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The BBC's Jill McGivering in Delhi
"The project has suffered a series of setbacks"
 real 28k

Thursday, 4 January, 2001, 14:35 GMT
India tests new combat plane
LCA maiden flight
The LCA may be obsolete even before it enters service
India successfully flew its first indigenously developed fighter plane for the first time on Thursday.

The test is the culmination of a 17-year project aimed at ending the Indian Air Force's dependence on foreign jet manufacturers.


India has joined a club of seven to eight nations [capable] of making supersonic fighters

Defence Minister George Fernandes
The Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), which took off from a testing base in the southern city of Bangalore, conducted a successful 20-minute sortie, a Defence Ministry official reported.

A pair of French-made Mirage 2000 planes, drawn from the Indian Air Force, escorted the LCA on its first flight, with Indian Air Force chief AY Tipnis on board one of the Mirages.

Applause

As the plane touched down it was greeted by the applause of several hundred defence officials and workers who had gathered to witness the event.

Among them was Defence Minister, George Fernandes, who described it as a "day of triumph" for India's scientists and technicians.

"With this, India has joined a club of seven to eight nations which has the capability of making supersonic fighters," Mr Fernandes said.

MiG-21
The new plane will replace India's ageing MiG-21s
The multi-role, single-seater combat aircraft is the brainchild of Dr Abdul Kalam.

It integrates sophisticated fly-by-wire flight control and digital avionics systems.

Originally planned to fly in 1991, the project was beset by constant delays, with the sanctions imposed by the United States after India's nuclear tests in 1998 taking an especially heavy toll.

It was finally completed at a cost of 25bn rupees ($536m).

Slow development

The delay has led to criticism from many quarters, with even the Parliamentary Committee on Defence recently submitting a report warning that the aircraft could already be obsolete by the time it goes into operation.

Military experts say it will still take at least a decade before the LCA enters service to replace the ageing Soviet MiG-21s, which the Indian Air Force currently relies upon.

The engine and the flight control systems on the prototype LCA were manufactured in the US.

But an indigenously developed Kaveri engine is planned for later aircraft.

According to officials, after the launch of seven prototypes, the aircraft will be manufactured at government-run Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd.

India is keen to enter the global market, pricing the combat aircraft at less than 30% of its nearest available competitors, the Swedish Jas Gripen and the French Rafale.

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See also:

29 Feb 00 | South Asia
India's growing defence costs
29 Feb 00 | South Asia
India boosts defence spending
12 Aug 99 | South Asia
The balance of firepower
04 Jan 01 | South Asia
Fighter project beset with problems
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