Halt in flight-testing jeopardises Naval Tejas Mark 2 (Pic: Naval Tejas takes off from the SBTF in happier days)
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 20th Jan 18
Even as the Indian Air Force (IAF) version of the indigenous Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) powers ahead, the naval version of the Tejas has ground to a worrying standstill.
Neither of the two Naval LCA prototypes has taken off in eight months.
Since the last Naval LCA sortie on May 20, one of the prototypes lies half dismantled in Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), its interiors gaping open. The other stands forgotten on one side of the hangar.
Meanwhile the other 14 Tejas prototypes, which are flight-testing the IAF’s Tejas Mark 1, flew 406 test sorties last year – more flights than any preceding year, except 2013.
Navy chief, Admiral Sunil Lanba, has publicly rejected the Naval Tejas Mark 1 as too heavy to fly combat missions off an aircraft carrier. Instead, he has backed the Naval Tejas Mark 2, which will have a more powerful engine. But, with the Mark 1 effectively grounded, the Mark 2’s development is also crippled, if not actually halted.
That is because many systems essential for the Naval LCA Mark 2, such as the arrestor hook and leading edge vortex controllers (Levcons allow the fighter to land on a carrier deck at a slower speed), are being designed and tested on the Mark 1 prototypes. The Mark 1 is a crucial technology test-bed and data generator for developing the Mark 2.
That would be a serious setback for the navy, which urgently requires the Tejas for its next aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, which will join the fleet in 2020, says Lanba. He said the Vikrant “is designed to operate the MiG-29K and the LCA.”
The eight-month gap in flight-testing the Naval Tejas has been a major setback for the test programme. At the “shore based test facility” (SBTF) in Goa – a concrete runway-cum-ramp that replicates an aircraft carrier deck – the easterly winter winds and furious west coast monsoon allow aircraft to take-off only in the February-to-June period. It was planned that the Naval Tejas would carry out an “arrested landing” in 2018, using the arrestor cables on the SBTF but, with no preliminary work done over the last eight months, this will now be possible only in February-to-June 2019. That means a project already heavily criticized for delay has just lost another full year.
Asked why HAL – which builds, repairs and operates Tejas prototypes – is going slow on the Naval Tejas, a senior HAL officer says the navy has turned its back on the programme.
“We have limited resources and manpower for Tejas flight-testing. The air force has committed to buying 123 Tejas fighters. The navy, on the other hand, has publicly rejected the Tejas. Why waste resources on the Naval Tejas?” says a top HAL executive.
However, technology development processes should not be linked with production orders, as HAL is doing, says a senior MoD official.
The navy chief insisted last month that he continues backing the Navy LCA. He said the navy has paid ~6 billion towards the Mark 1, ~3 billion for the Mark 2, and would pay more as development continues. “As far as the LCA Navy is concerned, we are committed to indigenisation. We have supported the project and continue to [do so]”, said Lanba.
But merely allocating funds will not energise the Naval Tejas programme, retorts a senior officer in the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), which oversees the Tejas programme. “A user service’s intent is evident from what it commits to the project in terms of test pilots, finance, oversight and most importantly moral support,” he says.
The navy has never committed more than three officers to the Tejas LCA. An ADA officer estimates that is one-fifth to one-tenth what the IAF has committed over the years.
Despite its protestations of support, the navy has steadily backed away from the Tejas programme. In March 2016, in the LCA Tejas Empowered Committee in the defence ministry, top admirals first declared the Tejas Mark I inadequate, but committed to supporting the Mark 2.
In May 2017, the navy declined to pay its 25 per cent share of the ~12.31 billion cost of enhancing the capacity of the LCA Mark I manufacturing line from 8 to 16 aircraft per year. The IAF is paying its share.
Difficulty is inevitable in translating an air force fighter into a naval, carrier-deck version, says aerospace expert Pushpinder Singh. It involves strengthening the entire aircraft, especially the undercarriage, to withstand the jarring impacts of carrier deck landings, which are often described as “controlled crashes”. This makes naval fighters heavier.