The LCA Navy To Sea or not to Sea

This computer generated image of the INS Vikrant (IAC-1) shows MiG-29Ks on deck (courtesy DND)

On the eve of Navy Day, 4 December 2016, the ‘Silent’ Service made an outspoken announcement in which it peremptorily rejected the shipborne variant of the Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA) which has been under development at ADA for over a decade. For those outside the corridors of South Block, this was somewhat surprising, considering it was the Navy which, unlike the Air Force, had championed its LCA (Navy) programme and had contributed considerable funding forwards its development since 2003. Former CNS, Admiral Arun Prakash, who has for long been an outspoken advocate of indigenisation, commented on the Navy’s rejection of the Tejas as “a lesson ... failure of the DRDO (and) … one can deduce two compelling reasons for this, seemingly, radical volte face by the only Service which has shown unswerving commitment to indigenisation (lately labelled ‘Make in India’) for the past six decades”.

As he continued : “Firstly, by exercising a foreclosure option, the IN has administered a well-deserved and stinging rebuke to the Defence Research & Development Organisation for its lethargic and inept performance that has again disappointed our military. The second reason arises from the navy’s desperate hurry to freeze the specifications of its second indigenous aircraft carrier (labeled IAC-2). The choice of configuration, size and propulsion of a carrier has a direct linkage with the type of aircraft that will operate from it. This constitutes a ‘chicken and egg’ conundrum -- should one freeze the carrier design first or choose the aircraft first? The IN has, obviously decided the latter”.

LCA Navy (NP-2) comes in to land (photo ADA)

To the public at large, this was perplexing as some “knowledgeable observers had continuously opined that, for example, “even as the Indian Air Force wrangles over details in the manufacture and induction of its first squadron of Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA), the Indian Navy is powering ahead with its programme to develop a naval version of the Tejas”. The Naval LCA project had got a major fillip when the second prototype made it first flight on 7 February 2015, the first LCA Navy prototype having been the two-seater (NP-2). That aircraft had been piloted by Captain Shivnath Dahiya, a naval test pilot with the National Flight Test Centre (NFTC), while another Tejas, piloted by Group Captain Suneet Krishna ‘tail chased’ NP-2 all through its flight.


Captain Shivnath Dahiya, of the NFTC with                                                LCA Navy NP-1 (photo: ADA)

 Gp Capt M Rangachari, CO No.45 Squadron,

IAF at Aero India 2017

(photo: Vayu)

The ADA spokesman articulated that “like all naval fighters, NP-2 has a reinforced undercarriage to absorb the impact of landing on aircraft carriers. Since the pilot must descend steeply to touch down precisely at a spot on the carrier deck where his aircraft’s tail-hook catches on a set of ‘arrestor wires’, this landing is often likened to a ‘controlled crash’, the ADA team elaborated.

Further, the NP-2 “corrected several deficiencies observed whilst flight-testing of NP-1 and incorporated most avionic hardware components that the Navy had demanded. These included ‘plug and play’ modules that would accept software modifications for aircraft carrier landing aids like a Levcon Air Data Computer, auto-throttle, and special lights. NP-2 will also incorporate the arrestor hook, a digital data link for tactical information, and the Israeli Derby beyond in visual range air-toair missile”.

Thereafter, the Naval LCA programme transitioned from regular runways at HAL’s Bangalore Airport to the Shore Based Test Facility (SBTF), a full-sized, land-based model of an aircraft carrier deck that has been built at the Naval Air Station, Dabolim at Goa. In December 2015, NP-1 first operated from the SBTF and by February 2017, over 13 launches had been made, by day and night. The next major step in the Naval LCA project was, importantly, arrestor-wire landings to be carried out at the SBTF.

