Aircraft carrier version of Tejas still alive, despite navy opposition

Light Combat Aircraft Tejas
A decade ago, a far-sighted navy chief, Admiral Arun Prakash, posted his most talented engineering officer, Commander CD Balaji, to develop the Naval Tejas fighter at the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), which oversees the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) programme.

Prakash, and several navy chiefs who followed him, continued backing the Naval Tejas with funds and personnel, even as the Indian Air Force (IAF) dragged its feet.

Now, ironically, the navy has turned its back on the Tejas, even as the IAF has backed the Tejas with orders for 103 fighters.

Although Balaji is now a commodore and the head of ADA, the admiral has been insisting since April that they want to buy 57 foreign fighters instead of the Tejas. These will equip two current aircraft carriers: INS Vikramaditya, purchased from Russia, and INS Vikrant, nearing completion at Cochin Shipyard Ltd (CSL).

On Navy Day earlier this month, navy chief, Admiral Sunil Lanba publicly announced that the Tejas would not meet the navy’s requirements.

Business Standard learns that the navy wants ADA to develop a carrier deck version of the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), an indigenous, twin-engine, fifth-generation, stealth fighter that is unlikely to enter service before 2030.

This inexplicable volte-face by the last two navy chiefs- Admiral RK Dhowan who retired in May and Admiral Sunil Lanba who succeeded him- opens the doors for two global vendors: Boeing, which is offering its F/A-18E/F Super Hornet; and Dassault, which has already sold 36 Rafale fighters to the IAF.

Unexplained by the navy is the role of its 45 MiG-29K/KUB fighters, which India paid over $2 billion for, and which were to equip the Vikramaditya and Vikrant, with 22-24 fighters on each.

Nor is it clear whether the Rafale and Super Hornet, which are designed and built to be launched from aircraft carriers with catapults, are capable of “ski-jump” launches from the two Indian carriers, neither of which have catapults.

Without catapults, those aircraft will have to be launched with significantly lower payloads of fuel and weapons, especially in India’s warmer environment. The navy had done no studies of the compromises that will be necessary.

With the navy short of answers, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has ordered the ADA to continue developing the Naval Tejas.

Balaji confirmed that the Naval Tejas development was under way, saying: “The ADA believes that we have a good configuration for the LCA Navy Mark II, which will meet the operational requirements of a deck-based aircraft, as specified in the cabinet clearance of December 2009.”

The navy, however, is now demanding far greater capability from the Tejas than what the cabinet clearance of 2009 had specified. At a defence ministry meeting in August, the admirals cited a significantly more challenging operational environment.

Meanwhile the two-phase upgrade of the Naval Tejas continues. In Phase-1, the IAF version of the Tejas Mark I was modified, at a cost of Rs 1,729 crore, into the Naval Tejas Mark I. This involved measures like strengthening the undercarriage for landings on carrier decks and modifying the cockpit to increase pilot visibility. Yet, the Mark I remained predominantly an air force, rather than a naval, fighter.

ADA intends to customise it into a naval fighter in Phase-2, which has been allocated Rs 1,921 crore. Like the IAF version, this will involve comprehensive redesign, including replacing the current General Electric F-404IN engine with a more powerful F-414 engine. But other important changes will optimise the fighter for carrier operations. Weight will be shaved off the undercarriage, which will be accommodated inside a lengthened wing, freeing up space in the centre fuselage for an additional 700 litres of fuel. This will give the fighter an extra 20-25 minutes of flight endurance. In addition, the tail hook will be engineered afresh.

The ADA chief has argued forcefully in the defence ministry, and Parrikar has accepted the need for a step-by-step approach to naval fighter design, rather than attempting a huge technology jump by designing a fifth-generation Naval AMCA. They believe that first designing an optimised naval fighter- the Naval Tejas Mark II- would develop capabilities realistically and incrementally.

Fleet air experts note the US Navy’s struggle to build the carrier deck version of the Joint Strike Fighter, called the F-35C. Although America has built carrier deck aircraft for a century, the technology leap attempted in the F-35 created issues that are still being resolved.

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