By Ajai Shukla
Aeronautical Development Agency, Bangalore
Business Standard, 12.12.12
Earlier this year, then naval chief, Admiral Nirmal Verma, lamented the delay in building the naval version of the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). Last week, the current naval chief, Admiral DK Joshi, declared that the navy wanted the Tejas more urgently than any fighter aircraft from abroad.
Following words with action the navy will shortly issue a request for proposals (RfP) to Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) for building eight naval Tejas fighters, a mix of twin-seat trainers and single-seat fighters, worth some Rs 1,000 crore. Both the MoD and the Cabinet Committee on Security have cleared the purchase. HAL will respond with a quotation, a price will be negotiated, and the building of the aircraft would commence next year.
So far --- to the navy’s disappointment --- only one naval LCA has been built by the Aeronautical Development Agency, or ADA, which oversees the Rs 3,650 crore naval LCA programme and the Rs 10,397 crore programme to develop a fighter for the Indian Air Force (IAF). A second naval Tejas is currently under construction. ADA has briefed Business Standard that a total of five naval Tejas prototypes will be built in the coming days, which ADA will use in the demanding flight test programme for certifying the fighter for operations off the flight deck of an aircraft carrier.
The 8 fighters now being ordered by the navy --- which HAL will build in what is called limited series production, or LSP --- will be used to train naval pilots who will eventually fly the Tejas from the aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, which Cochin Shipyard would build by 2015, and from a second indigenous aircraft carrier that will follow the Vikrant.
Until these vessels are ready for flight deck operations, naval pilots will train at a new Shore-Based Test Facility (SBTF) in Goa, which replicates the dimensions of an aircraft carrier deck, including the arrestor wires that bring the aircraft to a halt in just 90 metres. The SBTF also has the optical landing system that aircraft carriers have, which allows a pilot to “aim” his fighter at the arrestor wire on the carrier deck. Only after extensive testing at the SBTF will the Naval LCA attempt to land and take off from an actual aircraft carrier.
ADA confirms that the Goa facility is close to completion. “We want the SBTF to be a national facility that would be available for training (naval pilots) on a wide range of aircraft. So it is built to be used by the naval LCA as well as by the MiG-29K,” says Commodore CD Balaji, who directs the Naval LCA project at ADA.
The navy has bought 45 naval MiG-29K fighters, which will operate from the INS Vikramaditya (formerly the Admiral Gorshkov), which Russia will deliver only next year after unexpected delays during trials recently. The MiG-29K will also fly from the indigenous INS Vikrant, along with the naval Tejas.
Naval aviators can train on the Tejas Mark I, which is powered by the General Electric F-404IN engine. But only Tejas Mark II fighters, powered by the more powerful F-414 engine, can take off from aircraft carriers. The F-414’s additional power is essential for getting the fighters airborne in a runway length of just 200 metres, which is all that an aircraft carrier offers.
During a visit to ADA last week, Business Standard was briefed on the naval LCA. In 2003, when development of the naval variant began, ADA believed that the air force version could simply be converted into a naval fighter by strengthening the landing gear, and engineering an arrestor hooks and additional control surfaces. (A naval fighter must undergo far greater impacts while landing on an aircraft carrier deck, in what is often described as a “controlled crash.”)
“In the paper design it looked feasible, similar to what Eurofighter proposed for a navalised Typhoon; or what Gripen proposed for the Sea Gripen. But when we started the detailed design and the actual build… we realized the benefits of what Dassault had done with the Rafale. They designed and built the naval variant first, the Rafale Marine. The air force Rafale is just a subset of Rafale Marine. That is the easiest path,” says Balaji ruefully.
Instead ADA, in what has been a valuable learning experience, has arduously converted the air force Tejas into a naval version. That is the same path as RAC MiG took in building the MiG-29K naval fighter from the air force version of the MiG-29.
Now the naval Tejas must demonstrate that it can land and take off from an aircraft carrier. It has already proved this in extensive computer simulation done by a team of scientists from the National Aerospace Laboratory (NAL). Next, the fighter will perform take offs and landings in realistic distances at the SBTF. ADA says it will demonstrate a take off by mid-2013 and a landing by end-2013. Only after that will the hazardous operation be performed on an aircraft carrier at sea.