Tail Tales : The first series production LCA Mk.I for the IAF (LA-5001) seen next to LCA Navy NP-2 (3002) (photo : Vayu)

But reverting to the LCA Navy ‘saga’, as Admiral Arun Prakash refers to, “as far back as the early 1990s, the navy had initiated a study for examining the feasibility of adapting the LCA to shipborne use. While confirming feasibility, the study had revealed some major problem areas, which included lack of engine thrust, requirement of an arrester hook and stronger undercarriage, and need for cockpit/fuselage re-design before the LCA could attempt carrier operations. Undaunted by the challenges, the Navy still re-affirmed its faith in the programme by contributing over Rs 400 crore as well as engineers and test pilots to the project”.


LCA Navy NP-2 landing at INS Hansa, Dabolim (photo : ADA)                                    LCA Navy NP-2 takes off from the SBTF at INS Hansa (photo : ADA)

Meanwhile although the IAF had accepted the Tejas LCA Mk.I into service in July 2016, this was with considerable reservations because the aircraft had not been cleared for full operational exploitation and fell short of many IAF qualitative requirements. Even though the prototype LCA (Navy) had rolled out six years earlier, in July 2010, raising great hopes in the IN, it was obvious that the DRDO had failed to resolve the many short coming leading to ultimate rejection of this ambitious project.”

Dramatic view of LCA Navy NP-2 as it leaves the SBTF ramp (photo: ADA) 

The dilemma for the Navy was summed up by Admiral Arun Prakash. “Indian Navy’s ‘Super Carrier’ IAC-2 will enter service in the next decade at a juncture where a balance-ofpower struggle is likely to be under way in this part of the world with China and India as the main players. It is only a matter of time before China’s carrier task-forces, led by the ex-Russian carrier Liaoning and her successors, follow its nuclear submarines into the Indian Ocean. Since the Indian response to such intimidation will need to be equally robust, the decisions relating to the design and capabilities of IAC-2 (and its sisters) assume strategic dimensions. Essentially, there are three options for selection of aircraft for the IAC-2:


LCA Navy NP-2 (photo: ADA)     


Representative image of Indian Navy aircraft carriers (INS VIraat) with escorts at sea (photo: Indian Navy)

CATOBA : Conventional take-off and landing types like the US F/A-18 Super Hornet and French Rafale-M which require a steam catapult for launch and arresterwires for recovery. This relatively large ship would need either a steam or nuclear plant for propulsion.

STOBAR: Types like the Russian Sukhoi Su-33 and MiG-29K would require only a ski-jump for take-off and arresterwires for landing, which would mean a smaller carrier, driven either by gas turbines or diesel engines. The LCA (Navy) could have been a contender in this category, as indeed would the projected Gripen M.

VTOL: The F-35B Lightning II version of the US Joint Strike Fighter, capable of vectored-thrust, would require only a skijump for take-off, but no arrester wires since it can land vertically. This would result in the simplest and cheapest ship; a short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) carrier.

Logically, once the IN has selected its carrierborne fighter, the ship and its operating and maintenance facilities could be designed around it, thus obviating some of the pitfalls encountered on IAC-1.

RFI for the MRCBF

Then, in swift follow up to its 3 December 2016 announcement, the Navy issued a formal Request for Information (RFI) for 57 multi-role carrier borne fighters (MRCBF) on 20 January 2017. As per this documents “the MRCBF is intended to be day and night capable, all-weather multi-role deck-based combat aircraft which can be used for Air Defence (AD), Air to Surface Operations, Buddy Refuelling, Reconnaissance, EW missions etc from IN aircraft carriers.”

The Navy stipulated that the eventual acquisition process “will be awarded under the terms of the Defence Procurement Procedure of 2016 and will require deliveries of the aircraft to ‘commence within three years post conclusion of contract, and be completed within further period of three years’.” However, the RFI did not stipulate the required number of engines or if the aircraft was to be STOBAR or CATOBAR capable but enquired as to “how many engines does the aircraft have? Does the aircraft have capability to operate from both STOBAR (Short Take-off But Arrested Recovery) and CATOBAR (Catapult Take-off But Arrested Recovery) aircraft carriers without any modification to the aircraft”?

