Former Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Arun Prakash recently published an article severely critical of the Naval Light Combat Aircraft program (“Navy’s rejection is a lesson, failure of DRDO”, Economic Times, 8 February 2017). He attributed Navy’s exercising the foreclosure option to, what he calls, the programme’s “lethargic and inept performance” and indicated that the need for 57 deck based aircraft is to meet the requirements of the second Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC-2).
The LCA Navy team from the beginning was aware that it would be a challenging task to develop a deck based aircraft that very few countries have successfully negotiated, and which was being attempted for the first time in the country.
He also alleged that the IAF has accepted the Mk-1 and Mark 1A variants of this aircraft into service with reservations, and concluded by saying that “A little introspection by those at the helm of this organisation would reveal to them three reasons for its abysmal performance despite a wealth of talent and a network of sophisticated laboratories — an exaggerated opinion of their capabilities; a lack of intellectual honesty in denying obvious failures and an unwillingness to seek external help when required “
Admiral Prakash may, perhaps, change his mind were he to be familiarized with the successes the Naval LCA Programme has notched up in the face of scepticism, institutional resistance, and reluctance to give the programme the benefit of doubt.
The LCA Navy team from the beginning was aware that it would be a challenging task to develop a deck based aircraft that very few countries have successfully negotiated, and which was being attempted for the first time in the country. At initiation, it was anticipated that the conversion of an Air Force version to a Naval version with specific attributes would entail about 15% change. However, as the detail design and development process unfolded, the teams involved realized that the changes were almost to the extent of 40% to 45%.
Notwithstanding this, the maiden flight of the first Naval Prototype (NP1) took place within nine years of government approval, which meets worldwide standards. What this effort has also done is generate a considerable knowledge base in the country in understanding the nuances of carrier borne aircraft design.
Due to this being a first-time effort to design and develop a carrier borne fighter aircraft, there was conservatism in the plan-form leading to a mass increase by about 400 to 500 kg. This is why the thrust available for deck take-off fell short of mission objectives.
The areas of emphasis, as correctly brought out in Admiral Prakash’s article, are strong landing gear and the associated structural changes, such as increased nose droop to provide better over-the-nose vision, arrester hook integration, and a dedicated control law for ski jump take-off. However, the extent of thrust shortfall became evident only 4 to 5 years into the Programme, i.e., by 2007-08.
Naval specific features as envisaged in 2003 were taken into account and, not ignored, as charged in the article. The entire front fuselage was a new design, including a 4-degree additional nose droop, a new landing gear system that is longer and much stronger, and an arrester hook system.
In addition, a new leading edge control surface, viz., LEVCON was introduced to facilitate reduction in approach speeds for deck recovery. Due to this being a first-time effort to design and develop a carrier borne fighter aircraft, there was conservatism in the plan-form leading to a mass increase by about 400 to 500 kg. This is why the thrust available for deck take-off fell short of mission objectives. It was thus decided that the LCA Navy Mk1 would be only a ‘Technology Demonstrator’ and utilized to conduct carrier suitability tests and demonstration.
The statement made by the CNS Admiral Sunil Lanba on 03 December 2016 of the aircraft being overweight pertains to the LCA Navy Mk1, and not the redesigned and optimised LCA Navy Mk2.
It is apparent from Admiral Prakash’s article that the Navy has raised its Request For Information (RFI) for the procurement of 57 aircraft for the second Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC-2), that the IAC-2 is intended to be a CATOBAR carrier (Catapult Take-off But Arrested Recovery) and is to be available in a decade’s time. However, a reading of the Navy’s RFI indicates that these aircraft are intended for the present STOBAR (Ski-jump Take-off But Arrested Recovery) carrier(s), viz., Vikramaditya and Vikrant and possibly for the IAC-2 (CATOBAR) as well. This does not mesh with Admiral Prakash’s statement about the 57 aircraft being specifically selected for IAC-2.
All design solutions for the naval LCA were obtained after a great deal of brain storming. However, solutions were difficult to find within the existing boundaries of an already existing Air Force aircraft configuration.
It is noteworthy that the conditions of operations in the Navy RFI in terms of Wind on Deck (WoD) and take-off run parameters are more favourable than those afforded the naval LCA programme.
It is also stated that IAF accepted Tejas into service in July 2016 with much reluctance because it fell short of many IAF qualitative requirements and had not secured Full Operational Clearance. This is an unfair and incorrect characterization given the public acceptance by the air force and current performance of the aircraft that meets the operational requirements of the IAF. Indeed, IAF is in the process of ordering 83 aircraft in addition to the 40 Tejas already ordered.
The LCA teams, the article claims, had an exaggerated opinion of their own abilities. Actually, the programme and people in it put in their best effort in realising a carrier borne aircraft with the available in-house knowledge base and also with inputs taken from external sources when required. All design solutions for the naval LCA were obtained after a great deal of brain storming. However, solutions were difficult to find within the existing boundaries of an already existing Air Force aircraft configuration. Even so, challenges were overcome and the LCA Navy Mk1 is currently in flight test.
