by Shiv Aroor

India’s first attempt at building a carrier-based fighter may have just received its latest chance at a future, over two years after it was effectively placed on the proverbial back burner by the Indian Navy. In comments ahead of Navy Day 2018, the Indian Navy chief categorically declared the service was ‘hopeful’ of the LCA Navy flying off India’s second indigenous aircraft carrier.

“The case for the second Indigenous Aircraft Carrier has received the necessary impetus. Though it is at least a decade away, the Aircraft Carrier project would accrue significant national gains in terms of boosting indigenisation and the country’s economy, through its life cycle of construction, maintenance and upgradation. We are looking at ways and means to incorporate the immense potential of Academia, private industry and DRDO into the Project. Spread over period of ten years, the expenditure would not only be feasible, but would also be ploughed back into our own economy. We are also hopeful that naval version of LCA produced by HAL would fly from its deck,” Admiral Sunil Lanba said this morning.

The statement is significant, especially since the Indian Navy had officially de-linked its modernisation plans from the development of the LCA Navy — details of the decision reported first here — declaring simply that it would operate the LCA Navy if it ever met performance requirements. While the project was never shelved, and the Indian Navy indeed continues to fund it, removing the program from its immediate canvas all but ended its chances of a future flying of the navy’s aircraft carriers. If nothing else, the navy’s decision to specifically mention the LCA in the contest of the IAC-2 aircraft carrier suggests that certain alignments could be afoot towards the higher powered LCA Navy Mk.2.

The navy chief’s show of support today is significant, but also perplexing. In the event that the program does proceed in line with the navy’s wishes — and there’s been official opposition to it, in addition to a swirling debate — it is unclear how the LCA Navy Mk.2 will ever operate off said carrier without major structural modifications, even though the program hasn’t even begun yet. The Navy chief revealed today that the second indigenous aircraft carrier would be a 65,000 ton flat-top, unlike the navy’s sole current boat, the INS Vikramaditya and the under construction Vikrant-class boat, both of which use ski jumps to launch their aircraft. It is also unclear if the navy’s show of keenness in operating the LCA Navy on the IAC-2 will be followed by specific guidance on modifying the aircraft for a catapult-assisted launch. The IAC-2, it was also revealed today, would sport a General Atomics-designed Eectro magnetic launch system (EMALS), technology on offer to India as part of a defence-technical cooperation framework. General Atomics, incidentally, opened its India office in Delhi last week.

The Navy chief’s word specifically on the LCA Navy also throws up questions, since the navy in 2013 officially expressed interest in pursuing a naval version of India’s twin engine new generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) program. The move had been initiated specifically to avoid the pitfalls encountered during the ‘navalisation’ of the baseline Light Combat Aircraft. Livefist reported the first extensive details of this push earlier this year here. Expressing interest in the LCA Navy at this juncture could indicate that the DRDO-MoD decision to stonewall a separate naval AMCA (NAMCA) has finally worn down the Indian Navy, and that it has decided to take a serious re-look at the single engine light fighter.

The IAC-2 revolves around the Indian Navy’s interest in operating higher performance fighters in carrier battle groups. In January this year, the navy officially invited information from global vendors to support a potential contest for 57 fighters. The program was initiated specifically because the navy came round to the view that it wanted higher specs and more reliably supported jets than its current fleet of 45 MiG-29Ks, that operate off the INS Vikramaditya and will from IAC-1 too. The Navy chief also commented on the fleet today, saying issues around spares and support had been ‘sorted out’ and that the fleet was performing ‘well’ now.

Shiv Aroor is one of India's most renowned Defence journalists