India’s home-grown fighter aircraft programme crossed another milestone last week when the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas flew for the first time, in the configuration in which it would be delivered to the Indian Air Force (IAF). However, an enormous amount of flight testing remains. The fighter aircraft, long criticised for the delay in development, may finally enter IAF squadrons by the first quarter of 2011, says PS Subramanyam, director of the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) which heads the programme. Still, at a time when ADA is embarking on newer, more ambitious projects like the Unmanned Combat Aircraft and the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft besides the upgraded LCA Mark-II, Subramanyam tells FE’s Ajay Sukumaran he is confident the growth of the domestic aerospace industry will change the way such programmes are run. Excerpts
The LCA programme has been a trigger for the growth of the domestic private industry in the aerospace sector. Now, the national civil aircraft project envisages private partnership from design to production. How do you see the industry’s capability now?
The return on investment is enormous. Today, the volume of investment the industry is getting because of our nurturing is huge. Because of the programme, today we have people in the the industry to absorb the defence offsets.
About 70-80% of the avionics equipment (on the LCA) are made outside defence PSUs. The cabling, piping, everything is done outside. I would say more than 50-60% of the effort and materials are coming from the private industry. Today, you name any class of avionics equipment for fighter aircraft, the private industry is fully capable of design, development, certification, qualification and production. This is the capability that today I can claim India has.
In your opinion, what’s the next step for the private industry?
My vision is that Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) labs and ADA should work on niche technologies like the Active Electronically Scanned Array radar technology. The PSUs should be able to convert that technology into some kind of production process. Once that is done, it should go into the private industry. The first level of productionisation has a lot of uncertainty and defence PSUs have the resilience to absorb that. No private firm is ready to get into this because it has to incur losses. Once it is productionised, everybody can get into it. This should be our chain of activity.
But most of the design and development expertise…
: is still in the public sector domain? How will that change?
Coming to deep design, the private firms will say they are responsible to their shareholders and that the user has not fully defined his requirements because it is not possible to define requirements in full terms.
The strategy is we become the systems
specifiers. We will carry out the first 20% of a design job and detail it for them. Again, when the parts come, the integration and testing of the aircraft is our responsibility. Now, I would say 30% we have to do, 70% they can. That kind of capacity exists and we are tapping that.
When do you see that happening?
LCA Mark-II may see this 30-70 operationalisation because we don’t have so many resources. The Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft programme is coming, as is the Unmanned Combat Aircraft. There are not enough people and the project directors are talking to the private industry to work in that kind of a 30-70 mode. The 30% basically constitutes the part I have to design—a flying machine, an aerodynamic configuration to match the user requirement. This technology is still held between some of the defence PSUs and government institutions. This is not there with the private industry.
But let me tell you one thing. There is a thinking that these government people are hesitant to take the private industry into confidence. But there are so many gaps in the way they understand airworthy requirements.
When we started with a private company for total software development of an electronic equipment, the multifunctional display, in the first phase my people did 80% of the job. Every time the work was given to them, it was brought back with mistakes. Our team was fed up. In phase two, for the development of software for a higher version, it was 50-50. Today, it is almost 10-90. We have to go through this.
What is the status of the Unmanned Combat Aircraft and the advanced Medium Combat Aircraft?
(The Indian) Air Force is now working on the refinement of the user requirements and we are doing all the technology studies. Probably, in another 6 months to one year, realisable technological specifications could evolve. With the MCA too, our proposal is to catch up with fifth-generation technologies. Probably, within 12 months, we should be able to give a proposal to the government to get the full-fledged funding for the advanced MCA.
BY : The Indian Express Limited