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Made in India Tejas NLCA– first step towards self-sufficiency in having fighters off an aircraft carrier

Made in India, Tejas NLCA, light combat aircraft, Indian Air Force, Indian Navy, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, INS Hansa

By Dr Ajey Lele

India's indigenously developed single-engine, delta wing; multirole light fighter called Tejas is a light combat aircraft (LCA) that uses fourth-generation technology. This aircraft was in making for few decades (a project of the 1980s) and the entire project did face a phase of major criticism for the delays and lack of technological capabilities in comparison with other fourth general flying platforms available in the global market. However, now the project looks to be much on track and this aircraft has already been inducted in the Indian Air Force (IAF) during January 2015. IAF has inducted these aircraft in their inventory and they are performing various designed roles satisfactorily. This state-of-art aircraft has been designed by the Aeronautical Development Agency and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited for the Indian Air Force and Indian Navy. This aircraft programme began with a vision to replace India’s ageing MiG-21 fighters.

Tejas has quadruplex digital fly-by-wire Flight Control System (FCS) with associated advanced flight control laws. The entire project is expected to produce various categories (versions/makes) of this flying platform. These aircraft would be used for 'air combat' and for 'offensive air support' roles and in addition with 'reconnaissance' and 'anti-ship' as its secondary roles. The Tejas project has made a very good beginning for the year 2020, when recently the fighter variant of the naval prototype (NP-2) of Light Combat Aircraft (NLCA) undertook its maiden carrier landing on the deck of INS Vikramaditya, successfully. On January 12, 2020, the NLCA undertook its first take-off from the ship deck. This take-off happened after the aircraft for the first-time had stayed on the ship overnight. The first ski-jump from the carrier was a major event and the aircraft had to undergo extensive checking before that. All this has allowed the technical and flying staff to gain valuable 'on-sight' experience.

The officials have informed that "After completing trials on the SBTF (Shore Based Test Facility) successfully, NLCA did numerous approaches and touch and go on INS Vikramaditya. The first arrested landing and ski-jump take-off were successfully executed as per the plans." During the last quarter of 2019, NLCA Mk1 prototypes had carried out several arrested landings at the Shore Based Test Facility (SBTF) located in INS Hansa. These arrested landings were of immense use towards testing various parameters and also helped to understate about the capabilities both of flying platforms and other ground infrastructure. More than 20 of such landings are known to have taken place since mid-October 2019. The very first 'night' landing was performed on November 13, 2019.

In general, India's military doctrine aircraft carrier has an important role. INS Vikramaditya is a modified Kiev-class aircraft carrier and the flagship of the Indian Navy. This carrier entered into service in 2013. This is actually a second-hand carrier and is purchased from Russia. It was earlier known as Baku and was commissioned with the Soviet Navy in 1987. Later with the Russian Navy, it was known as Admiral Gorshkov which got decommissioned in 1996. For India, with a very large maritime boundary to protect (both during wartime and peaceful) the presence of such warship that serves as a seagoing airbase is extremely important.

Indian Navy is a part of the LCA programme and has much at the stake since actually they are the end-users of this project. NLCA is a modified version of the LCA produced for the IAF. It is important to note that there is a significant amount of difference between the fighter aircraft which operates from the runways on the ground and the one that files from the deck. NLCA Mk1 design is known to have some limitations in that context. Hence, the instead of opting for any improvisation of NLCA Mk1 and develop Mk 2 as a next step, the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) is now proposing to develop a Twin-Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF) for the Indian Navy. This project is still in the process of conceptualisation. It is expected that the final product could enter service during 2030-35 period.

At present, the successful landing/take-off of NLCA on and from the deck of INS Vikramaditya should be considered as a first step towards India's achieving self-sufficiency in the field of fighter aircraft operations from a sea-based platform.

(The author is Senior Fellow, IDSA, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.)