The Indian Navy’s Hunt for a New Carrier Fighter Hits Rough Seas
Angad Singh explains why the Indian Navy faces difficulties as it begins its search for new carrier fighters.
At the annual Navy Day press conference, held on December 02, 2016, Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Sunil Lanba told media that the Indian Navy had elected not to field the naval variant of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), and would look abroad for new fighters. For the less well informed, this was a stunning volte-face from the Service that has unstintingly backed domestic procurement programmes and has contributed considerable funding to the development of an indigenous carrier fighter.
To the slightly more clued in, however, the announcement had been a long time coming. Navy officers – from operational naval aviators to flag officers – have privately expressed reservations about the Naval LCA for a long time.
The Trouble with the LCA
The present N-LCA prototypes (the Navy never adopted the ‘Tejas’ moniker for their programme) use the same GE F404 afterburning turbofan engine as the IAF Tejas, but incorporate, among other modifications, a strengthened undercarriage and fuselage, tailhooks for carrier landings, leading-edge vortex controllers (LEVCONs) at the wing roots for additional lift and control authority at low speeds, and extensive usage of new corrosion-resistant materials for sea-based operation.
The LCA’s well-documented weight and power issues have only been magnified in maritime garb, where structural changes have added further weight penalties. Proposals to re-engine both variants of the LCA with higher-thrust GE F414 engines were put forward as early as 2007, but when the MoD doubled down on the F404-engined LCA Tejas Mk.1A for the IAF last year, all but abandoning the new engine programme (or at least pushing it back significantly), the Navy was forced to re-consider its own fighter plans. However, even as Admiral Lanba nixed the operational future of the N-LCA, he stressed that the service would continue to support the development of a home-grown carrier fighter as it evaluated foreign options.
Comments from senior flag officers after Admiral Lanba’s announcement indicate that apart from the usual credibility concerns regarding the ability of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and the DRDO’s Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) being able to develop and deliver a fighter by the promised deadlines, the principal worry was that the over-weight and under-powered land-based LCA would take some serious fettling to safely fly from the unforgiving environs of a carrier flight deck. Poor ‘bolter’ (go-around, where the aircraft has to accelerate back into the air after missing all three wires on the carrier’s deck) performance at typical landing weights and speeds was repeatedly cited – although it should be noted that this has yet to be physically tested and is among the last (and most risky) test points in the flight envelope certification process.
Navy sources later indicated that the Service was hoping to acquire aircraft that would be able to operate off the STOBAR Project 71 Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC-1, to be commissioned as INS Vikrant) under construction at Cochin Shipyard Limited (CSL), as well as the planned CATOBAR IAC-2 (which remains un-funded by the MoD). A month after the controversial announcement, even as furious debate raged over the decision to drop the N-LCA, the Navy issued a Request For Information (RFI) for 57 ‘Multi-Role Carrier Borne Fighters’ (MRCBF).
The RFI indicates that the MRCBF is to be day, night and all-weather capable, and will be employed for Air Defence (AD), Air-to-Surface Operations, Buddy Refuelling, Reconnaissance, and Electronic Warfare (EW). The document is generally exploratory in nature, seeking details of available fighters worldwide, in order to frame appropriate qualitative requirements to be issued with the eventual Request For Proposals (RFP). Crucially, the RFI also indicates that technology transfer and licence production of the fighters in India will be preferred, with aircraft deliveries expected to commence within three years of contract signature and be completed within a further three years (a rate of 19 deliveries per year).
Of the three in-production types likely to be offered, at least two (Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Dassault’s Rafale) can meet this build rate. The maximum build rate at Russia’s RSK-MiG, which delivered 45 MiG-29K/KUBs to the Indian Navy at the rate of about six per year, remains unclear. In the days following the RFI, commentary in news media seemed to indicate that the Western fighters were front-runners for the MRCBF requirement.
IAC-1 was designed to operate the MiG-29K and Naval LCA, yet the decision to evaluate a broad field for MRCBF instead of simply expanding the MiG-29K fleet to account for the lack of N-LCA of appears rooted in an unstated acceptance that the STOBAR MiG-29K, while certainly more potent than anything fielded before, is essentially a technological cul-de-sac. Acquiring more such aircraft, with 25-year/6,000-hour service lives for carriers projected to enter service from the mid-2020s onward is seen as a retrograde step when more capable (or at least CATOBAR-compatible, and therefore ‘future proof’) aircraft could be sought instead. In addition, it is understood through Government audit reports that the MiG-29K is far from a trouble-free asset, suffering from significant structural and reliability issues. Having essentially financed the development of the modern-spec MiG-29K and now stuck ironing out the in-service kinks, the Indian Navy is simply reluctant to acquire more Fulcrums with the same problems as opposed to more capable and reliable fighters.
It is for this reason that the MRCBF RFI specifically demands information regarding the ability of any proposed aircraft to operate off the STOBAR IAC-1 (Vikrant) with its ski-jump and Svetlana arresting system, as well as the planned CATOBAR IAC-2 which could use C-13 series steam catapults or electro-magnetic catapults (EMALS) for launch and Mark 7 Mod3 or Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG) for recovery. Without explicitly spelling it out, MRCBF is a programme intended to account for the removal of the N-LCA from the Navy’s plans in the near term, and supplant the MiG-29K in the longer term.
