6 min readNavy dumps LCA, plans new fighter

LCA Navy taking off from the Shore Based Test Facility (SBTF) at INS Hansa | Photo: DRDO

LCA Navy taking off from the Shore Based Test Facility (SBTF) at INS Hansa | Photo: DRDO

The Indian Navy has finally come to the conclusion that the naval Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) does not meet the requirements of a carrier-borne fighter, and has cleared the decks for the acquisition of a new fighter aircraft.

We will seek aircraft elsewhere, which can operate from the aircraft carriers.

In remarks made to the media on Friday, the Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), Admiral Sunil Lanba said, “As far as the LCA Navy goes, there are two aircraft which are flying as technology demonstrators. The preliminary LCA Navy does not meet the carrier capability that is required by the Indian Navy. We will continue to support the DRDO and ADA in their efforts to develop a carrier-based fighter aircraft. At the same time we will seek aircraft elsewhere, which can operate from the aircraft carriers.”

Sound of Inevitability

These remarks are being seen as finally accepting the inevitable, when viewed in the context of the reassessment done by the navy of the LCA program in the past year.

The LCA has not been able to meet the carrier capability required.

In October 2015, after the Indian Air Force (IAF) announced an order in numbers for LCA aircraft, tacitly admitting it was settling for an aircraft that would fall short of the Mk2 standard, we reported, ‘Naval sources told StratPost that with the IAF interest in the development of the Mk2 now appearing uncertain, the navy would have to undertake a process to determine if they can continue to fund development of the model on their own, keeping in mind ‘already sunk costs’, their requirement number and the expectation that the model would not be ready before 2024 as well as the imperative of indigenization.’

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Earlier this year, StratPost also reported on a feasibility review of the naval LCA program. We reported, ‘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.’

In this context, the acknowledgement by the CNS of the unsuitability of the LCA for carrier operations should not cause consternation.

Admiral Sunil Lanba, Chief of Naval Staff, Indian Navy at the Navy Day press conference on Friday | Photo: Indian Navy

Admiral Sunil Lanba, Chief of Naval Staff, Indian Navy at the Navy Day press conference on Friday | Photo: Indian Navy

Admiral Lanba further remarked on Friday, “As far as the LCA Navy and the carrier-based aircraft is concerned we need a carrier-based aircraft in the timeline of the induction of the aircraft carrier. We have the MiG-29K which operates from Vikramaditya and will operate from the IAC Vikrant. We were also hoping to operate the LCA from these two aircraft carriers. Unfortunately the LCA has not been able to meet the carrier capability required. So that is why we need an alternate aircraft now. So that is why we’re looking at alternate aircraft to operate from these two aircraft carriers.”

In follow-up remarks, Admiral Lanba clarified that the navy’s search for new fighters would be to equip an air wing for ‘all three carriers’, including not only the STOBAR (Short Take Off But Assisted Recovery) INS Vikramaditya and IAC Vikrant, but also the planned 65,000 ton IAC-2, which would be a CATOBAR (Catapult Assisted Take Off But Arrested Recovery) carrier.

Which Fighter?

When pressed on the aircraft that could be candidates for the navy’s new fighter, Lanba said, “I’m not going to go into the specifics of which aircraft – we are, at the moment, in the process of identifying what is the naval requirement and what aircraft, which will meet carrier borne (capability) – if you look at the world around, there are not too many options available and we need this carrier capable aircraft, sooner than later,” adding, significantly, “So I’m looking at, within the next 5-6 years.”

We’re not looking at a VTOL aircraft.

This is not an entirely new idea, either. The navy had issued Requests For Information (RFIs) to various manufacturers for details on naval fighters in 2009.

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But there is no fighter aircraft, currently in production, that is certified for operations from both, STOBAR, as well as, CATOBAR carriers. Boeing has claimed that they have run simulations of STOBAR operability for their CATOBAR-based F/A-18 Super Hornet. So has Dassault, apparently, for the Rafale M. Theoretically, so could, perhaps, the CATOBAR capable F-35C. Saab also says that they will be taking their Sea Gripen concept forward with the Brazilian Navy and have also offered to develop it with India.

The IAF has ordered 36 Rafale fighters. Both Boeing and Saab are already offering the F/A-18 Super Hornet and the Gripen to the IAF for a Make in India assembly line.

The one aircraft type that could operate from both types of carriers would be a Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) aircraft. The only one in production today is the Lockheed Martin F-35B.

But, on follow-up, Lanba ruled out the F-35B, saying, “We’re not looking at a VTOL aircraft.” In any case, the U.S. government has never offered the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) to India.

But what is interesting is that Saab has envisioned the Sea Gripen to be both, STOBAR as well as CATOBAR capable.

The MiG-29K/KUB currently operational in the Indian Navy is not under consideration because it is not a CATOBAR fighter. Also, for reasons listed in a recent report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), the navy is not keen to acquire more of these fighters.

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For all three carriers, the navy requirement could touch 100 fighter aircraft.

The CNS did not completely extinguish hope for an indigenous naval fighter. “I said that we will continue to support ADA in the development of a carrier-based aircraft – fighter. We will continue to provide that support.”

The Trouble with the Naval LCA

“The LCA Navy in its present form does not meet the naval QRs to be a carrier-based fighter. It is too heavy for the engine which it has got. It does not meet the thrust to weight ratio requirements to be able to take off with full weapons load and kit.”

This is how Admiral Lanba explained the navy’s assessment of the suitability of the LCA.

The naval prototypes that have been produced so far are based on the LCA Mk1, which is powered by the GE F404 engine. The navy had issued hard requirements that could only be satisfied by the LCA Mk2, meant to run on the more powerful GE F414 engine.

But after the IAF decision last year, to virtually foreclose the prospect of the LCA Mk2 by ordering 120 LCA Mk1/1A aircraft, the navy had to pause to reflect. The navy has already spent over INR 2,600 crore (USD 382 million) on the development of the naval LCA, over and above INR 11288.13 crore (USD 1.6 billion) on the LCA program.

Now, a naval LCA with the F414 engine could conceivably make the cut for the Indian Navy, drawings and models of which have been floating around on the internet. But on the basis of the remarks of the CNS on Friday after their review in the past year, the navy appears to have come to the conclusion that such an aircraft will not be available to them in the required five-six year timeline, which is why they are looking for an ‘alternate aircraft’, now.

So what do you think?