4 min readNaval LCA to face reckoning as navy mulls CATOBAR fighters 

The naval program for India’s indigenous Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) is set to face a feasibility review and Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar has asked for a recommendation on its future within the next couple of months.

As reported by StratPost, the navy has been compelled to take a decision on whether to continue with the LCA program after the Indian Air Force (IAF) announced their purchase of 80 LCA Mk1(A) aircraft, last year, in addition to the 40 Mk1 aircraft already on order. A Request For Information (RFI) has been issued to foreign Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) for the requirements of the LCA Mk1A configuration, which include an AESA radar, Electronic Warfare Suite, Electronic Support Measures Suite etc.

The Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha had clarified that at the time they were ‘not looking’ at the proposed LCA Mk2 with the more powerful GE F414 engine, which is still to be developed.

The navy’s requirements demand an LCA powered by this same engine and it has been considering whether to fund the development of the Mk2 in its own since October. The existing naval prototype of the LCA is based on the existing Mk1 design. The development of the naval version has focused on ‘aerodynamic enhancements to improve low speed performance for carrier operation, addition of arrestor hook for deck recovery, need for a stronger undercarriage and cockpit redesign for naval operations’, according to the official Tejas LCA website.

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According to naval sources, the naval LCA is increasingly likely to now be restricted to the role of a technology demonstrator, although there has been some discussion of a possible role as a front line fighter trainer.

The navy has also set up a test flying team at INS Hansa for trials, not only on the naval Tejas LCA, but all other naval aviation platforms and systems. The navy began arrested recovery trials recently. These trials include high sink rate approaches, touch-and-goes, full stops, and then finally arrested recovery ashore.

Indigenous Aircraft Carrier-2 (IAC-2)

With the MiG-29K aircraft based on the INS Vikramaditya, and further destined for the Indigenous Aircraft Carrier-1 (IAC-1), INS Vikrant, attention is shifting to the air wing requirement of the second Indigenous Aircraft Carrier, IAC-2.

According to sources in naval aviation, the navy has virtually decided on a design that includes nuclear propulsion, CATOBAR (Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery) operation and EMALS (Electro Magnetic Aircraft Launch System) for the proposed 65,000 ton carrier, although there is some dispute as to whether the expected tempo of operations is such as wouldn’t be better and more economically served with a steam catapult.

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The reason for the selection of a CATOBAR aircraft carrier is that aircraft CATOBAR-launched aircraft can launch with heavier loads which translates to increased range and carriage of weapons and sensors. This is also the reason the MiG-29K is not under consideration for the IAC-2, since it is a Short Take Off But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR)-capable aircraft.

Sources said that the air wing of IAC-2 will comprise a total of around 65 aircraft, including 25-30 fighter aircraft. The rest will consist of helicopters and Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft.

Fighters for IAC-2

In the long term, the navy will focus on the development of a naval Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), but in the nearer term, the navy will be looking at acquiring CATOBAR-capable fighter aircraft for IAC-2. Only three contemporary aircraft are capable of such operations today – the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, Dassault Rafale M and the Lockheed Martin F-35C.

And although the Government of India is currently negotiating for 36 Rafale aircraft for the IAF, Boeing and the U.S. Government have offered to set up an assembly line for the twin-engine F/A-18 in India.

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But an Indian Navy order for Super Hornets could well depend on the existence of an Indian assembly line because of timelines. Boeing has orders to keep its assembly line going till 2019-2020. An Indian Navy order to equip IAC-2 is unlikely to materialize before the middle of the 2020s, in which case, the only way for the navy to order Super Hornets would be if an assembly line were running in India, for the IAF.

Sweden’s Saab has also offered to set up an assembly line for their single-engine Gripen in India. And although they have circulated the idea of a CATOBAR-capable naval Sea Gripen variant, it remains a concept at this stage.

Both the F/A-18 and the Gripen are powered by the same GE F414 engine.

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