SanjayC - your words are bang on target.
Except for a small twist - It is the R&D establishment which said we'll use this opportunity to develop a replacement fighter for Mig-21 to bridge the gap with West post demise of HF-24 program. The shoe is on the other foot!
IAF wanted a Mig-21 replacement which would start going out by mid-90s but R&D establishment set itself the target of developing 4 key technologies in this venture: (a) FBW system with attendant DFCC (b) Engine (c) Multi-Mode Radar (d) High composite usage.
And on top of that, made fantastic claims about when these will fly! No less a person than Kalam made claims of 100s of LCA flying before end of last decade!
Therein lies the ROOT-CAUSE of the disenchantment of IAF with LCA Program till almost 2007. R&D establishment gave itself nice science project w/o bothering about the operational requirement of IAF.
What you say about developing a medium technology fighter as Mig-21 replacement is exactly the path it should've taken. Had that been done, may be, by now we'd have had many operational squadrons. LCA in its current form but w/o the liability of dimensions would've been a true iterative development.
But that was not to be!
And if they hadn't set ambitious targets for the program, knowing how the IAF has been in decades past, the LCA would never have been inducted, with the IAF stating its obsolete, there are better aircraft out there etc etc etc. Heck, there are air marshals attempting to spin that even today and but for the fact that information is so publicly available, their claims cut no dice.
The HF-24 Marut follow on and other R&D proposals to the IAF by HAL and design groups and the IAF lack of interest clearly played a role in the scientific fraternity's understanding of how the IAF would react.
Pot, meet kettle.
R&D establishment gave itself nice science project w/o bothering about the operational requirement of IAF.
This is completely wrong and if you dispassionately look at the issue, it would be clear the IAF's operational requirement for a light weight aircraft in the LCA size could not have been met without composites. And an AD fighter without a MMR? Even the MiG-21 bis had an AI radar. Where would we have imported one from anyhow? The Gripen radar development was also taking off, as a pan European effort. The Brits only developed one with much effort (look up concrete+Bluecircle) to get to the Foxhunter. American radars out of the question. Russian? Wouldn't fit. The only common sensical thing to do would have been to give HAL the AI radar since it assembled the Bis one. So we did. LRDE was barely experienced. Its first radar, the huge Indra-1 was still in trials.
Engine development was clearly driven by the Marut experience - tech denial & the FBW is probably the only thing which can be argued as a true tech generator program. But one is well inclined to ask whether the IAF would have accepted an older tech system that would be thoroughly behind upcoming 4G aircraft flying in the west, with digital FBW systems. For the engine as well, again, US engines like the F404 were an "easy option" but depending on the US for the long term seemed to have been a concern anyone had. One look at the CAG's MiG-29 data of that era would show what a mess the RD-33 used to be. The Mirage 2000 engine was higher in SFC and the French mislead us even on the FBW.
This sort of statement R&D establishment gave itself nice science project w/o bothering about the operational requirement of IAF
is as pointless as stating that the IAF is "Imported Air Force" which only wants the fanciest toys to play with.At the recent IAF conclave with DRDO's EW guys, the Air Marshal who presented said "you have to tell us what we need, lay out the future for us" etc. This is exactly what was done with the LCA. By doing so, we have actually managed to bridge the critical gap for our future, whether it be UAVs or the AMCA program (FBW - as versus mechanical controls, being critical).
Using the MMR program, LRDE/BARC at least got the antenna/gimbal stuff done, and the SV-2000 plus XV-2004 benefited, and now there is at least an Uttam in works. Otherwise, even that segment would remain imported because IAF didn't even project indigenous avionics as an MLU for its programs!! Whatever we do have, on the MiG-27 and on the Jaguar-DARIN-2 which is local, flows from the LCA.
The only clear issue with the program specifications, delay apart, features wise is the "light combat" specification, and in that, it was the IAF which drove a bulk of the requirements, first the Gnat and then the "light combat requirement", which even Matheswaran, hardly pro-LCA, acknowledges. It is this size restriction which complicates a ton of stuff and means we can't even import Off the Shelf and put it on the LCA. Speak to any vendor and their ready kit is not LCA ready. Russians offered Barski, aka Mini Bars. It was 2x the weight we could budget for. Kopyo-M was an underperformer. Look on that for a second. Kopyo on the Bison is fine, but its upgraded variant with 70 km range is not sufficient for the LCA. Anyways, Kopyo as usual had serviceability issues and Alpha in Bangalore was roped in to fix them. Alpha BTW is started by ex BEL, is a LCA partner - so much for the bad DPSUs who can't deliver what the IAF needs.
The fundamental problem is this. The IAF does not have an institutional capability which says "this is what the national mission is, this is what the MOD/GOI can afford, these are the likely threats in theater and this is what we need, as a development" and then after multiple iterations and revisions was worked out with ADA/HAL etc and then made sure those were great. If they don't know what they want, and what they want is often confused, the designers will shake their heads, project outwards and deliver accordingly, after having experienced similar stuff in the past.
"Can you add this later?" "Can you add this now"? So instead, head for that goal at the beginning.
