In recent years, Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) has risen to prominence as many air forces across the globe sought cost-effective, efficient, and maneuverable jets. Compared to larger multirole or strike aircraft such as the American F/A-18 Hornet or Russian MiG-29 Fulcrum, LCAs are usually slower used for Counterinsurgency or close air support missions.
Out of the LCAs that arose in the last four decades, the South Korean FA-50 is currently dominating the market—sweeping contracts left and right worldwide. However, existing customers found unprecedented flaws in the beloved combat aircraft that could potentially catapult to its descent… and an opportunity that rising LCA stars wouldn’t want to miss to seize.
FA-50 Logistics Shortage
The Philippine Air Force (PAF) is one of the many customers of the FA-50, receiving its P18.9 billion-worth fleet (around $323 million at today’s rate) from Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) between 2015 to 2017 and playing a significant role during the Marawi City campaign.
Since then, the LCA has become an important part of the PAF, but according to news reports, most aircraft have now been grounded. Out of twelve, only three remained operational because of spare parts logistics problems, causing a mandatory scheduled maintenance backlog.
“While it is true that we have FA-50 aircraft that are currently on non-operational status, most of them are just ongoing scheduled maintenance which is mandatory precautionary checks, and they will be back in the air soon,” said Air Force spokesperson Col. Ma Consuelo Castillo.
Besides the Philippines and South Korea, operators of the FA-50 include Indonesia, Iraq, Thailand, and Poland, which recently joined the Golden Eagle Club after signing an arms deal in July and are slated to receive 48 aircraft beginning next year. Joining soon will be Malaysia as it finalizes its agreement with KAI of 18 FA-50s and potentially Egypt. However, these two countries are also considering the newest LCA Tejas by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).
The Current LCA “Golden Child”
KAI began the development of its indigenous supersonic aircraft in the late 1990s in collaboration with Lockheed Martin. T-50 Golden Eagle made its maiden flight in 2002 and entered active service three years later in the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) as an advanced jet trainer, one of the few supersonic trainers in the world. The development of variants came after that, starting with T-50B (serving ROKAF’s aerobatics team), TA-50 light attack, and the revered FA-50 LCA.
The T-50A was marketed for the US Air Force’s next-generation T-X trainer program in 2018 but lost the bidding to aerospace giant Boeing, BTX-1. Nonetheless, the exportation of the Golden Eagle pushed through, making its way into the air forces of Indonesia, followed by the Philippines and Thailand.
FA-50 LCA is the latest, most advanced version of the T-50, featuring more internal fuel capacity, upgraded avionics, a longer radome, a tactical datalink, and a modified Israeli EL/M-2032 pulse-Doppler radar. While T-50 has a single General Electric F404-102 afterburning turbofan engine capable of generating up to 79 kN, the FA-50 can be equipped with either the Eurojet EJ200 or General Electric F414 that can produce a thrust of 89 to 98 kN. In addition, the radar range of the FA-50 is also greater, specially designed for day-and-night operations.
During the initial evaluation, the aircraft was estimated to achieve a speed of up to Mach 1.5 but was only able to achieve Mach 1. Its engine performance boosted the aircraft’s speed, reaching a maximum speed of 990 mph within an operational range of 1,150 miles and a service ceiling of up to 48,000 feet.
The standard armaments of the KIA LCA are 1x20mm General Dynamics A-50 “Vulcan,” a Gatling-style three-barre autocannon, and 2x AIM-9 “Sidewinder” air-to-air missiles that are mounted on each wingtip.
The Rising Modern LCA Star
HAL’s Tejas is a rookie in the industry, only having to see the light of day in the mid-2010s. The development of the Indian LCA began in the 1980s, originally aiming to replace its aging MiG-21 fighter but later became a full-blown modernization program. Tejas became India’s smallest and lightest modern supersonic combat aircraft, entering active Indian Air Force (IAF) service in 2015.
HAL has finally announced that it is ready to export the homegrown LCA in 2020 with plans to set up logistical facilities in Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam after years of development and testing. It also made sales pitch efforts to these countries in addition to Argentina, Australia, Egypt, the Philippines, United Arab Emirates, and the US. So far, it has not succeeded in winning a bid or signing an arms deal.
Tejas LCA likewise equipped almost the same turbofan engine as the T-50, a General Electric F404-GE-IN20 afterburning that develops around 54 kN of dry thrust and roughly 90 kN thrust with reheat. It could reach a maximum speed of 1,227 mph, equating to about Mach 1.8, within 1,988 miles of operational range and a service ceiling of 54,134 feet.
The Tejas’ standard armament is a 23mm GSh-23 twin-barrel internal autocannon that can be chambered with short-, medium-, or long-range air-to-air missiles, as well as air-to-surface, laser-guided, and conventional drop/launch ordnance weighing approximately 11,600 pounds.
Compared to KIA FA-50, the HAL Tejas’ overall measurements are quite lengthier and heavier. An FA-50 is nearly 13 m in length, 4.78 m in height, and 9.17 in wingspan, with an empty weight of more than 6,400 kg. Meanwhile, HAL Tejas is more than 13 m in length, 4.40 m in height, and 8.20 in wingspan, with an empty weight of over 6,500 kg. So far, the KIA has produced over 200 units, while HAL has built around 33 units.
Considering its new status, Tejas LCA is yet to prove its effectiveness on the battlefield despite its promising attributes. Unlike FA-50, which had been battle-tested.