Friday, May 18, 2012

India’s Carrier-Borne Fighter Inches On

The debut flight of the Indian navy's first indigenous aircraft carrier-borne fighter may have finally come and gone relatively smoothly, but the program itself seems to be facing more turbulence.

Sixteen months after it was supposed to make its first flight, the prototype of India's first fighter for carrier-deck operations, the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA)-Navy, finally took off April 27 from Bengaluru. The 22-min. flight, conducted by two senior test pilots, was officially deemed a success. But relief over the beleaguered prototype finally lifting off will be fleeting. LCA-N Mk.1, ironically, may never actually see service on a carrier deck.

In February, the defense ministry's acquisition office approved the manufacture of eight limited-series LCA-N airframes, but the navy has all-but-officially decided to fly the Mk.1 only from land. The proposed Mk.2, which is set to have the more powerful F414 engine and is still at least two years away from even prototyping, is likely to be a variant that the navy buys in larger numbers and flies off its future short-takeoff-but-arrested-recovery (Stobar) carriers.

Apart from being underpowered (it flies on a single F404 engine) and therefore unsuitable for Stobar operations, according to navy officials, the Mk.1 has also emerged heavier than the service wanted. Worse still, the fundamental structural hurdles that had delayed the program for so long have not been fully resolved. These include the modified, strengthened landing gear, certain airframe modifications and optimal sink-rate parameters, all of which are being addressed with EADS. With the first flight done, the program team intends to bolster efforts to get the aircraft to meet navy specifications, which the prototype does not.

“Flying the prototype without working out the airframe problems was something we were not comfortable with,” admits a commodore with the navy headquarters group tasked with monitoring trials of the LCA-N. “But with the flight safety board clearing it, we took it under consideration with assurances that the team would work out the problems within the year. We're hoping they do that.”

The commodore also confirmed that certain minor airframe modifications remained to be done and tested. The navy has received assurance that the aircraft will meet all basic specifications by year-end and look to initial operational clearance by early 2014.

The prototype that flew last month was a twin-seat trainer, and it did not have the arrestor-hook assembly. The naval prototype's airframe is virtually identical to the primary LCA air force trainer, except for a leading edge vortex control surface that is operated by a concealed rotary actuator for safe landing speeds and improved controllability.

Just weeks after he had chastised the team for the many delays to the program, the Indian navy chief's tone became more conciliatory. Adm. Nirmal Verma said, “We must ensure that today's accomplishment leads to the timely [generation] of the operational requirements for carrier-borne operations.” In December 2010, around the time the LCA-N was first supposed to fly, the navy's flag officer in charge of aviation, Rear Adm. Sudhir Pillai, said, “LCA Navy will remain a modest platform. With an up-rated engine, [the Mk.2] will give us adequate capability at sea.”

The refurbished Russian INS Vikramaditya aircraft carrier is set to join the Indian navy in December and will host a squadron of the navy's MiG-29K fighters. But the Mk.1 will continue to be tested at a shore-based ski-jump and arrestor-hook facility in Goa, which is used specifically to train Stobar pilots before they begin ship operations. The Mk.2 could conceivably fly off the Vikramaditya and India's indigenous aircraft carrier INS Vikrant, set to enter service in 2014-15.

The navy's future fighter requirement will be shaped by the launch mechanism on its second indigenous aircraft carrier. Top navy sources suggest that the service is nearly convinced that a catapult-assisted takeoff, barrier-arrested recovery (Catobar) carrier is the way to go.

Executives with Eurofighter and Gripen, both of which have Stobar concept variants of Typhoon and Gripen fighters, respectively, said that while their fighters theoretically could be modified for catapult launch, the costs involved compared with a potential order would not justify the effort. Should the navy decide to develop its second indigenous flattop as a Catobar carrier, a three-way battle could ensue between the Lockheed Martin F-35C, Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Dassault Rafale.

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