More serious and personal was the charge that the ADA teams lack intellectual honesty. This is strange take on reality considering the teams have been absolutely transparent, especially about the project shortfalls. There were major setbacks due to failures during tests of nose wheel steering, of arrester hook jack damper, etc., which were well reported, recorded and new design solutions secured. Due to the introduction of a new structure, LEVCON, a dedicated test rig was built and tested to assess failure. There was a failure at 135% loading, and the aircraft structure was duly strengthened. Further, when the thrust shortfall was encountered, ADA went back to the Cabinet Committee on Security in Dec 2009, with Navy in the loop, to seek a configuration with a higher thrust engine. This was the genesis of the LCA Navy Mk2.
The failures of LCA Navy Mk-1 should not, however, be projected on to the LCA Navy Mk2, which is progressing well at ADA – a development effort supported by CNS.
Nor was there any hesitation in seeking external help when required. For instance, ADA has signed a Foreign Military Sale (FMS) case with the US Navy for Carrier Suitability test inputs. It resulted in valuable inputs and extensive auditing of the test plans. This contract made available Pilot and LSO training in the US to the ADA flight test crew. In 2005, there was an engagement with RAC MiG to audit the landing gear and arrester hook design. Notwithstanding such consultancies, there were design failures as earlier mentioned, which needed rectification. The LCA Navy Mk2 is evolving with the participation of Airbus Defence & Space as consultants.
Whilst the operational requirements of the Navy and their immediate need to get suitable deck based aircraft are understandable, the rejection of the Navy LCA Programme, while Navy’s prerogative, may not be in the national interest as it undermines the underway indigenisation effort in the country. The failures of LCA Navy Mk-1 should not, however, be projected on to the LCA Navy Mk2, which is progressing well at ADA – a development effort supported by CNS.
Briefly, let me outline the current progress of the LCA Navy Programme. The primary focus of the LCA Navy Mk1 Technology Demonstrator has been towards Carrier Compatibility Tests (CCT), inclusive of ski jump take-off and arrested recovery. Significant progress has been made in the ski jump launch, and lead-up activities for arrested recovery.
Dedicated Control Laws have been established for the Naval version of Tejas to meet the challenging objectives. Thirteen Ski-jump launches have so far been done at Shore Based Test Facility (SBTF) in Goa. The Simulation Model has been validated and there is sufficient confidence in it for predicting performance of the aircraft when getting airborne from the carrier. The capability to carry out a hands-free take-off has been one of the highlights of the Programme.
…the US Navy has shore facilities for catapult take-off and arrested recovery, but lacks a ski-jump facility.
Further, Hot Refueling has been demonstrated, which is a significant capability enhancer and has facilitated coverage of higher number of test points in a sortie. Towards arrested recovery, over 100 Field Carried Landing Practice (FCLP) sorties have been carried out, including High Sink Rate Landings. The other achievements are that both LCA Navy Mk1 prototypes have, among other things, flown supersonic, gone to high angles of attack of as much as 23 degrees, and carried out in-fight fuel jettisoning.
As part of overall design and development, a dedicated Structural Test Specimen of LCA Navy (STS-N) has been developed and integrated with the Main Airframe Static Test (MAST) Rig. This in fact is a full aircraft structure which is extensively instrumented. The structure is loaded in the MAST with the loads that the aircraft is likely to face in actual service usage (limit load) and the integrity is monitored. The structure is then loaded to 1.5 times (ultimate load) the load to check the reserve margin available. For example, for clearing 8 ‘g’ envelope, the structure is loaded to 12’g’ in the MAST. This provides ample confidence as regards the structural integrity of the aircraft to operate in a Carrier Borne scenario.
A carrier borne Naval aircraft needs extensive testing at the SBTF prior to its actual test and deployment on an aircraft carrier. After a worldwide search, it was found that the US Navy has shore facilities for catapult take-off and arrested recovery, but lacks a ski-jump facility. The other facility is in Crimea and features ski-jump for launch and arrested recovery, except it is in a state of disrepair and has no Restraining Gear System (RGS) as on the aircraft carrier to hold back the aircraft during take-off.
Despite the rejection by the Navy the LCA Navy team is committed to developing a viable deck based fighter aircraft in the country.
Considering these factors, it was decided to build our own test facility, as a part of the LCA Navy Programme, to replicate an aircraft carrier, to the extent feasible, with a ski-jump for take-off and arrested landing facility. Accordingly, the SBTF was constructed. Further, in the national interest, it was decided that its specifications cater for heavy aircraft (MiG-29K) and lighter planes (LCA Navy). If Return on Investment is a criterion, Navy’s financial contribution to the Naval LCA Programme is being more than paid back by the SBTF, which is being used extensively for its MiG 29K requirement,
As is evident, no effort has been spared by the teams in progressing various activities of design and development of the Naval version of LCA. In addition to the development of the aircraft itself, significant test facilities and activities have been advanced in parallel with regard to the LCA Navy Programme. Despite the rejection by the Navy the LCA Navy team is committed to developing a viable deck based fighter aircraft in the country.