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Saturday, January 13, 2001



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`LCA is about creating wealth for country' -- Dr Kota Harinarayana, Programme Director (LCA), Aeronautical Development Agency

Janaki Murali

When the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) flew its maiden sortie on January 4, the question uppermost in everyone's mind was: ``Now what?'' More than 15 years in the making involving over 80 organisations and 300 small and medium firms in one of India's most prestigious projects, the applause was dampened by criticism over cost- and time-overruns and whether the aircraft's technology would become obsolete by the time it is inducted in to the Indian Air Force, and worse, if the country needed to embark on th is exercise at all.

Caught at the centre of the storm is Dr Kota Harinarayana, the man behind the LCA. As programme director of the LCA, Dr Harinarayana dedicated 15 years to the project and earned himself the DRDO's Distinguished Scientist award in 1995. He discussed the L CA issue with Business Line.

Excerpts from the interview:

Was the project required at all? Could the country not have bought what it needed?

A country with a one-billion-strong population cannot be buying things from abroad. We can buy a few things, but strategic aircraft have to be developed here and that has been our challenge and mission. We do not want to make an aircraft by buying everyt hing from abroad. What base would you create in this country? This country will remain poor forever. How else do we generate wealth here? The LCA project is not about building an aircraft. It is about creating wealth for the country. If everything is bou ght from abroad, how will you create jobs?

The LCA project was not about building an aircraft. We have developed a series of technologies and the cascading effect and spin-off effect is much more. For instance, several companies that developed technologies for the LCA have already started exporti ng them. There has been plenty of tears, tribulations and hard work. Any country that has taken up such projects, has done it the hard way.

The project has been 15 years in the making. Is it not too long?

Building of the F22 aircraft began in 1980 and it flew first in 1997 -- after 17 years. The Eurofighter was to make its maiden flight in 1990, but it flew in 1994. The UK, Germany, Italy and Spain have been involved with the EFA. Why is the media mum on this aspect? Western nations are continually working on prototypes and have more time, considering their technology. As for the joint strike fighter (of the US) -- it is only being test-flown and it is estimated that it will be ready in 2004. They still have to work on it. The joint strike fighter has been discussed for more than a decade -- since 1982. In a complex programme, such as one involving aircraft, so many technologies are being developed -- 15 years is not a long time. But moving ahead should be faster -- the aircraft can enter into service in 2005 or 2007, but decisions are needed to enter production.

The delay in the project's completion has been blamed on the involvement of too many organisations...

For a project like this, we need a lot of people, but it took longer because we did not have the experience. We had to pump in a lot of information and support and create facilities for them. You will not see any facilities in ADA. It is a virtual corpo ration. We were a core group that worked with everybody, putting people together in an integrated way.

In a development project, we have to give concessions to those working on the project, understand their problems and give them time. It is so everywhere. We are not used to it here. Except for ISRO, atomic energy and the DRDO's missile programme, who els e has accomplished this much.

There has been a lot of talk that the technology will become obsolete by the time the LCA is in operation...

We are being unnecessarily critical about ourselves and playing squarely into the Western lobby's hands by saying the technology will become obsolete. We have more advanced technology than the JAS 39 (Gripen) and as much advanced technology as EFA's (Eur ofighter) Typhoon. We have pumped in so much advanced technology -- the reason we have taken more time.

Does this mean we can leapfrog in technology terms and be on a par with, say, the joint strike fighter?

There is nothing great about an aircraft that can undertake a short take-off and landing. And as far as information technology is concerned, this country has a better understanding of it. We can use our knowledge base in the private sector.

The LCA is the smallest supersonic fighter in the world. It has performed beautifully. The touchdown was beautiful and the pilot said it did not feel like a prototype. We may have taken our time, but we have perfected it. We tested out control laws and f light control systems for almost two-and-a-half years. I believe we have tested it thrice as intensively as any European country or the US. There were no failures in the first flight. Credit must be handed to the design, evaluation, flight testing and ai r-worthiness teams.

Has not there been a cost overrun, considering that the project has taken so long to complete?

We have spent about Rs 2,000 crore. Two prototypes were originally planned, but we made four. We also absorbed the foreign exchange escalation. Initially, Rs 500 crore was sanctioned, a rough estimate. In 1990, we gave a projection of Rs 2,188 crore, but this was sanctioned only in 1993, but we did not increase the costs.

I doubt any other nation, and for that matters Europe or the US, would be able to undertake such a project within this budget. They would require twice or thrice as much. In 1991-92, we faced a cash crunch, but since 1993, money has not been a problem.

How have the last 15 years been?

I have been here since 1986, and it has been a tense time. I have excellent colleagues. It is not easy to keep people from different organisations working on a project for 15 years. This was a great challenge and a very great success too. But, I never do ubted that the LCA would fly.

Picture: Dr Kota Harinarayana

Picture by Saggere Ramaswamy

Related links:
Air pocket
LCA does `a beautiful take off and touch down'
LCA to undergo more ground runs
LCA all set for take-off

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