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Defence analyst Rahul Bedi
"A flight that has been awaited for many years"
 real 28k

Thursday, 4 January, 2001, 14:28 GMT
Fighter project beset with problems
LCA emerges from hangar
Successive governments were loathe to scrap the project
By Defence analyst Rahul Bedi

Defence officials in India say that the successful test flight of a prototype of a new Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) is a great achievement.

Indian navy ships
The navy has turned to Russian fighters
They say that they hope eventually to sell the indigenously developed aircraft on the international market, undercutting global competition.

It is the first time such an aircraft has been designed and constructed entirely in India - but critics say the entire project is plagued by serious technical uncertainties and excessive costs.

Technical problems

A majority of its vital components - such as the engine and flight control computers - are from the United States, and substitute systems would be difficult to develop locally.

LCA problems
Indian engine building expertise lacking
Other vital components behind schedule
Spiralling project costs
India hopes to replace the American-built engines by locally designed Kaveri engines.

These underwent extensive testing in Russia two years ago.

But defence officials said it would take several years before they will be ready for use.

They privately concede that Indian expertise in producing engines is poor.

Delay in service

There are also questions about the amount of time before the aircraft enters service.

The Indian Air Force ( IAF ) recently told a parliamentary defence committee that the LCA was unlikely to be inducted into service before 2015 - some 32 years after the idea was first conceived.

The LCA is a classic example of good money chasing bad

Unnamed Indian official
A parliamentary report published last month said that if indigenous efforts in military self-reliance are to be successful, results have to be visible within a more reasonable timeframe.

Another recent report by India's Comptroller and Auditor General stated that delays in the project had compelled the IAF to seek interim measures to cover the shortfall in combat aircraft by accepting foreign help to upgrade around 125 MiG-21 fighters at a cost of over $20bn.

The CAG report said that the LCA's development was beset with delays for almost every vital component of the aircraft.

It said that the development of its engine, airframe, multi-mode radar and flight control system were all behind schedule.

It said there is still no certainty about a final completion date and no figures as to the final cost.

Navy pessimism

The Indian Navy is also pessimistic about the LCA's future.

It has decided instead to acquire around 40 Russian MiG-29's for over one billion dollars.

A senior source said that the naval version of the LCA is still at the drawing board stage, and that officers were not prepared to wait indefinitely while India's operational preparedness was being jeopardised.

Many military commentators say the price of the project alone should provide the government with a convincing reason for scrapping it.

So far it has cost millions of dollars, they argue, and it should not be allowed to become a bottomless pit.

Yet critics say that successive governments have lacked the political courage to scrap it, especially since India had committed itself to achieving 75% self-reliance in defence equipment by 2005.

"Like other Indian defence projects, the LCA is a classic example of good money chasing bad," an official said.

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See also:

04 Jan 01 | South Asia
India tests new combat plane
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
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