Ahead of Navy Day celebrations on December 4, Admiral Sunil Lanba, India’s chief of naval staff (CNS), caused a minor flutter in the media by suggesting that the Navy was doing a rethink on the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) project, India’s premier light fighter jet program. At a press conference, Lanba remarked that the navy was looking for a temporary replacement jet from a source abroad for carrier-operations as the LCA (Navy) wasn’t “yet up to the mark.” Even though the navy chief did not go as far as to suggest the project was being scrapped, he was categorical about the navy’s dissatisfaction with the naval variants under production.
Lanba’s admission is likely to have placed many officials in the Ministry of Defense (MoD), as well as the Defense Research and Development Organization, in a spot of bother. After a slow start in the early 1980s, the LCA struggled for over three decades before showing progress in the past few years. Having obtained operational clearance in 2013, the aircraft has now been officially integrated into the Indian Air Force. Oddly, the naval chief’s statement came only a day after the ministry cleared an order for 83 LCA Mk 1As from the government-owned defense manufacture Hindustan Aeronautical Limited (HAL) for the IAF.
This isn’t, of course, the first time that a naval chief has publicly expressed reservations about the LCA program. In 2012, Admiral Nirmal Verma, then CNS, in an interaction with the media chided the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) for frequent cost and time overruns in the development of the naval version of the aircraft. The Navy, he suggested, was beginning to lose faith in the project.
Now, as then, the problem with the LCA remains the same: its inability to take off with its full weapon load from a carrier top. Naval sources point out that since 2013, the LCA has consistently failed the test of flight from a 200-meter deck with full weapons load. In a series of trial sorties at a Shore Based Test Facility (SBTF) in May this year, ADA officials claimed that the aircraft had made the cut by successfully ascending from a short deck with two R-73 close combat missiles. But naval managers clearly weren’t impressed.
The Navy’s real problem is that it believes that the LCA is a largely air force-centric program that isn’t essentially geared to meet aircraft carrier-operations. At many points during its evolution, naval managers are said to have emphasized the need for aircraft systems to be reconfigured to meet the requirements of carrier take-off and landing, but the ADA never reportedly made a serious attempt to undertake the necessary modifications.
Naval aeronautical engineers believe that the LCA’s naval variant is slightly but “significantly” different from its air force version, not least on account of a major modification needed in the aircraft’s landing gear that enables arrested landings on a carrier deck. Unfortunately for the Indian Navy, the ADA hasn’t ever fully committed itself to developing a modified undercarriage. As a consequence, the suspicion of an institutional indifference toward the Navy’s specific needs of carrier operations has only grown stronger.
Another concern has been the lack of a reliable air-to-air refueling system. Despite renewed efforts, the complex integration of the aerial refueling probe on to the Tejas fighter hasn’t been properly accomplished. The absence of reliable “hot-refueling” implies a restriction in aircraft mission ranges, which maritime managers have been unwilling to accept.
Why, however, must the Indian Navy be fussy about an aircraft that is only meant to supplement the Mig-29K? Aircraft carrier experts say middle and light category aircraft have different peacetime roles profiles. Given India’s geostrategic interests in the Indian Ocean region, it is important for the Navy to project both hard and soft naval power. High-end combat aircraft like the Mig-29K are meant to exert hard military influence by signaling coercive intent. Equally important, however, is the need for a carrier-borne aircraft to showcase the Indian Navy’s prowess as reliable security agent in the littorals. Indigenous medium-capability assets help in creating a circle of trust, owing to their utility in joint multinational operations. With a leading role in regional forums such as the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and Milan, the Indian Navy has come to be known as a friendly maritime agency. Its low-end light combat aircraft aids in the cultivation of a benevolent image. In addition, the aircraft’s export to friendly countries would help in the forging of strong working-level partnerships.
Misgivings about the LCA program, however, go beyond the perceived disregard for specific functionality. In an article in July this year, Admiral Arun Prakash (retd.), a former chief of naval staff, outlined three reasons why the military leadership was apprehensive about the project. Firstly, Prakash pointed out that Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), the huge public sector firm manufacturing the LCA, is a monolithic, indolent giant with a work ethos that “struck dread in the hearts of air-warriors.” The company’s unionized employees were a cause for low productivity and poor production engineering standards that created many maintenance and inter-changeability problems on aircraft. Secondly, there was a high failure rate of HAL manufactured components and systems that didn’t inspire confidence among military aviation managers. And lastly, Prakash pointed to the suboptimal production support, which often left “HAL customers high and dry.”
Scrapping the LCA (Navy) program, however, will not be without consequences. For one, the Indian Navy will need to start afresh in the search for a foreign source for a new light combat aircraft. Given the stringent provisions of the Defense Procurement Procedures (DPP), especially the need for a domestic manufacturer, this implies a substantial delay in the project. Besides, having invested considerable funds in the LCA program since 2009, the Indian Navy will need to explain losses, as well as the wisdom of investing in a new project. Not only will it push back delivery of the platforms by a few years, the work-load on the Mig-29K will dramatically increase with involvement in both low-end and high-end missions.
For the moment, the critics of the LCA program will feel vindicated. At least until the Indian Navy clarifies that its chief’s statement is being misinterpreted.
Abhijit Singh is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Fellow in New Delhi.