The Indian-built fighter jet, Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas – naval variant, has made a first-of-its-kind landing on an Indian-made aircraft carrier, the brand-new INS Vikrant, which began sea trials in August 2021 and was commissioned in September 2022.
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Earlier, naval authorities had stated that the aircraft carrier’s flight tests would take place this year. Two prototypes of the Naval LCA-Mk1 are operational as part of the aircraft development.
The LCA Tejas was accompanied by the MiG-29K in the latest demonstrations.
The Indian Navy said, “It demonstrates India’s capability to design, develop, construct, and operate an indigenous aircraft carrier with an indigenous fighter aircraft.”
On February 6, the second operational prototype of the aircraft, namely the NP2 jet, launched off the carrier’s “ski jump” ramp, making it the first time a fixed-wing aircraft of any kind had finished a complete cycle within the flattop.
The Naval LCA-Mk1 had earlier conducted operations from a carrier deck aboard INS Vikramaditya, a vessel transferred by Russia still in operation with the Indian Navy.
According to reports, the NP-2 will start a series of deck trials aboard the Vikrant to demonstrate its capability. Earlier, it was anticipated that all of these trials would be finished by mid-2023, allowing the carrier to begin full operational service.
As soon as the news about the LCA Navy’s launch and landing broke out, Indian social media celebrated and praised the indigenous aircraft carrier and the indigenously developed light combat aircraft.
Even though the Indian Navy celebrated the landing as a milestone achievement, the LCA Tejas Navy is not intended to operate from INS Vikrant. The exceedingly ambitious concept for a Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter, or TEDBF, has already supplanted the expectations of launching a production version of the LCA Navy aircraft.
However, it may be worth underlining here that the Indian Navy abandoned the notion of a carrier-based variant of the lightweight fighter even before the LCA Navy made its debut at sea.
As of now, it has been earmarked as a technology demonstration platform that will aid Vikrant’s trials. In addition, the Indian Navy is finalizing a foreign fighter jet for operations aboard INS Vikrant.
Indian Navy Rejected LCA Navy
Admiral Sunil Lanba, then the Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), announced the Navy’s decision to reject the “overweight” LCA Tejas on December 2, 2016.
The LCA Navy was found to have flaws with a weak under fuselage and landing gear, a low thrust-to-weight ratio to take off with a full fuel and weapons payload, and being a single-engine aircraft when the force principally desires a strong twin-engine jet.
The Tejas and the MiG-29K were originally slated to operate from the INS Vikrant.
In a formal statement, Admiral Sunil Lanba, Chief of the Naval Staff (CNS), said, “The LCA Navy in its present form does not meet the naval qualitative requirements (QRs) to be a carrier-based aircraft. It is too heavy for the engine that it has got. It does not meet the weight and thrust ratio requirement to be able to take off with full weapon load.”
Before stating that it was unhappy with the LCA Tejas fighter, the Indian Navy had plans to receive about 50 of the aircraft. The aircraft, however, achieved several milestones throughout trials.
The biggest was when the Tejas launched from the INS Vikramaditya on January 15, 2017, marking multiple significant moments for the aircraft. Later, in January 2020, it landed on the Vikramaditya with the arrested hook precisely connecting with the arrester wires.
This single-engine, delta-wing aircraft was initially intended for the Indian Air Force (IAF). Later, as the fleet of Sea Harriers neared retirement from service, the Indian Navy expressed interest in the program and tasked Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) with designing and developing the naval variant of the LCA, which could operate from an aircraft carrier.
The naval variant’s unique design features for use from an aircraft carrier included aerodynamic improvements to improve low speed, installing an arrester hook for deck landings, a significantly stronger undercarriage to handle the impact of deck landings, and a redesign of the cockpit for naval operations.
All these characteristics made the creation of the naval variant a formidable undertaking, one that was more difficult to meet than the development of the version for the IAF. The first prototype of the LCA Tejas naval variant, the NP-1, was rolled out in July 2010, and the second prototype NP2 took to the skies in 2015.
When asked about the rejection of the Tejas naval variant by the Indian Navy, Former Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha (retd) told EurAsian Times, “The LCA Navy Mk1 was never rejected. It was a commitment of the Navy that it would support the developmental flying of the LCA. However, it needs twin-engine aircraft to meet the operational tasks of carrying higher weapons and fuel loads.
The Carrier Compatibility Trials, which have commenced for LCA Navy and MiG-29K, are being done by the Navy’s Flight Test Squadron by Naval test Pilots, which reflects the Navy’s commitment to the LCA Navy program. It must be seen as a Technology Demonstrator Project.”
The Navy is now invested in the TEDBF program. However, despite a model displayed at the Aero India event in 2021, it is still largely unknown how the TEDBF will look and whether it will carry any of the LCA’s design features. The TEDBF is projected to have a canard-delta platform and a twin-engine configuration as opposed to the LCA Tejas’ single-engine design.
The TEDBF is still years away, and any production iteration of the multipurpose fighter is not anticipated to appear until the 2030s. Therefore, the Mikoyan MiG-29K/KUB Fulcrum fighter jets that are now stationed aboard the Vikramaditya would probably be used for first operations by the Vikrant.
Further, the Indian Navy’s Multirole Carrier Borne Fighter (MRCBF), currently underway, will be placed for either the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet Block III or the Dassault Rafale M, both of which have already undergone trials in India. If speculations are anything to go by, the Rafale may now be the front-runner for the MRCBF.
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