LCA Tejas Flight Test Chief’s Candid Review Of Aircraft
This piece by the project director (flight test) on the LCA Tejas programme was presented earlier this month at the Aero India seminar. An enlightening read.
By Air Commodore K.A. Muthana, VSM
1. The Indian Light Combat aircraft (LCA) was conceived in the early eighties and is now on the threshold of entering squadron service. The legacy of this aircrafts’ development has resulted in true challenges to deployment being faced at a very late stage. There are even insinuations that this aircraft has been more of a success to the scientists in lab coats than to the war fighter in flight suits. True; this fine aircraft has been hostage to a series of systemic shortcomings. There are significant lessons here for the Indian aviation industry. It is vitally important that these lessons are imbibed in order to move forward coherently in building a strong aeronautics industry in this country.
2. Aim of this paper is to critically examine the challenges faced in transitioning the LCA from design to deployment and thus learn lessons for the future.
3. Higher Defense Management. A fundamental challenge has been the structure of the Indian higher defense management. Broadly speaking, there are three verticals within the Indian Ministry of Defense that steer this program. One such vertical is headed by a war fighter, another by a bureaucrat and the third by a technocrat. In this totally State funded and State managed program, interdepartmental oversight has been lacking. It is necessary that a single political entity take charge of such projects to attribute responsibility and demand accountability. Even if private players become significant, interdepartmental co-ordination would be possible only by an informed and responsible political entity.
4. Clarity on Standards. The base document for development of LCA is a beautifully crafted Air Staff Requirement that was clearly ahead of its time and is relevant even today, nearly three decades later. This document primarily restricted itself to stating performance requirements. It is very interesting to note that the country in which aviation is widely accepted to have been born, the USA, (I say widely accepted because I have heard Russians say otherwise), through a document generally referred to as the Perry Document adopted a similar procedure in 1994! The ASR document however, mandated the use of US military specifications and standards of the day as the guiding document for design. The relevant standards and specifications were to have been culled out by D Aero at DRDO HQ. Any concessions were to be sought from IAF HQ. There is no evidence to show that a comprehensive process was followed. This apparent lapse has lead to a number of challenges in design that we face today; so close to deployment.
5. Clarity on Path to Certification. In many ways this is the first fighter aircraft design and development program in India, after a gap of about four decades. Design expertise from the old program of HF-24 was not available, and moreover, the LCA envisaged a quantum leap in technology. To the Indian certification agency also therefore, this was ‘learning in progress’. The path to certification is evolving along with the aircraft. The extent of analyses and testing required tended to be a little open ended. Comprehensive documentation of the path to certification in this program will hugely benefit future programs.
6. Agencies for Design, Development and Support. If the process of design itself is to be accomplished by two design houses working under two different verticals mentioned in Para 2 above, there would be a price to pay. While ADA had a single point focus, clearly HAL ARDC had multiple foci. HALs indigenous programs clearly have priority within that organization and therefore so do resource allocation. The aircraft would continue to develop during its lifetime and all round support would be necessary. The responsibility for, post deployment maintenance of documentation, software and their periodic up gradation remains open ended. Unless resolved, this story of an inconvenient marriage would be continuing saga and have adverse effects on the product during its entire lifetime.
7. Customer Involvement. During the design and development process itself, it is vital that comprehensive knowledge of aviation in general and military aviation in particular is made available to the program. Scientists and design engineers do not have that knowledge. The Indian Air Force is the only repository of comprehensive military aviation knowledge in this country. Either its expertise was not sought or it was denied. Also we probably have the only aviation companies in the world that do not have aviators embedded into design teams. As a result, while the designers concentrated on getting the technology airborne, the design necessities of turning the aircraft into a maintainable, deployable and employable weapon platform were missed to a large extent. Originally a reluctant customer, the Indian Air Force involved itself sufficiently only after contracting for supply of the aircraft in 2006. It was late in the program and hundreds of ‘Requests for Action’ had to be raised in order to retrieve the situation to some extent, but this lead to time and cost overruns.
8. Evaluation of Prototypes. In the process of transitioning from design and development to series production, limited or otherwise, an essential step is to undertake a formal comprehensive evaluation of the prototype vehicles. It is in this process that the platforms testability and therefore maintainability, and its suitability for deployment can be assessed and recommendations made for the required standard of preparation (SOP) for series production (SP) aircraft. Having neglected to undertake this step, limited series production aircraft are worthy of remaining test aircraft only and SOP of series production aircraft continues to evolve!
9. Development of Avionics Package. No customer would be willing to accept obsolescent equipment at induction. Slow progress of the program coupled with rapid development in the field of electronics played its part in inefficient development of the avionics package on the aircraft. The initial focus on airframe and basic platform issues led to a delay in requirement generation and creation of mission specific software modules. Staggered integration of various mission systems also precluded comprehensive global software development, and allowed development effort to be frittered away in development of patches and modules catering only for immediate needs of the hour. Lack of operational requirements expertise in design teams led to replicating Mirage cockpit logic on the aircraft without exploiting the significantly advanced hardware architecture of this aircraft.