MiG-29Ks of INAS 303 on board INS Vikramaditya

Further, the RFI sought if “the main landing gear is capable of withstanding loads of holding on Restraining Gear System fitted on IN STOBAR aircraft carriers at maximum afterburner rating? Is the Nose Landing Gear designed and capable of undertaking Catapult Launch from contemporary Steam and Electro Magnetic Aircraft Launch (EMAL) systems? Is the aircraft capable of being launched from 13° and 14° ski-jumps having a parabolic profile using afterburner? Is the aircraft capable of being launched from conventional steam catapult and EMALS? What is the certified max Launch Weight for CATOBAR? Is the aircraft capable of arrestment with Svetlana arresting gear fitted on Indian aircraft carriers.”


The general Operational Clean Configuration (OCC) configuration implied carriage of four Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missiles and two All Aspect Air-to-Air Missiles (A4M) with 75 % internal fuel and 100 % gun ammunition. Clean Configuration implies the aircraft with no external load and full internal fuel and gun ammunition’. As the RFI added, “Additional information on the ships that the MRCBF is expected to operate, may be sought for response and establishing feasibility of operating the aircraft from the same.”


Evolution of the LCA Navy Mk.II


So, is it over for the LCA Navy variant ? An emphatic ‘No’ ! was the response from the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), till lately headed by Commodore CD Balaji (ex-Indian Navy) and whose adjunct the NFTC has two distinguished Naval Test Pilots on its rolls.


As Commodore Balaji elaborated, as early as in December 2009, ADA had recognised that in the LCA Navy (Mk1), because of its lower engine thrust and the penalties in its re-engining, there were obvious shortfalls in full mission capabilities sought by the Indian Navy when operating from an aircraft carrier with ski ramp launch. Thus, a new programme with a higher thrust engine was sanctioned, and was labeled as the LCA Navy Mk2. “This programme envisaged minimising the constraints of LCA Navy Mk1 and would incorporate significant changes in design to improve aerodynamics, optiminisation of the landing gear & arrester hook system, entailing new structural design, integration of updated sensors, avionics, the flight control system and son on. Balaji told Vayu that “ADA is moving ahead to design, develop and provide two prototypes designated NP3 and NP4 (both single-set fighters)”.


He summarised that “whilst the LCA Navy Mk1, was an adaption of the Air Force version to the Naval role and gave valuable inputs in the core carrier suitability technologies of ski-jump take-off and arrested recovery, the LCA Navy Mk2 is a new design conceptualised to be optimised for carrier borne application. The configuration is expected to provide a significant enhancement in terms of performance capability with aerodynamic and mass optimisation”.

Commodore Balaji emphasised that “significant design effort has been put in to realise such an aircraft that is capable of take-off from the ski jump with much heavier payloads as compared to the LCA Navy Mk1. The landing gear complexity has been reduced; consequently there is a mass optimisation. The arrester hook installation has been optimised and blends with the bottom structure of the rear fuselage. These steps are considered as an essential step towards any potential twin engined deck based aircraft development in the country to be taken up in the future”.


According to Commodore Balaji, design work on the LCA Mk.2 was moving apace with some major design changes envisaged to the intakes and fuselage so as to accommodate the GE F414 engine, a batch of which have recently been delivered to ADA. The LCA Mk.2’s wings will be moved out board by about 350mm, increasing the space between fuselage and wings, thus optimising load transfer and allowing for an increase of fuel (700 kg) in the central fuselage.


Detailed design should be complete by 2019 and requisite raw material had already been ordered by ADA which aims to carry out the LCA Mk.2’s first flight in 2020-21. The full scale mockup of the LCA Navy Mk.2 should be ready by early 2018. Making a direct reference to Saab, the intrepid designers at ADA believe that they are “at the same stage’ in terms of time and effort as are their Swedish counterparts with their Gripen M.

Image of the LCA Navy Mk.2 as projected at ADA’s stand during Aero India 2017 (photo: Vayu)





Tag:- HAL, ADA, LCA Indian Navy programme, Light Combat Aircraft, DRDO, Tejas, Naval LCA, INS Hansa Dabolim, Tejas LCA Mk.1, CATOBAR, STOBAR, MiG-29K