An Update on India’s Light Combat Aircraft


2016-02-03 The development of India’s indigenous fighter is an important development for India and might well reshape the export market as well.

It has been an uphill battle to develop the aircraft and to get it into production and operations.

But India is making clear progress with regard to the way ahead for the LCA.

Our strategic partner, India Strategic has provided important insights into the effort and here we are republishing three recent articles, which provide important perspectives with regard to the program and the way ahead.

The first article was published in January 2016, and focuses on the appearance of the LCA at the Bahrain air show, the first time the plane flew outside of Indian airspace.

And in this article, an interview of the HAL Chairman and Managing Director by Gulshan Luthra highlighted the way ahead. 

HAL Chairman and Managing Director (CMD) T Suvarana Raju told India Strategic that Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had accorded approval a few months back as there was interest in the aircraft from a couple of countries. He declined to elaborate as weapon exports are determined by the Government, that is, the Ministries of External Affairs and Defence and the process is in their purview. 

He said that the first of the 20 LCA Mk 1 aircraft ordered by the Indian Air Force (IAF) would be delivered by 2018 beginning 2016, and HAL was now also working on its Mk 1A version which will be fitted with AESA and other electronic warfare systems either from Israel Aerospace Industries’ Elta or US Raytheon companies. 

The latter has developed what it calls RACR (Raytheon Advanced Combat Radar) for smaller jets and it was offered if India had selected the Lockheed Martin’s F 16 in the MMRCA competition. 

The development of LCA Mk IA should generate substantial interest, particularly after it is inducted by the Indian Air Force (IAF). 

The Mk 1A version will be slightly larger to accommodate the AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar, RWR (Rear Radar Warning) and SPJ (Self Protection Jammer) systems, three critical components that were required in IAF’s MMRCA competition also, and will make it a potent attack machine. 

HAL Chairman and Managing Director (CMD) T Suvarana Raju standing next to the Tejas. Credit: India Strategic
HAL Chairman and Managing Director (CMD) T Suvarana Raju standing next to the Tejas. Credit: India Strategic

The aircraft is under parallel development and it would take a few years to certify it and make it ready for IAF as well as exports. The size is being increased by inserting a plug in the middle.

The France-based European Airbus group has been helping in the LCA project under a short-term contract but has offered to assist in further development of the aircraft even to Mk 2 variant. There is no decision yet however as HAL has plans also for AMCA (Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft) with futuristic capabilities. 

Mr Raju said the LCA is primarily a digital fly by wire system and so will be its components. The development of the aircraft has brought in a lot of technology and experience to HAL, which now aspires to be an integrator. 

Modules and components can be made by both the public and private sector companies in line with the Government’s Make in India policy and integration of flying machines can be entrusted to HAL. That will also help in realizing the potential for exports. Significantly, he pointed out, HAL has started inducting 3D Printing technologies to cut short the design and production processes….. 

Asked to comment on HAL’s history of 75 years, Mr Raju said that the state-run company had produced 15 types of aircraft, 14 of them under license, 3800 aircraft, 5000 engines, and some components for India’s space program. HAL has its footprint in 80 per cent of IAF’s aircraft. 

There is emphasis now also on developing expertise and training in aviation in line with the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Make in India, Skill India and Digital India campaigns. 

The Defence Minister has already extended full support to HAL in this perspective.

India has taken part in defense exhibitions in the Gulf beginning with IDEX’93 and IDEX’95 in Abu Dhabi, but by and large, the participation has been moderate and inconsistent, largely because of India’s traditional policy of not exporting any lethal weapons. The reluctance of the governance system has been reversed over the last few years. 

There is though a new momentum in the process.

The second article by Gopal Sutar, the Chief of Media Communications at Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd provides his perspective on the importance of the LCA program for India and the region was published this month.

As far as the Bahrain show is concerned, according to Chairman and Manging Director of Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL), T Suvarna Raju, two Limited Series Production (LSP) aircraft took part. The performance covered aerobatic maneuvers in what is called 8-g pull, vertical loop, slow fly past, and barrel roll in defense parlance.

He also pointed out that HAL, which is associated with the design, development and production of Tejas, has set-up a state-of-the-art, environmentally-controlled division in Bengaluru for the production of LCAs and expected to roll-out soon. 

Image Courtesy: Basani Satheesh Kumar, Indian MoD
Image Courtesy: Basani Satheesh Kumar, Indian MoD

However, what is of significance is, participation of this kind brings less-known names to the attention of international customers and media. There is no doubt that for countries facing huge defense manufacturing challenges, it is important that their products — helicopters, trainers, transport and fighter aircraft, and drones of various kinds — must be demonstrated at international air shows to impress upon those who are in need of these products. 

The defense sector is completely dominated by Western powers, thanks to their robust manufacturing, research and technology set-ups. Aerospace is a complex area with zero tolerance for the smallest error. 

While Western countries remain in the forefront, Asia at best could be described as a laggard as it was unable to overcome the investment and technological challenges peculiar to the aerospace sector. 

It takes years, even decades, for one product to get accepted in an unforgiving market. Today, although things have improved, these countries are aware that there is still some distance to go to match the skill-sets and R&D set-ups that exist in defense manufacturing in the US or France. 

According to one estimate, 54 per cent of India’s population is under 30 years and the ratio of the population in the working age group of 15-59 years is likely to be 64 per cent by 2021. India will thus approximately have 25 per cent of the world’s total workforce by 2025. 

One needs to exploit this by creating the right opportunities in different sectors — aerospace is one of them. 

It is true that for most of developing countries, it is daunting to aggregate the skill requirements of the industry, address the sub-sectors and regional requirements keeping line with international trends and best practices. But whatever the challenges Asia faces, it is welcome sign that countries like India have debuted in a critical segment such as fighter aircraft. 

Tejas is a single-engined, lightweight, highly agile, multi-role supersonic fighter. It is a 4.5 generation aircraft with supersonic capability at all altitudes. It is fly-by-wire and has an open architecture computer for avionics and better weapon and combat capability. With advanced avionics, the pilot load is also reduced. 


Already, the Sarang helicopter display team of the Indian Air Force — that flies four HAL-produced Dhruv helicopters — has enthralled visitors at different places including Bahrain. HAL Dhruv is suitable for increased payload at higher altitudes and has been developed for the Indian defense Forces. More than 200 helicopters have been produced so far, cumulatively clocking around 142,000 hours of flying.

In future, one hopes there will be more opportunities to showcase new variants of ‘Make in India’ copters. 

Considering that for any Asian country, buying a plane or a helicopter from the West comes at a very heavy price, cost-effective fighters and helicopters manufactured in Asia are bound to impress the potential customers. It also means enormous pressure on those involved in the process … but then that is the nature of the defense business. 

The future course would depend on how the aerospace manufacturing ecosphere evolves in Asia and India in particular. One hopes the Bahrain show paves the way for an Asian emergence, at least on a small scale at the international level.

These articles were republished with the permission of our partner India Strategic.