’s ageing MiG fighters.
Speaking to reporters at the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, Antony, who completed two years as defence minister on Saturday, said, “When I took over, naysayers said the project was doomed. But we have turned the corner. Tejas is expected to get final clearance by 2010-end. It will the IAF’s prized possession.”
The decision hardly comes as a surprise considering that the government has already injected over Rs 5,500 crore into the development of technology demonstrators, prototype vehicles and around eight pre-production aircraft. Interestingly, LCA was conceived as a project worth Rs 560 crore in 1982.
But one dilemma remains: the first LCA squadron will come with underpowered American GE-404 engines that restrict the aircraft’s ability to carry optimal weapons payload. The second will be have an upgraded version of the same.
Air Chief Marshal Fali Homi Major said, “Subsequent squadrons will be fitted with a more powerful engine.” Ultimately, the HAL may have to opt for engines such as General Electric’s F414 or Eurojet EJ 200, which can generate the required thrust of about 95-100 kilo Newton. The GE-404 engines generate a thrust of just around 80-85 kilo Newton.
But there’s a catch here. Fitting these heavier engines will require drastic design changes in the LCA airframe, which could take up to four years.