Naval Air: With A Little Help From Your Friends

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May 17, 2012: Last month the carrier version of the new Indian LCA (Light Combat Aircraft, or "Tejas") jet fighter made its first flight. With that out of the way, the Indian Navy is negotiating a deal with their American counterparts to help get the LCA-NP (the naval version of the LCA) ready for regular carrier use. The U.S. Navy has provided this sort of consulting service to India in the past. Although the Indian Navy has been operating jet aircraft from carriers since the 1960s, most of their recent experience is with vertical take-off Harrier aircraft. The new Indian carriers will be more like their American counterparts and will operate carrier versions of land-based fighters. No navy has as much experience in this kind of carrier operations as the United States, and the Indians want to have their plans and preparations checked over by American carrier officers and technical experts. In this situation a little good advice can go a long way in avoiding expensive mistakes.

But it's not just advice the Indians are seeking from the United States. Earlier this year India ordered 99 American F414 jet engines for $8.1 million each. These will be used for the new LCA. Eventually, most of the LCAs built will be powered by the Indian Kaveri engine, which is still in development hell. The F414s will substitute only until the Kaveri is ready. But the Kaveri never seems to be ready. This is a big problem. It is just one of many examples of how the Indian defense procurement bureaucracy misfires. Efforts to fix the mess are increasing, and calling in foreign experts (from the U.S., Israel and other Western nations) is part of the hoped-for cure. 

For example, two years ago India made arrangements with French engine manufacturer Snecma to provide technical assistance for the Kaveri design and manufacturing problems. Critics in the Indian air force asserted that help from Snecma would not save the ill-fated Kaveri engine program. But the government apparently believes that it is necessary for India to acquire the ability to design and build world class jet engines, whatever the cost. Only a few nations can do this and India wants to be one of them, soon, at whatever cost. Despite decades of effort the Kaveri is still far from ready for production.

When work began on the Kaveri, in the mid-1980s, it was believed that the LCA would be ready for flight testing by 1990. A long list of technical delays put off that first flight until 2001. Corners had to be cut to make this happen, for the LCA was originally designed to use the Indian built Kaveri engine and the engine was not ready.

For a jet fighter the engine is the most complex part of the aircraft and the Kaveri has had its share of setbacks. Fortunately, there was an American engine, the GE F404 that fit the LCA and could be used as a stop-gap. The F414 is a more recent model of the F404 and has 15 percent more thrust. So as long as the Kaveri engine is not ready American engines fill in.

The LCA is only now preparing to enter mass production. Six prototypes and sixteen pre-production models exist. Mass production (at least 20 aircraft a year) was to begin, no matter what, this year. Or at least that's the plan. For over two decades India has been trying to design, develop, and manufacture its own "lightweight fighter" but the project has been a major disaster. It has, however, been a valuable and very expensive learning experience.

Meanwhile, the 1970s, era American F-16 is probably the premier "lightweight fighter" in service and began joining squadrons about the time India came up with the LCA project. Both the F-16 (at least the earlier models) and the LCA weigh about 12-13 tons. But the F-16 is a high performance aircraft, with a proven combat record, while the LCA is sort of an improved Mirage/MiG-21 type design. Not too shabby and cheap (about half the cost of an F-16). Also, for all this time, money, and grief India has made its aviation industry a bit more capable and mature.

For all this India only plans to buy 200-300 LCAs, mainly to replace its aging MiG-21s, plus more if the navy finds the LCA works on carriers. Export prospects are dim, given all the competition out there (especially for cheap, second-hand F-16s). The delays have led the air force to look around for a hundred or so new aircraft (or even used F-16s) to fill the gap between elderly MiG-21s falling apart and the arrival of the new LCAs. However, two decades down the road the replacement for the LCA will probably be a more competitive and timely aircraft.

Three years ago the Indian Navy announced it was buying six of the new LCA fighters to operate from the new carriers that are to enter service in the next five years. This is an experiment to see how the LCA will do as a carrier aircraft. The first LCA carrier trials are to take place next year. The navy has already bought navalized MiG-29s for these carriers. The navy LCAs will also be navalized (mainly stronger landing gear, a tail hook, and different cockpit electronics). The MiG-29K weighs 21 tons (16 percent weapons), while the navalized LCA weighs 13 tons (34 percent of that weapons). The MiG-29 is a better fighter but the LCA carries a little more (4 versus 3.5 tons) armament, making it a cheaper way to attack ships or land targets with missiles and bombs.

 


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