A major course correction had to be effected when the IAF finally got into the program. Lack of realistic evaluation and simulation tools meant that evaluation in most cases was carried out in the air for the first time leading to delays due to the requirement of even small fixes having to go through the complete clearance cycle.
10. Process of Transitioning from Design to Manufacture. There are many challenges that we face in transitioning from design to manufacture. One is the necessity to convert frozen design drawings into production drawings. Purportedly an elaborate process that has to be undertaken by dedicated integration teams. These have then to be cleared by the certification agency and followed diligently by the manufacturing and quality control agencies. Other shortcomings are; inability to meet manufacturing tolerances; non availability of correct jigs, fixtures and tooling to meet DAL requirements; non availability of suitable calibrating equipment; and, lack of trained manpower. These challenges directly affect the quality of manufacture.
11. Concurrent Development of Support Systems. The necessity to concurrently design and develop support equipment like tools, testers and ground equipment (TTGE) must not be underestimated. Designers have to understand that the testers that they develop to enable the design process would be unsuitable for use by the war fighter. What is required are simple testers ruggedized to be deployable and employable in the field, by young air warriors with limited education, in order to establish serviceability of a platform to undertake a mission. Similarly, ground support equipment has to be suited well, be light and durable for easy employability and transportability. Such support is vital to deploy the aircraft quickly and repeatedly and thus exploit the inherent advantages of airpower. Development of mission support systems like planning & debrief systems, simulators etc have been lagging and will affect ease of deployment.
12. Flight & Maintenance Manuals. Before the LCA can be deployed, it is obviously necessary that the users are adequately trained to maintain and operate this aircraft. For training to be effective, prior generation of deliverable documentation is essential. These documents will have to be upgraded and supported through the life time of the aircraft. Generation and sustenance of flight and maintenance publications is a major activity and deserves the creation of a separate technical documentation group. Designer’s documents have to be culled down and adapted to the requirements of maintenance manuals which are suited to the not so highly qualified maintenance crew. Information further culled and adapted from these manuals, when enhanced by the addition of flight handling information, translate into a set of flight manuals which are used by the aircrew. Generation of documentation deliverable to the customer has been hampered by the absence of a cohesive and sustainable structure.
13. Simulators. It is important that maintenance and flight simulators are available to train the customer ground crew and aircrew. Based on the contract between the IAF and HAL, ADA did develop maintenance simulators. With the flight simulators, however, it was a strange story. While the ASR did envisage the requirement of a simulator before deployment, no such development was undertaken. Along with the contract for supply of aircraft, funds were allocated by the Government of India for a simulator to be built by HAL on ‘Build, Operate and Maintain’ (BOM) basis. This was a new concept and years were lost in deciding whether funding would be on the capital route or on the revenue route. As a result there would be no representative flight simulator available for use by the customer aircrew. The situation will be aggravated by the non availability of a trainer variant of the aircraft in the required time frame.
14. Operating Infrastructure. Infrastructure necessary for operating the aircraft has to be created at the intended base of operation, well in time for deployment. Although the requirement was projected well in time procedural delays have ensured that the work on ground is yet to start.
15. Professional Program Management. It is inconceivable that a program of this complexity can be run efficiently without the assistance of professional program managers who constantly advice the technocrat leadership. This would avoid a large number of issues cropping up at random, the thread being lost and the same issues cropping up again months later with little progress having been made! Critical path has to be continually identified and attended to. Cost and time overruns have to be tracked by professional program managers using powerful software. Only then can the customer be given a viable timeframe for deployment to enable his planning process. If he has to repeatedly throttle back, he will lose interest and look for alternatives. And that would be a tragedy for aeronautics in this country!
16. Tejas is a wonderful flying machine. It deserved to be in squadron service years ago. Remedial action on many of the shortcomings commented upon, if implemented even now, will favorably impact timelines for IOC and FOC of the Tejas Mk 1 aircraft. Favorable impact on Tejas Mk 2 and other future programs will be enormous.
Air Cmde KA Muthana, VSM, was commissioned in the fighter stream of Indian Air Force on 11 June 1981. He is a graduate of the Indian Air Force Test Pilots School. His on job experience as a test pilot include that of being the Jaguar Projects Pilot at Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment in Bangalore, Chief Test Pilot at HAL’s Nasik facility, Project Pilot with Sukhoi-30 MKI Project Team at Moscow, Russia and Director of Aircraft Upgrade at IAF HQ, New Delhi. He has been heading the National Flight Test Centre as Project Director (Flight Test) at ADA, Bangalore since 01 July 2011. This paper was presented at [PDF[ the 2013 Aero India Seminar earlier this month and is re-posted here.