TEJAS NP-2 taking off from the Shore Based Test Facility (SBTF) ramp at INS Hansa in Goa

On the eve of Navy Day, 4 December 2016, the ‘Silent’ Service made an outspoken announcement in which it peremptorily rejected the shipborne variant of the TEJAS which has been under development at ADA for over a decade. For those outside the corridors of South Block, this was somewhat surprising, considering it was the Navy which, unlike the Air Force, had championed its TEJAS Navy program and had contributed considerable funding forwards its development since 2003.

Former CNS, Admiral Arun Prakash, who has for long been an outspoken advocate of indigenisation, commented on the Navy’s rejection of the TEJAS as “a lesson ... failure of the DRDO (and) … one can deduce two compelling reasons for this, seemingly, radical volte face by the only Service which has shown unswerving commitment to indigenisation (labelled ‘Make in India’) for the past six decades”.

Firstly, by exercising a foreclosure option, the IN has administered a well-deserved and stinging rebuke to the DRDO for its lethargic and inept performance that has again disappointed our military. 

The second reason arises from the navy’s desperate hurry to freeze the specifications of its second indigenous aircraft carrier (labeled IAC-2). The choice of configuration, size and propulsion of a carrier has a direct linkage with the type of aircraft that will operate from it. This constitutes a ‘chicken and egg’ conundrum -- should one freeze the carrier design first or choose the aircraft first? The IN has, obviously decided the latter”. 

To the public at large, this was perplexing as some “knowledgeable” observers had continuously opined that, for example, “even as the Indian Air Force wrangles over details in the manufacture and induction of its first squadron of TEJAS, the Indian Navy is powering ahead with its program to develop a naval version of the TEJAS.

Like all naval fighters, NP-2 has a reinforced undercarriage to absorb the impact of landing on aircraft carriers. Since the pilot must descend steeply to touch down precisely at a spot on the carrier deck where his aircraft’s tail-hook catches on a set of ‘arrestor wires’, this landing is often likened to a ‘controlled crash’.

Further, the NP-2, corrected several deficiencies observed whilst flight-testing of NP-1 and incorporated most avionic hardware components that the Navy had demanded. These included ‘plug and play’ modules that would accept software modifications for aircraft carrier landing aids like a Levcon Air Data Computer, auto-throttle, and special lights. NP-2 will also incorporate the arrestor hook, a digital data link for tactical information, and the Israeli Derby Beyond Visual Range Air-To-Air missile. Since the pilot must descend steeply to touch down precisely at a spot on the carrier deck where his aircraft’s tail-hook catches on a set of ‘arrestor wires’, this landing is often likened to a ‘controlled crash’.

Thereafter, the TEJAS Naval program transitioned from regular runways at HAL’s Bangalore Airport to the Shore Based Test Facility (SBTF), a full-sized, land-based model of an aircraft carrier deck that has been built at the Naval Air Station, Dabolim at Goa. In December 2015, NP-1 first operated from the SBTF and by February 2017, over 13 launches had been made, by day and night. The next major step in the TEJAS Naval project was, importantly, arrestor-wire landings to be carried out at the SBTF.

The dilemma is, Indian Navy’s ‘Super Carrier’ IAC-2 will enter service in the next decade at a juncture where a balance-of-power struggle is likely to be under way in this part of the world with China and India as the main players. It is only a matter of time before China’s carrier task-forces, led by the ex-Russian carrier Liaoning and her successors, follow its nuclear submarines into the Indian Ocean. Since the Indian response to such intimidation will need to be equally robust, the decisions relating to the design and capabilities of IAC-2 (and its sisters) assume strategic dimensions. 

In retrospect, as far back as the early 1990s, the navy had initiated a study for examining the feasibility of adapting the TEJAS to shipborne use. While confirming feasibility, the study had revealed some major problem areas, which included lack of engine thrust, requirement of an arrester hook and stronger undercarriage, and need for cockpit/fuselage re-design before the TEJAS could attempt carrier operations. Undaunted by the challenges, the Navy still re-affirmed its faith in the program by contributing over Rs 400 crore as well as engineers and test pilots to the project.

Meanwhile, although the IAF had accepted the TEJAS Mk.I into service in July 2016, this was with considerable reservations because the aircraft had not been cleared for full operational exploitation and fell short of many IAF qualitative requirements. Even though the prototype TEJAS Navy had rolled out six years earlier, in July 2010, raising great hopes in the IN, it was obvious that the DRDO had failed to resolve the many short coming leading to ultimate rejection of this prestigious and ambitious project. (With input from VA)

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