Boeing’s Super Hornet has been in contention as an Indian Navy carrier fighter for the better part of a decade. The fighter was briefly considered for the INS Vikramaditya in the late 2000s, with Boeing even going to the trouble of simulating ski-jump take-offs, discovering “that not only could the Super Hornet take-off from a ski-jump, but could do so with a significant weapons load.” Landing was not expected to be a problem since the Proletarsky Zavod ‘Svetlana’ three-wire aircraft arresting complex on Vikramaditya (also installed on IAC-1) is configured to halt aircraft at up to 20 tonne landing weights and typical carrier approach speeds with maximum deceleration forces not exceeding 5g, broadly similar to American arresting systems to which the Super Hornet is certified. The most mature carrier fighter in contention for the MRCBF requirement, the Super Hornet also has an edge when it comes to armament, and is certified to employ the widest range of air-to-air, air-to-ground and anti-ship weapons.
Dassault have also run STOBAR simulations with the Rafale M, albeit revealing far fewer details regarding the results than Boeing. On the weapons front, the Rafale will have MBDA’s Meteor BVRAAM integrated at time of delivery, giving it a significant boost in the air-to-air stakes, even if the type does not boast the wide variety of guided and unguided weapons that the Super Hornet can show-off. Importantly, for a carrier fighter operating with limited organic tanking support, the Rafale has significantly greater range and endurance than the Super Hornet, an advantage that is extended with more stores mounted, since the Super Hornet’s canted pylons dramatically increase aerodynamic drag in flight.
The MiG-29K, though not favoured by Navy for this round, is probably the easiest pick on technical grounds. It is by now a familiar asset, warts and all, and is a drop fit on IAC-1, that carrier having been designed to host the Fulcrum from the outset. However, it lacks the electronically-scanned radars (AESAs) of the two Western fighters, and further development of the type is far from assured given the parlous state of Russian carrier aviation and the aerospace industry as a whole.
Saab has offered the Gripen Maritime (formerly the Sea Gripen), based on its new Gripen E shore-based fighter, and would likely offer a broadly similar weapons package and kinematic performance. Since the proposal is still on the drawing board, however, it is impossible to guess at much more detail.
The Navy has no easy options. Beyond the Navy’s reluctance to acquire more MiG-29Ks, the type faces a significant hurdle if the Navy elects to firm up around CATOBAR-compatibility so that the MRCBF can operate not just from IAC-1, but also future Indian carriers. It is not feasible for RSK-MiG to offer CATOBAR certification with any catapult-launch system under consideration given the military sanctions that would preclude any co-operation between US catapult makers and the Russian military industry.
The Super Hornet will be EMALS/AAG certified from the outset, as well as compatible with legacy launch/recovery systems, but will require a full round of certification for STOBAR operations, given that it is intended, at least initially, to operate solely from a STOBAR carrier. The Rafale M would similarly need to be fully STOBAR certified, but would need a second round of trials with EMALS/AAG should the Indian Navy select those systems for IAC-2, which would add to the Navy’s cost burden either up-front or further down the road (depending on when they elect to carry out the certification).
The Show Stopper
Despite recent reports that the two Western MRCBF competitors could operate from INS Vikramaditya in addition to the Indian Navy’s future carriers, this is simply not possible. The converted Soviet-era ‘aircraft carrying cruiser’ has two aircraft elevators that are located within the flight deck, instead of on the deck-edges, and both are too small to accommodate either the Super Hornet or the Rafale. The larger forward lift, beside the carrier’s superstructure, is 18.8 x 9.9 metres, while the Super Hornet’s wings fold to just under 10 metres and the Rafale’s wings, slightly less than 11 metres wide, do not fold at all. The aft lift is narrower, with an 8.6-metre width that is barely able to fit the MiG-29K’s 7.5-metre folded span. The Naval LCA, with a wingspan of a little over eight metres, would certainly have fit the forward lift if not the aft one – the Navy prefers for aircraft carrier elevators to be sufficiently larger than the aircraft they will carry for ease of aircraft handling and movement.
The real ‘show stopper’ for the entire MRCBF requirement, however, is the configuration of IAC-1. Unlike Vikramaditya, and like most contemporary carriers, the aircraft lifts on IAC-1 are positioned on the starboard edge of the deck allowing longer aircraft to ‘hang out’ over the water with only their landing gear on the platform. But because the carrier was designed around an air wing of MiG-29Ks and Naval LCAs, the lifts were sized for wingspans no larger than eight metres. 10 x 14 metres, to be precise. While MiG-29Ks and N-LCAs can fit on these lifts with parts of their noses or empennages hanging over the edges, the Super Hornet and Rafale once again cannot.
Both Boeing and Dassault are apparently working on solutions to allow their aircraft to fit the lifts. Sources close to the programme said that Boeing is considering a system that would allow the Super Horner to sit canted on the lift, the tilt of the (folded) wings thereby resulting in a slightly shorter overall span measured parallel to the deck. With its fixed wings, the Rafale cannot offer such a solution, and Dassault is understood to be exploring a detachable wingtip, although this involves greater engineering and certification challenges.
Whatever the final form of the eventual MRCBF RFP, and whatever the proposals that arrive in response, it is clear now that the process for procuring the Navy’s next carrier fighter will be far from straightforward. None of the aircraft on offer can be operated by the Indian Navy without significant expenses for non-recurring engineering, modification and certification that will have to be amortised over a relatively small 57-aircraft requirement. This will drive the cost of the overall programme up, and certainly make induction of new aircraft in time to fly off IAC-1 in 2023 all but impossible. If the Navy elects to modify the deck-edge lifts on IAC-1, which is certainly within the realm of possibility, it could push the carrier programme back enough to allow it to sync up with likely MRCBF procurement time lines, but further postponements in commissioning and operationalising the already-delayed carrier are not likely to go down well with the MoD and broader national leadership.