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HAL developing LCA-1P with AESA Radar

By Gulshan LuthraPublished: May 2015

Bangalore. India’s Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas programme has been delayed indeed, but to make up for it, HAL is now working on developing a new variant, LCA-I P, which will be equipped with an advanced AESA Radar and an electro-optic Electronic Warfare (EW) sensor suite.


The timeline for this variant has been set at 2017, two years from now. The AESA radar will be supplied by Israel’s ELTA Systems, a subsidiary of Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). ELTA had earlier supplied its AEW&C (Airborne Early Warning & Control) system for IAF’s IL-76 based Intelligence and surveillance aircraft, designated by IAF as AWACS (Airborne Warning & Control Systems) aircraft.

AESA, or Active Electronically Scanned Array radar, is the key component in the AWACS, enabling a 360 degree look-down-and-around capability to IAF for about 400 km. The aircraft is designed to guide combat fleets and ground assets in a war scenario. With no moving part, AESA is much faster in capability than earlier airborne radars in which rotodomes moved mechanically – and rather slowly – to scan different areas.

AESA in fact was always in the LCA programme, and there were discussions with some foreign companies as well as with the state-run BEL in developing it. Finally the choice has gone to ELTA, which in any case has been collaborating with BEL. LCA also has a sophisticated fly by wire system and glass cockpit. Once the programme gets going, HAL may manufacture some 200 aircraft for IAF and perhaps another 100 for the Navy.

AESA in the LCAs will obviously have a lower range, but it will be well integrated within the IAF network, and give a quantum technology jump to IAF’s combat capability. Notably, the 36 Rafales being acquired by IAF in the Government-to-Government deal will also have the AESA radar, developed by Thales.

IAF’s AWACS aircraft – three delivered, two on order – are already integrated with its combat, transport and land assets and also networked with aircraft of the Indian Navy.

HAL has in principle support from the Government, and is now working on the proposal with the IAF (Indian Air Force) in this regard. This variant will be developed on the existing LCA-MkI model, and will meet IAF’s requirements till the larger LCA Mk II is developed by 2021 with the more powerful GE 414 engine.

HAL Chairman and Managing Director (CMD) T Suvarna Raju told India Strategic in an interview that HAL shared the technology concerns of the user – IAF – as well as the urgency for production of the aircraft in view of the falling numbers of IAF combat squadrons due to obsolescence. The AESA and EW suite will make the new LCA variant more advanced than the supersonic MiG 21s in capability, even though it will be a subsonic aircraft compared to the ageing aircraft of the Soviet vintage.

A key technology being adopted now is 3D printing, which will cut design and production time by months. This is now being used for engines but it is being adopted for various aspects of aircraft design and production.

P in the LCA-I P stands for prototype, but once accepted by IAF, it could be designated LCA-MkI-A or whatever.

LCA-MkI, which achieved IOC-II (Initial Operational Capability, stage II) in January 2014 for acceptance by IAF as it is produced and tested, is yet to get the FOC (Final Operational Capability) but the focus now is on adding the EW package, originally planned for the LCA-MkII.

The aircraft will continue to have the same GE 404 engine however in this variant, but the lack of adequate power will be compensated by the warfare capability generated by the new sensors, with AESA providing a formidable force multiplication. This type of radar uses multiple frequencies to electronically scan several targets simultaneously.

The earlier radars used to have mechanically moving parts, whose output was painfully slow compared to the new generation electronic technology.

Notably, US companies Raytheon and Northrop Grumman have an established lead in the AESA systems while in Europe, Thales has just about achieved it for installation on Rafale and Eurofighter aircraft. In fact, AESA was a key requirement for India’s MMRCA (Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft) competition, and the 36 Rafale jets being acquired from France should have both the AESA as well as the Infra Red Search and Track (IRST) system.

Israel is known for its excellence in electronic warfare systems, and ELTA should be able to meet IAF’s specific requirements.

Notably, IAF is not happy with the GE 404 engine, regarding it as underpowered for warfare. But only 40 aircraft are slated for production with this engine. For LCA-MkII aircraft, there is an agreement for 99 GE 414 engines already with the US engine maker. The production of that aircraft is due to begin from 2021.

The new LCA-MkI-P variant with the EW Package will also add some 50 kilos of more weight, but then, Mr Raju explained, the capability of the aircraft increases significantly, offsetting the disadvantage of a smaller engine.

The current LCA-MkI version uses 210 kilos with ballast in the nose to stabilize the aircraft. This will be removed, and the AESA and EW suite weighing about 250 kilos will be added. The net weight gain will be of about 50 kilos.

LCA-MkI and LCA-MkII are both single engine aircraft, hence the power of their engines to provide thrust to the aircraft and sustain their power-guzzling electric and electronic systems, particularly the radar, will always be critical.

There are two naval versions also with high landing gear as technology demonstrators. The naval version has to be much stronger than air force aircraft as every landing on the limited space of a carrier is like a crash landing, and the aircraft has to be stopped by one of the three onboard arrestor wires which latches on to a hook in the tail of the aircraft. If the attempt fails by chance, then the aircraft has to take off again, and that is why its engine(s) are kept on full power.

Mr Raju said that Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar was taking personal interest in the development of indigenous technologies and systems, including in the LCA, and HAL was working to speed up whatever it could do.

For one thing, it is proposing now to take full charge of the LCA development programme to become the single responsible agency. Right now, the design and development of the aircraft, engines, weapons package etc, are with DRDO and its Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA).

During a recent visit to HAL, this writer saw several young engineers, one of them trained in the UK. Like them, Mr Raju had joined HAL while young some 40 years back. He is as passionate now as he was perhaps then. He observed optimistically: We are taking steps in talent and technology to meet the timelines.

There is an emphasis on composite materials, for which Indian companies, both in public and private sectors, need to do a lot. Significantly, about half of the LCA is made of composite materials, which are lighter but stronger than the aircraft grade aluminum.

HAL has built seven LCA-MkI aircraft under LSP (Low Rate Series Production) and two under the SP (Series Production).

Significantly, LCA has passed several crucial tests in operating from tough summer and mountainous terrains as well as in firing missiles.

Note: The series on HAL will continue in the next edition.
  © India Strategic  
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