View: Let’s put our money in the light combat aircraft

India abandoned its first indigenous fighter, the HF-24 Marut, prematurely on the flawed assumption that we would never find the right engine to power it. By Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd)

In its pursuit of global maritime dominance, China has decided to create a force of three aircraft-carriers — one for each of its fleets.

Like India, China first acquired an old Soviet-era aircraft-carrier, but (unlike us) refurbished it at home and commissioned it as the ski-jump equipped Liaoning in 2012. A bigger, indigenously-designed and- built ship, designated "Type 001A", followed in April 2017. An even larger successor, designated "Type 002", shunning the ski-jump and emulating US design philosophies, is on the way.

In order to maintain three operational carriers, the PLA Navy (PLAN) will need to build at least five or six such ships. While the Chinese economy does have the strength to fund such an ambitious programme, India needs to note two aspects of this strategy.

For years, China remained dogmatically opposed to aircraft-carriers, deriding them as "sitting ducks" for missiles and submarines, and evolving an "anti-access, area denial" (A2/AD) doctrine, to keep US carriers at bay. Six years’ experience of operating the Liaoning has obviously convinced Beijing that the availability of tactical air-power at sea on a 24×7 basis is vital for PLAN operations in distant waters. The reconciliation of China’s faith in A2/AD with a hugely expensive carrier-building programme signifies that this doctrinal shift has been debated and approved by the Party Politburo.

The second point of note is the intense Chinese focus on autarchy in weapon-systems; huge resources and effort have been devoted to develop a home-built fighter for their new carriers. Disregarding Moscow’s protests over IPR violation, China acquired a prototype Russian Sukhoi-33, in 2000, and within a decade, reverse-engineered it to deliver the Shenyang J-15 (Flying Shark) carrier-borne fighter.

Against this background, India’s endeavours to produce a carrier-borne fighter deserve attention. The Indian Navy (IN), having tasted success in indigenous warship design and building, decided to turn to the aeronautics field in the 1990s. Finding the Defence Research and Development Organisation ‘s ( DRDO ) Light Combat Aircraft ( LCA ) programme in the doldrums, the navy saw an opportunity for India to join the select list of countries producing carrier-borne aircraft. The decision to initiate a LCA-Navy programme acknowledged the talent and ingenuity of our aircraft designers and engineers, and aimed to energise our stagnant defence-technology base.

A closer examination of the embryo-LCA revealed some major challenges in adapting a shore-based aircraft to fly from a ship. They included lack of engine thrust, a weak undercarriage, requirement of an arrester hook and need for fuselage strengthening. Undaunted, the navy affirmed its faith in the programme by initiating a development programme and contributing over Rs 400 crore as well as engineers and test pilots to this DRDO project. The LCA-Navy prototype rolled out in July 2010 and its first flight took place in April 2012.

Very early in the programme, the IN acknowledged the possibility that this project may […]

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