On drawing board: desi stealth fighter

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By SUJAN DUTTA in Delhi
  • Published 16.02.09
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New Delhi, Feb. 15: Twin engines, an airframe designed to deflect radar signals so it cannot be easily detected, a tandem-seat cockpit over a drooped nose — so what is it? A stealth fighter?

Wrong. Baking its latest pie in the sky for the Indian Air Force, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has unveiled models, mock-ups and pictures of a stealth combat aircraft that it hopes to build one day though its light combat aircraft (LCA) — that is finally beginning to look like what it is called — is more than a decade late.

The models were on show in the DRDO’s stall at Aero India 2009 in Yelahanka, Bangalore. DRDO chief and scientific adviser to defence minister M. Natarajan said its laboratory, the Aeronautical Development Agency, was ready to get cracking on it alongside the LCA Mark II programme.

The LCA’s long history has marred its development not only because of sanctions but also because, as Natarajan insinuates, the user (the IAF) took a long time to support the programme.

“Unfortunately in this country, we are used to buying perfumed soap from Paris instead of our very own Hamam,” he said, meaning (mistakenly, perhaps) that the armed forces have not steadily supported indigenous research and development efforts.

Natarajan was in error because Hamam is marketed by multinational Hindustan Lever. Mysore Sandal may have been apt.

Natarajan said the DRDO was also working on an unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV). A blue-coloured mock-up of Rustom — an unmanned spy plane being developed by the organisation — that was displayed opposite Bae System’s Mantis sleep spy plane had wings attached to the body by one-and-a-half-inch cheap screws and plastic wing-tips.

“We are confident that after the LCA, it will be the MCA (medium combat aircraft) and the UCAV,” said Natarajan. The MCA will weigh about 20 tonnes — the same category as the six aircraft that the IAF is now evaluating for its $12.5 billion-plus order for 126 aircraft.

The “next-generation” MCA would have a naval version, too, that would be capable of taking off from and landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier. Natarajan said the DRDO would have to take foreign help and about 30 per cent of the components would be imported.

“Along with the fifth generation stealth capability, the MCA would incorporate features like radar sensors, in-built weapons systems, fly-by-wire ops and, above all, would be of lesser weight than most in its category,” he said. The DRDO chief said it would be ready in 10 years.

The LCA did its first flight trial in 2001. It is yet to get initial operational clearance. But the IAF has been asked to place an order for 40 LCA Tejas. The DRDO and its principal partner Hindustan Aeronautics are to begin deliveries after the clearance in 2010-11.

The cabinet is also yet to clear the MCA programme.