DRDO/HAL promptly agreed to a lot of stuff based on inexperience and their desire to ensure at least something was sanctioned, and the foreign vendors who were invited on the audit were also inexperienced (MBB f.e.) or flat out competitors (Dassault), so there are limitations.
That same problem exists today. The IAF still lacks this capability. How do we know this? Take a look at the MMRCA requirement itself. One of the requirements which we do know about (multiple competing vendors disclosed this) was the radar range. The IAF wanted AESA (good!!) but also set a minimum requirement of 130km for a standard fighter sized target. MiG was slapping itself on its own back having achieved this with the Zhuk-AE. Anyone tracking what's been happening in the neighbourhood and internationally, would know how limited such a range performance would be once the true proliferation of LO/VLO threats starts. So why was this range put there? It was clearly a pickup from the earlier Mirage 2000-V RFP/MMRCA which was reworked into the new MMRCA one asap. So the IAF asks for AESA and then sets a minimum requirement which is completely pointless to a lot of emerging threats in the 2020 timeframe wherein these aircraft will be truly operational.
In the US, the USAF would have both DARPA and AF R&D to do its own forecasting, technology scan & then proceed to go to industry. With the MMRCA, we don't even know what else fell through the cracks. Now we have reports that the French are protesting the integration of additional Indian weapons and what not.
These are institutional issues and the MOD bears a fair share of the blame. The reason the USAF et al can go to tranches etc is because the MOD funds them well from day one and there is a degree of involvement from the USAF with industry. In turn, the industry is not paranoid about the USAF cancelling their programs. See the manner in which the JSF has received support despite its plethora of problems. In public, the USAF puts up an incredible show of support bar the occasional grumble. This is because they realize the importance of the program, understand their interests are served by economy of scale and how the orders getting dropped by bad PR can affect them to. In our case, the IAF is more of an independent service which is served by a manufacturer, and of late, one designer. The cooperation is limited by international standards. And the MOD let this be, because lets face it, in our system we have had barely a few RM who have been really been interested in defence and has some sort of experience to navigate this mess?
The MOD could have bypassed this entire mess by just telling the IAF - take tranches - we will fund the program, stop complaining about not getting every screw on day one. Similar to the F-16. But the MOD babus like the concept of power. Playing off IAF against HAL against ADA minimizes number of airframes and they are saving questions from Ministry of Finance. Which in turn tells us we don't have a strategic plan in place at GOI itself to look at all this across the board.
If the AMCA has to be a success, then the IAF has to be involved from day one as an institution, and the MOD has to fund it like it should be (a 5G program) not some khadi gramudyog (one LCA TPs comment about the plane in early days). Arup Raha ji's positivity is heart warming but he is one man. His successor may have different views. Less finance from MOD may inspire some gent at AHQ to say "aha, why are we parking money in AMCA when FGFA is ready hain jee", and from the viewpoint of his immediate needs he will push for it, and the entire mess will repeat.
As for Navy - The reason it does very well with DRDO is because it retains program management. And does not allow any flights of fancy on part of R&D establishment.
Err no. One cannot suddenly become a program manager without understanding technology or that somehow Navy does program management better preventing "flights of fancy". Anybody who thinks that engineers will like to just take the hard way is mistaken. They'll love to do the minimal offer and have the service say A-ok. Some might push for fancy stuff, but good press with less risk? What's not to like.
The Navy does well with DRDO because they are engineers themselves and UNDERSTAND the problems being faced. They feel its their program, can judge the risk well and in turn go back to NHQ and make that case convincingly. Unlike the Army and AF, since these Naval professionals duty is to do this exact thing, their views get institutional support and they are not accused of "betraying the olive green" or taking R&D's side. It is automatically understood that these guys are R&D guys themselves and hence speak the lingo and are convinced by the merits of the issue. Next, they have decision making power, and don't have to run back to AHQ/IA HQ for issues. They are part time owners of the program. Its their baby. The programs problems are their problems. Its not ADAs problem or HALs problem but their own problem.
Hence the Naval LCA promptly got its EL/M-2032 equivalent, Derby, dataklink etc as on the SHARs and with minimal fan fare and fuss or media complaints. OTOH we had IAF folks complaining "look how those guys say LCA is indigenous, but but all this is imported" because the bad press escalated as all sides bickered over how to resolve the issues. It is this power of delegation which sets the IN apart.
The Naval LCA was thoroughly delayed. 2nd fiddle to IAF program. Mismanaged due to inexperience (converting AF to Naval as versus other way around). Compare and contrast the amount of bad press the NLCA got versus the LCA. Very few gripes from the Naval guys mostly on the lines of "we are disappointed with the delay, buck up etc". But no public cribbing about how bad the aircraft is. No complains of "imported content" in the NLCA.
Guess why? Because the Navy, making its own ships knows exactly how hard it is to indigenize and has worked with private and public sector for everything from radar components to gearboxes and their guys understand the huge issues involved and its better to have a 50% indigenous platform versus a 100% one. While the Navy complains about how lethargic the DPSUs are - and well they should, we all know the issues with HAL & OFB for instance, they will still work with them. Because they face worse with the shipyards.
That is the bridge IA/IAF are away from