As the Indian skies prepare for the reception of the Rafale, it already has had the taste of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) joining its fleet in the Final Operational Clearance (FOC) version. The Indian Air Force (IAF) now has two Squadron of the LCA, one in the Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) and one in the Final Operational Clearance (FOC) versions and would soon have two squadrons of Rafale on its strength.
Aviation purist would flinch at this statement, naming both the aircraft in the same breath, and rightly so, the Rafale leaves the LCA far behind when compared for technological upgrades and combat capability, but where the smart man would bet his money is on the homegrown LCA.
The last indigenous fighter designed and built in India has been the HF Marut, an excellent piece of aerodynamics, let down by incompatible engines which were borrowed from the Gnat. The homegrown fighter has since, taken a step back, without adequate firm orders and a general feeling of inferiority by the military and the masses. Accentuated by the governments’ apathy towards R&D in the field, the LCA project took its own sweet time to fructify.
The LCA first emerged in its IOC avatar and lacked the requisite trimmings of a combat-ready fighter, whereas almost simultaneously the first MMRCA deal was being negotiated, the home lad was always looked down upon and considered inferior to its foreign adversaries. The failure of the first Rafale deal to fructify, gave the industry a small glimmer of a window to showcase its wares, coupled with this came the government’s policy of supporting the Indigenous military hardware to the maximum possible.
The LCA now started being showcased, not only in India but also abroad, it was more to say that “I have arrived” rather than “ Buy Me”. People had just about started believing in the “Make in India” concept and were now ready to hold the hand of the fledgeling defence production industry.
What the IOC version lacked was made up to a large extent by the FOC version. The “g” limits have been increased to 8 g, the angle of attack limits have been enhanced to 24, new weapons have been integrated including the Beyond Visual Range ones, the Air to Air refuelling the capability has been added, the Pilot Vehicle Interfaces have been enhanced, to name a few, to finally give the LCA its teeth to hold its own in the fighter world.
Our defence production industries have started to emerge in the world market, albeit in a limited way, more and more crucial parts for major global production houses, are being supplied from India, a step which would have missed the eyes of many onlookers. An industry, which a couple of decades earlier had almost nothing to offer, now manufactures and exports equipment ranging from Laser optics to aircraft fuselage shells, from infrared trackers to software for situational awareness domain, the list is growing day by day.
The main focus now would be to continue this steady progress and attain self-sufficiency. Easier said than done, the path is long and arduous, the proverbial child born, has to be nurtured through infancy to ensure it grows to compete against the world.
To get the present LCA to a comparable combat-capable platform would still need some work. The FOC has enhanced the potency of the platform, the AAR capability has ensured the LCA can now loiter longer and reach further, the BVR means, it can shoot without seeing. Increased ‘g’ limits and enhanced AoA limits make it more manoeuvrable. The LCA Mk1A would have an indigenous AESA radar with better PVIs. The AESA, developed indigenously, would propel the industry a fair amount of distance into the contemporary.
Following the Mk1A is the LCA Mk2, a heavier, medium weight, powered by the more powerful single-engine and supporting canards to provide a high degree of manoeuvrability. This is where we are looking to break even against the modern-day Rafale. The date may not be in the immediate future but with the requisite support from all quarters, the defence production industries may pull out the proverbial rabbit from the hat. Once that’s done India would be self-sufficient.
The Rafale as of now looks a good bet because it comes off the shelf and made to order, however, it burns a major hole in the pocket and worse, if the nation once again takes to maximum reliance in defence imports, it would take us another few decades to have our own credible industry. It is imperative that the push offered by the military and the government be maintained to ensure that Indian products reach global standards.
By the time the LCA project is completed with the culmination of the Mk2, it is expected that the AMCA project would get a new vigour of life to propel itself as a true blue fifth-generation fighter.