by Hemanth C S

After the agonising suspense over Aero India, here’s some good news for Bangalore – and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. The Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Navy program, which had more or less been relegated to the hangars, has done a star turnaround and the Indian Navy is now fully backing it. 

The program was grounded since March 2017 following reports that the Indian Navy had rejected it as the LCA Navy did not meet the its requirements (it was said to overweight to operate on aircraft carriers). 

However, on July 23, LCA Naval Prototype (NP-2) took to the skies once again indicating that the program has been revived. 

According to the flight log book of the Bengaluru-based Aeronautical Development Agency, which is the nodal design and development agency of the LCA program, since July 23, the aircraft has done 22 test sorties. (When the NP-2 took to the skies on July 23, it was the 56th flight of the aircraft and as on August 21, the LCA Navy has done 78 flights.) 

Not just that. What impressed the Indian Navy was the fact after the naval LCA program was rejuvenated a month ago, it achieved a significant milestone – the arrestor hook system worked perfectly at the Shore Based Test Facility, INS Hansa Goa. (The arrestor hook on the aircraft, coupled with the elastic arresting wire on the aircraft carrier help the jet land on a very short stretch). 

This milestone was significant as it enabled India to join a select club of nations for having the capability of deck landing of fighter aircraft. US, Europe, Russia and China have that same capability. 

The LCA Naval program commenced in 2003 and the first flight of the first prototype NP-1 was in 2012, and the maiden flight of the NP-2 was in 2015. 

The NP-2, a single-seat fighter, is one of the two technology demonstrators of the LCA Navy program with the other one being the NP-1, a two-seat trainer aircraft. The two technology demonstrators have been so far developed and both are Mark 1 (MK1) versions. 

In 2016, questions were raised about the future of the LCA’s naval variant after Navy Chief Admiral Sunil Lanba had stated that the aircraft was not suited for its aircraft carriers and that it was looking at alternative aircraft.

However, now the Indian Navy now says that it fully supports the program and that it never abandoned it.

“The navy supports the program 100 per cent. The aircraft has always been a requirement for the navy. By the end of 2019, the Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC) INS Vikrant is expected to begin sea trials and will be commissioned a couple of years thereafter. We want aircraft on top of it and we want the LCA Navy to be there,” a source in the Indian Navy said.

However, the source admitted that the LCA prototype at its present avatar does not meet the carrier capability requirements and that more work needs to be done before it is accepted by it.

“The current prototype NP-2’s engine is not powerful enough. There are questions which need to be answered whether it can take off and land with weapons. However, we fully support the project. The challenge at hand is whether the LCA Navy will make it to aircraft carrier when the sea trials starts. It is in this context that a request for proposal (RFP) will be issued by the navy for procuring 57 multi-role combat jets,” the source added.

Globally there are six jets which meets the Indian Navy’s demand -- Rafale, F-18 Super Hornet, MiG-29 K, F-35 B, F-35 C and Gripen.

Technical Features of the Aircraft 

  • The LCA will operate from an aircraft carrier with a concept of Ski-jump Take off But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR).
  • Aircraft gets airborne over a ski jump in about 200 m and lands over 90 m using an arrester hook engaging an arrester wire on the ship.
  • Derived from the Air Force version, it is a longitudinally unstable fly-by-wire aircraft, making it an agile war machine.
  • Flight Control system is augmented with Leading Edge Vortex Controller (LEVCON) aiding reduction in approach speed for carrier landing.
  • Auto throttle function reduces pilot load by maintaining constant angle of attack during the critical phase of a flare-less carrier landing
  • Fuel dump system enables safe landing by reducing weight during emergency landing after launch.